Yoga for runners

The physical and mental aspects of these two very different sorts of activity may in fact be more complementary than you think

By Catharine Nicol

Priscilla Lam Yoga_1

On the face of it, yoga and running may seem to have little in common. The contemplative, fluid feel of the former at odds with the continuous, more jarring sense of the latter. Increasingly though, runners are finding that the physical, mental, and even the spiritual aspects of the two disciplines overlap, and so are practicing the two in parallel.

As a marathon runner and part-time instructor at Pure Yoga in Hong Kong, Priscilla Lam says: “Running benefits my yoga, and yoga benefits my running.” She had been a runner since her school days, gradually moving from 10 kilometre runs up to full marathons in more recent years. To replace the dance classes she enjoyed doing and to balance her running, she decided to try yoga.

At first she appreciated how the ‘choreography’ of Astanga Yoga’s asanas replaced the choreography of dance. But despite being aware that she sometimes didn’t stretch enough before running, she realized six months after taking up yoga that she wasn’t getting stitches or cramps, wasn’t getting as tired as before, and didn’t have to drink so much water.

These days she’s paying it forward. When she’s not working or running she’s teaching yoga, and one of her new classes is Yoga for Athletes. The workshop-style class includes some cardio in the form of asanas, but also focuses on a particular sport in turn, points out common injuries, and offers poses which will strengthen key areas and expedite recovery if necessary.

Physically, running can be a very two-dimensional movement, especially when on the track or road: it’s all forwards and backwards, using flexion and extension, while there aren’t many sideways or rotational movements. As a result, Lam says, “Runners get tight in key areas like the quadriceps, hamstrings and the iliotibial (IT) band. You’re flexing them constantly.”

“With yoga, we use exercises to work on lengthening the muscles, while working on range of motion,” says Lam. Lengthening and loosening muscles gives them more space to move, while reducing the tightness that leads to pain, meaning runners can run for longer, increasing their endurance.

While it may seem that the legs are doing most of the work when running, the core is equally important. “This is where support for the legs and hips comes from,” says Lam. “Core strength keeps your spine tall, also helping breathing. If you run hunched up you’ll get breathing difficulties.”

Andrew Cox, founder of Innate Fitness, who offer personal training and well-being advice to individuals and corporates, agrees. Biomechanically speaking, he says, every time your foot hits the ground it sets a pattern of movement, reaction and action, up the leg into the gut, the powerhouse of the body. Long distance runners risk overuse injuries as they are repeating the same pattern over and over. “Running is a great movement. The impact creates strong bones and increases muscle. The body loves to receive stress and spread it throughout the body, but not in the same way over and over.”

Cox says that yoga instills good balance, providing a strong foundation and opening up the hips, the area from where the body derives much of the force in our movements.

Priscilla Chan Yoga_2

Focusing on breathing during a yoga class, such as during meditation, helps students keep their minds in the now and away from distracting thoughts. Lam suggests that practicing both breathing and meditation techniques on the mat will have a positive effect on the mental as well as physical aspects of running, especially over long distances.

“I liken long distance running to meditation,” she says. “When you run long distance it may get boring halfway through. Your mind jumps around and you can’t just keep staring at trees. When running, while you’re not exactly meditating, you get into the zone, which helps you focus and stops you thinking ‘My legs hurt’ or ‘It’s so hot’. Focusing on your breath helps bring you to an internal place where you’re not distracted by the outside.”

She especially recommends taking the ujjayi breath (inhaling and exhaling through the nose only, while constricting the back of the throat to make a rushing noise), which directs air directly into the lungs and – especially beneficial on colder days – warms it up along the way.

“I’ve done that in a marathon for four hours – it was my strongest marathon performance yet,” she says, though she admits that the technique takes some practice to do while running. She also uses other breathing techniques: long, deep breaths; counting breaths and ladder breathing where exhalations get progressively longer, to help calm her nerves pre-race.

Mentally too, yoga can improve the runner’s ability to recover, says Cox. “The body and mind goes, ‘Ahh, I’m safe, I’m home, I’m amongst friends’. Yoga teaches us to switch from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic (rest, digest and regenerate). The fight or flight state switches off, and at the end of the class, that’s when the magic happens. The body says, ‘That was cool, you’ve given me rest. Now I’m ready to digest but also regenerate’. The best athletes in the world are the ones who can recover the fastest.”

Claire Price is one of Hong Kong’s strongest trail runners and has practiced yoga for four years, mainly yin-yang, hot flow and Hatha styles. She says: “While I don’t believe yoga has helped my speed, flexibility helps you survive during and after the long runs, and yoga really helps with recovery, whether it’s a good yin session the day after a tough training session or just more yoga during downtime and after big races.”

“I think there is a spiritual aspect to yoga that translates itself to running, tied in with the breathing and focus. I find yoga helps me put things into perspective and keep a positive state of mind, so it does really bring a kind of inner peace. I also find that calmness and peace on my long runs.” AA


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