By Cara Zolinsky
Yoga, with its emphasis on slow, controlled movements, muscle relaxation, and deep breathing would seem to be an odd addition to a runner’s cross training schedule. However, these two forms of exercise are more complementary than they seem. Just ask 34-year-old Nicole Nakoneshny.
A fundraising consultant, Nakoneshny spends much of her leisure time running near her home in Toronto. But she is not just running. She is also meditating, a discipline that she learned from yoga. As she told Runners World, “because running is such a repetitive activity, I find it quite meditative.”
Nakoneshny is part of a growing breed of runners who have created their own yoga for runners’ programs designed for enhanced running performance.
Similarities Between Yoga and Running
Although the similarities between yoga and running are not obvious to onlookers, many runners see (and experience) the synchronycities. Both running and yoga, they say, require discipline, flexibility, concentration, practice, and breatthing techniques. These similarities make yoga an obvious, albeit uncommon, choice for a runner’s cross training routine.
Yoga does more than just provide runners with added variety to their training programs; indeed, there is evidence that yoga improves the running performance of these athletes. This is possible, say experts, through yoga’s ability to balance the body, which prepares the athlete for the rigors of running and protects the body from injury.
Yoga Does a Runner’s Body Good
While running one mile, each foot will strike the ground approximately 1,000 times, say health writers Baron Baptiste and Kathleen Finn Mendola. Moreover, with each running step, the feet, legs, and hips will absorb three to four times the runner’s weight. This can, and does, lead to stiffness, pain, and injury for most runners.
But these negative bodily reactions are not the inevitable result of running. Rather, say Baptiste and Mendola, such pain and injuries occur because the high impact nature of running throws the body out of balance. But yoga for runners is beneficial because it realigns the body and posture. Indeed, yoga is used as a therapeutic tool to counteract the damage caused by musculature imbalances that often begin by muscle tightening/shortening and end with injury.
When runners devote most of their training time to running, say experts, their muscles tend to tighten and shorten due to the repetitive, high-impact nature of this sport. When this happens, the body attempts to compensate for this imbalance by shifting the stress to other muscles and joints. This can lead to pain and often leads to injury.
Moreover, because every part of the body is interconnected, an imbalance in one part (as occurs with muscle shortening and tightness) can cause pain and injury in another part of the body. For instance, a common running injury is shin splints, which results from an uneven distribution of weight on the legs while running.
The practice of yoga, with its focus on relaxing and elongating the muscles, effectively minimizes these types of injuries.
Yoga for Runners: Exercises to Improve Running Performance
Hyongok Cho Kent is a sports trainer in Montreal who knows the benefits of yoga for runners. At his fitness studio, Cho Kent instructs his students in both the art of yoga and what he calls “Chi Running.” The program that he has developed is designed to stretch the muscles of the hamstrings and the calves so that soreness and running injuries are minimized. Moreover, his program strengthens the core muscles and the muscles in the arms and the back, which corrects postural misalignments and, ultimately, improves running performance.
To help the muscles to rebound, Cho Kent recommends that a runner spend 15 to 20 minutes, immediately after a run, performing these exercises. They should also be incorporated as part of a cross training schedule to improve running performance.
1. Stand straight, facing a wall that is an arm’s length away from the body. Feet should be approximately the width of the shoulders apart.
2. Bend forward from the hips, touching the wall with both palms of the hand, fingertips pointing upward.
3. Slowly walk the legs backward, until the arms are fully extended, spine completely parallel to the floor.
4. Slowly push back and feel the stretch in the legs and the hips.
5. Pull the abdomen in and then relax those muscles.
6. Hold this pose and feel the stretch in the hamstring, calves, and lower back.
7. Take five to ten slow, deep breaths and then slowly stand upright.
1. Stand straight with feet shoulder width apart. Bring the arms behind the back and clasp the elbows or the forearms.
2. Step the right foot behind you (about two to three feet) and turn the foot 60 degrees inward for balance. (The left leg should remain in its original position.)
3. Slowly bend forward from the waist as far as you can, always keeping the spine and the legs straight
4. Hold this pose for 5 to 10 breaths. (You should feel the stretch in your calves, hamstrings, and thighs).
5. Release and slowly return to original position.
6. Repeat with the left leg.
Wide Leg Standing Forward Bend
1. Stand straight.
2. Step your right leg out until your legs are approximately 4 feet apart with feet parallel.
3. Turn toes inward slightly and place the hands on the hips.
4. Slowly contract abdominal muscles.
5. Slowly bend forward, keeping your legs straight, until your hands touch the floor.
6. Push your body weight into your palms or your fingertips
7. You should feel the stretch in your hamstrings, calves, ankles, thighs, and Achilles tendons (to name just a few of the running muscles positively affected by this pose.)
8. Hold this pose for five to ten slow breaths.
9. Release the pose and slowly stand upright.
Cho Kent’s yoga for runners program not only elongates and massages the main muscles involved in running, but it is a relaxing change of pace from the incessant muscle pounding resulting from running.
Although yoga and running were once considered to be at opposite ends of the sports or exercise spectrum, many runners are now combining the two and finding that they are, indeed, complementary physical disciplines. Moreover, yoga is spawning a new breed of “Chi runners” who are reaping the cross- training benefits of adding yoga to their training programs.