How Yoga Can Improve Your Distance Running

A decade ago, I came to yoga as an injured runner. I thought yoga would be a gentle way to maintain my fitness and work on my flexibility as I let my body rest after years of competitive cross country running. I had a history of Iliotibial (IT) Band Syndrome that required daily foam rolling to avoid running pain, and a slew of unnamed aches & pains in my arches, heels, and knees that I knew would develop into something worse if I continued to push through. So I put on my p90x yoga DVD and let Tony Horton guide me through my first yoga class. I struggled through that video, craning my neck to see what the heck a chaturanga was, and finished dripping in sweat. I think I was sore for an entire week, which was not what I had expected from yoga!

Trail running challenges your balance, agility, coordination, and offers a gentler surface for your joints. Plus, you can take in the sights & sounds of nature!

From there I began going to classes regularly, and exploring home practises on YouTube. I have never enjoyed strength training, even though I know it is an important element of cross-training and overall health. I would do basic body weight exercises (push-ups, sit-ups, and squats), but beyond that, I almost exclusively ran. It was through yoga that I really found strength. In a deep way; the foundation of my core, my legs, my shoulders, and my arms. A strength that was coupled with increased flexibility; I was becoming strong and limber. My growing yoga practise was slowly transforming my body in the most beautiful way: I felt long, lean, and powerful.

Strength building through yoga is a slow progression that comes from being deeply connected to your body and breath. Not too different from the way that a runner becomes connected to their body and breath during a long run. Many of the core tenets of yoga are equally important in maintaining a healthy running practice.

Holding chaturanga on a dirty barn floor challenges your strength and your sense of smell!

Connection to the breath: Yoga encourages practitioners to maintain a smooth, focused connection to the breath throughout practise, and cues often link movements with the breath. Yogis use the breath to find space and grace within the movements, making each pose and transition lighter and smoother. This can feel overwhelming at first, when you are just trying to figure out how to get your hips into malasana, having a teacher tell you to breath can be enough to make you snap! But as you enhance your practise, the breathing becomes natural. This is invaluable, and translates seamlessly to your running practise. As a runner becomes more tired throughout the run, their form and their breath connection begin to break down. A runner that is in-tune with their breathing patterns can use the breath as an anchor; using the smoothness of the breath to foster a smoothness in form and motion.

Form Enhancement: Finding Lift: In yoga, the prana is the life force energy. When you do a yoga flow, the goal is to get the life force flowing to all corners of the body and stimulate circulation and body systems (lymphatic, humoral, respiratory, digestive, energetic) throughout the practice. Pranic flow is broken down into 5 Vayu’s (vay-yoo) (which translates to winds and can be visualized as directions). All of the vayus are important, and they work together to create expansion and internal body awareness. The two most applicable to running are the grounding (Apana vayu) and rising (Udana vayu) forces. Awareness of these forces is useful in enhancing your experience in yoga postures, but also in softening and improving your form while running.

Udana vayu governs upward movement and the ascending energetic force. Apana vayu governs the downward and outward movement. Imagine your running stride. Envision your foot hitting the ground. The downward and outward (Apana) energy is sudden, strong and fast, propelling you into your next step. Now envision a stride that focuses on Udana vayu; with each step forward you harness the rebounding force and find lift. Forget about “pounding the pavement”! Just saying that phrase hurts my knees and hips. Each time your sneaker strikes the surface of whatever we are running on (pavement, grass, etc.), energy is lost. By being mindful of that energy transfer, we can practice energy conservation or energy transformation (say HELLO to Law of Conservation of Energy (aka. the first law of thermodynamics). Transform that downward energy into upward energy by harnessing the rebounding energetic force.

I realize that might sound either too abstract-yogi for some and too esoteric-physics for others, but the next time you’re running envision that rebounding force reverberating up your body, creating space in your ankles, knees, hips, between each spinal bone, and lifting through the crown of your head! You’ll run taller and feel stronger, I promise.

While we’re at it, erase “pounding the pavement” from your vocabulary and replace with with “gliding gracefully” (or some variation that promotes grace, ease, and lift)!

Good shoes help too. These are the Nike Air Zoom Pegasus Turbo and they are a dream come true.

Mental Resiliency and the Ability to Sit With Sensation: Most runners enjoy running because of its meditative qualities. Non-runners might call it monotonous, but real runners know that the familiar, consistent motion brings a mental clarity and space that brings forth the best ideas, helps you work through your toughest problems, and can spur the most beautiful runner’s high. Whether you run in silence, with music, or with podcasts, indoors or outdoors, running is like a reliable old friend that knows just how to make you feel better.

However, not every run is perfect. Some are challenging, arduous, and painful. Whether you are feeling completely unmotivated, exhausted, or suffering from an injury, yoga can help you work through these barriers.

Yoga teaches you to listen deeply to your body and connect with every part of it. As you begin to become best friends with your body, you learn where you hold tension, which situations make you hold your breath, what poses relax you, and which ones are a struggle. As I move through my yoga classes, I often cue my students to “sit with sensation” and “notice without judgement”. I want them to lean softly into the discomfort and the challenging poses or holds, to find space and softness in each pose, and not label arising sensations as “good” or “bad”.

The same goes for running. Instead of describing yourself as feeling “heavy” or “tired” at the start of your run, you can forego labelling and bring the attention to the breath, or take it slow and remind yourself that this sensation will pass. Focusing on a simple breathing technique, like extending the length of the inhales/exhales, counting each breath cycle, or expanding into all 4 corners of the torso, can offer an anchor for the mind.

I use meditative thinking and breathing techniques during every single run, but especially during races. In my last half marathon, I felt strong and positive through most of the race. However, cracks in my mental armour began to show around the 17th kilometre, and I turned to breathing techniques and gratitude meditation (metta) to get me through the final 4.1km.

Towards the beginning of a run, as my joints and muscles awaken, I often feel unpleasant sensations in my ankles, arches, knees, hips, etc. They are small pains, and usually go away as I warm up and adjust my form. I use non-judgemental sensation labelling coupled with finding Udana vayu to work through any tweaks and rusty twinges that arise, and it works very well for me.

Keep in mind, this technique should not be applied to sharp, acute pain or pre-existing injuries. There are some sensations that are warning signs, and should be treated as a sign to slow down or back off (in both running and yoga).

To wrap it up, yoga and running are integral parts of my life. Both provide a wealth of benefits to my mental and physical health, and complement each other in ways that make me a stronger runner and stronger yogi. If you are looking to incorporate yoga into your running routine, check out my Yoga for Runners video!

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