All runners who take their training seriously know that in order to improve performance and avoid injury, a program of complementary activities is needed and that includes muscle strengthening and stretching exercises. Yoga can help with the above, boost your agility, improve joint flexibility, decreasing the risk of injuries. Regular yoga practice can also improve focus and attention and efficiency of breathing during running.
Forget about acrobatic postures you see on social media. You do not need to have the physical predisposition of a pretzel or the genetics of a contortionist to do yoga. Many athletes are resistant to doing yoga because they do not consider themselves stretched and flexible enough and fear they cannot keep up with a class. And those athletes are precisely who need yoga the most. Basic postures performed correctly are very effective in developing muscle and joint flexibility.
It is important to remember that yoga is not going to steal your precious training time, but instead will add many benefits, including increased performance. Soon, you will be able to cover more distance in the same time.
Often, beginners and even more so experienced runners have to deal with knee, ankle, hip, and lower back injuries. Running by itself does not deserve to be blamed. Increasing volume without creating a proper structure may be the problem.
A running stride requires the lower body muscles to contract in a highly repetitive manner. Runners have strong legs for running, however, some auxiliary muscles are underused and remain weak if not stimulated properly. Overusing some muscles while under-using others leads to bodily imbalances and affects bio-mechanical efficiency and that eventually will cause pain and injuries. Yoga practice involves the entire body, using a large variability of muscles and joint motions. Runners who join a yoga class for the first time are often surprised by how a simple posture can be difficult and challenging. They discover the existence of new muscles that were in deep hibernation until then.
Yoga postures recruit more muscles compared to running, especially core and arms muscles, underused during running. In addition, yoga involves the weight of the body to create muscle endurance and bone density, working against gravity to build muscles. The strengthening of the upper body, especially core muscles, allows the arms and legs to be more efficient, improving running form, avoiding fatigue, minimizing the impact on legs and feet and reducing the risk of injury. The muscle stretching that some postures offer is effective in decreasing muscle stiffness, which results in greater flexibility and joint mobility, another important factor in bringing more body balance and dynamism during the run. A muscle must contract and lengthen properly when needed to be fully functional.
Yogic breathing, called pranayama in Sanskrit, consists of long, deep and slow inhalations and exhalations, using all portions of the lungs. This increases muscular elasticity of these organs, promoting lung capacity for oxygen absorption. Increased lung capacity increases aerobic endurance, which improves overall athletic performance. Furthermore, pranayama is very effective in reducing stress and anxiety, promoting a state of relaxation, improving runner´s sleep, which is critical during the recovery period.
In addition to the physical benefits, yoga allows runners to learn more about their own body, and thus develop the ability to recognize the warnings their body sends to avoid injuries. Yoga brings experience of the present moment, increasing focus, attention, and awareness, both in training and, even more importantly, in races. Being present brings more awareness of body movements which allows runners to use their bodies and breathing more intelligently during running. A path to achieve a perfect connection between body and mind.
Yoga helps to build mental strength to tolerate intensity and discomfort, giving runners the ability to deal with physical and mental stress of training and races. Holding an intense posture during the practice teaches how to maintain mental clarity to overcome the toughness of a demanding training session or a race.
As a yoga teacher and avid runner, I can say from my own experience that yoga provides, in addition to better performance, a clear perception of how my body and mind work during the run. Yoga is the environment where there is no competition and I do not have to pressure myself for results. Yoga is my moment of recovery. Because of my daily practice, I can turn every running into an instance of meditation, when my mind disconnects from all non-important information to experience the fluidity of body movements and breathing.