We’ve all seen those dedicated yogis, twisting their bodies into pretzels without even breaking a sweat. I’ve always thought that as a runner, I’m too restless and need too much rapid movement to ever really “get into” yoga, but just because they’re drastically different doesn’t mean we have to pick a side. I’ve heard more and more people swear by it as an excellent way to tone, relieve stress, and center themselves. But I wasn’t sure what the benefits of yoga for runners specifically are, so I took my query to our resident expert, Brian Kura at Athletico.
We had previously discussed the proper stretching technique, and Brian mentioned that an important component of yoga is static stretching, which can lengthen muscles. So can that part of yoga improve runners’ performance?
When you are striding out while running, having a certain amount of muscle length can help. When you go from running an 8-minute pace to a 7-minute pace, you’re trying to do speed work and you’re asking your muscles to lengthen, so having that level of flexibility is beneficial.
So should all runners practice yoga?
For people who are sprinters, they’re working mostly on fast-twitch muscle fibers, and there is some concern that too much stretching can convert fast twitch to slow twitch muscles. But someone that’s a runner is going to run more often than not, and yoga could serve more as a way to cross train. Cross training is meant to work the muscle groups you don't usually work, and to give you a mental break—yoga is great for that.
So how should I incorporate yoga into my exercise routine as a runner? Here it’s important to recognize that there are so many types of yoga, from Vinyasa to Ashtanga to Bikram, and if you’re seriously looking to take up the practice, it would be beneficial to read up on just which kind would be best for you.
One thing to keep in mind too is that, depending on the type of program you’re on, for marathoners for example, most will do their long run on Saturday because they're working during the week. But if you’re doing a 90-minute [high-intensity] yoga workout the day after a 16-mile run—you might fatigue yourself.
I personally don’t have my cross training day fall after a long run, based on my own health and preference, but many traditional training programs have a cross training day immediately after a long run, and then a rest day, which is just fine too. For me a rest or light stretch day after a long run is advantageous, but for others, being more active through practicing yoga or cross training (but not running) helps them work out their soreness. The big picture message is the one that I have been advocating thus far, which is to know your body, and that everyone is different.
But I can’t really just do it once or twice, can I?
There is some literature that shows that in order to see changes in muscle length, static stretching must be sustained over the course of weeks. Stretching once isn't going to do it, but in order to sustain that length, you need to continually practice yoga.
Runner’s World also says that time on the mat can help improve strength and flexibility in the core, quads, hamstrings, and hip-flexors—all essential to your run. They even add that yoga can reduce injuries through this increased strength and all-around heightened awareness of your body. So there you have it! Yoga can be an excellent way to cross train, and a particularly good mind-cleanser, but be sure to research the kind of yoga you’d like to do and listen to your body when incorporating it into your training plan.