Originally this article in appeared on the PROBAR blog. You can find it in its entirety here.
Runners’ bodies often need a special practice that’s tailored to complement their main sport. Yoga for runners needs to take into account not just the muscles that promote the movement but also the reciprocal muscle groups, in order to maintain a balance in the body.
Reciprocal inhibition is the process that our body uses for movement: one set of muscles contracts while the opposing set relaxes to create smooth movement. For example in when you are running as you lift your leg to propel yourself forward, your quadriceps must contract to lift the knee forward, and the hamstrings must relax. When the muscles are balanced they have the right combination of inhibition and facilitation during movement. When the inhibition and facilitation are not in the right combination, muscle imbalances may occur, leading to inefficiencies at best, and injuries at worst.
Many runners often step on their mat looking for relief for tight and achy iliotibial (IT) bands that are giving them trouble. I see people collapse into Pigeon Pose with blissful expressions on their faces. The stretch feels good. But more often than not there are no lasting results. You may even find that the stretched muscle group is tighter the next day.
In my experience with teaching yoga, running, and learning from my own injuries, the key to Yoga for Runners is reciprocal stretching and strengthening. It is critical to stretch both muscles groups in the reciprocal pair. So if you spend some quality time in Pigeon Pose to stretch the outer hip, your next stop should be Frog Pose, to show you adductors the same kind of love!
- Start on all fours and bring the right knee forward to touch your right wrist.
- Inch the right leg forward until the right foot is just below the left hip.
- Lengthen the left leg parallel to the long edges of the mat.
- Softly lower the pelvis to the floor. If your left hip ends up higher than the right, tuck a block or a blanket under the right side to level the hips.
- Walk your hands forward as you lengthen the torso on the inhale. Exhale as you fold forward over the right leg.
- You can have either your forearms or hands on the mat, which will support more of your weight. If there is more space in the hip, you may want to lower your torso all the way to the mat.
- Start on all fours and bring the knees farther apart, as wide as sustainable over a minute or two, as you hold the stretch.
- Keep the hips directly over the knees. Bring the shins to form a 90 degree angle with thighs, and the feet to form a 90 degree angle with the shins. Flex the feet.
- You can have either your forearms or hands on the mat, which will support more of your weight. If there is more space in your adductors, you may want to lower your torso all the way to a bolster or to the mat.
- On an inhale lengthen the spine and engage the core just enough to prevent the low back from arching.
- Pad the knees with a blanket if needed.
- Use deep, unforced yogic breath to relax and soften into the stretch. This helps prevent pushing past your limit and resulting in microtears in the muscles being stretched.
- If you feel a spasm in the opposite muscle group, this is due to the extra flexion work the reciprocal muscle has to go in order to stretch out a tight muscle group. If this occurs, gently back out of the stretch for a few seconds before returning to it.
One of my biggest blessings and pleasures in life is teaching Yoga for Runners. I have immense passion and love for the sport, and utmost respect for everyone who runs. But I also know how much running can beat up someone’s body, and how much wear and tear runners suffer. I myself have been through a series of injuries that were physically debilitating, completely deflated my spirit, and left me sidelined for months. So my goal as a teacher is to help my runners find their ease of movement both on the mat and on the road.
Many runners complain of tight achy hips and want big stretches. What often ends up happening is that their hips feel even tighter the day after. In my experience, this tightness is often caused by imbalances in the hip girdle and/or weakness in the glutes.
My approach is to correct the imbalances on the mat by stretching opposite muscle groups equally: if you do Pigeon pose to stretch the tensor latae fasciae and the illiotibial band (outer hip) you should balance it with Frog pose to stretch the opposing adductor muscle group (inner thigh).
Strengthening the hip girdle sometimes can be as easy as a quick dynamic warm-up and activating the right muscle groups before you head out for your run. I use a quick Myrtle routine before all my runs, which incorporates both strengthening and mobility we need for happy running.
Stretches: Pectoral and abdominal muscles, deltoids, biceps, hip flexors, quadriceps.
Strenghtens: Trapezius, serratus and rhomboids muscles, psoas, glutes.
Main Focus: Draw the shoulder blades away from the ears and down your back as you lift your heart.
Our daily lives pull us forward and cause us to hunch: sitting for hours at our desks, driving, texting, etc. From this physical and emotional space, backbends can be uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking. And yet it we gently encourage our bodies through the correct alignment and keep coming back, we discover long-forgotten space in our heart center for joy, love, and happiness.
Camel has become one of my favorite postures as of late. Having my hands on my feet gives me a sense of grounding and calm, even as I reach into tight spaces in my heart, which can feel vulnerable.
Correctly aligned back bends are critical for runners, as hunching over can create poor running biomechanics. Back bends create awareness of posture, and strengthen the postural muscles that help keep us running tall and strong. They also help stretch the front of the body, such as hip flexors, and quads.
- Kneel on the mat with your knees and feet hip-width apart and the hips over the knees. Press the toenails, feet, and shins into the mat.
- Tuck the pelvis under slightly (Michael Jackson hips!), pull the belly button to spine and lower ribs down to lengthen the lower back.
- Shimmy the shoulder blades together and away from the ears. Then place your hands on the back of the pelvic, fingers pointing down. Inhale and lift your heart, while firming the shoulder blades against your back ribs.
- Lean back while keeping the pelvis over the knees and the lower back long. Rest the hands on your heels or on blocks placed at the feet to make the posture more accessible.
- Press your hands into your heels (or blocks) with the fingers pointing back towards the toes, and lift the heart. Soften the neck and drop your head back
- Tucking the toes under or reaching for blocks placed next to the heels will make the pose a little more accessible.
- As you back bend, keep the pelvis over the knees. I find that practicing this posture with my thighs and my pelvis against the wall helps me create the body awareness I need for good alignment.
Strengthens: Feet, ankles, calves. Quadriceps, piriformis, gluteus. Postural muscles. Improves sense of balance.
Stretches: Hip of the lifted leg, groin.
Main Focus: Press the foot of the standing leg into the mat and press the foot of the lifted leg into the standing leg (avoid the knee!). The engagement of both legs will make balancing easier.
As runners, proprioception, our internal sense of our body position and motion, is incredibly important, as we dodge pot holes and puddles, gawking pedestrians in the city, and roots and rocks on the trails. Balance training is a good way of improving one’s proprioception and coordination and preventing injuries, such as ankle sprains.
Tree pose tackles it all: it strengthens the foot, ankle, and calf of the standing leg as well as the postural muscles; it allows you to stretch the groin and the hip of the lifted leg; and it challenges and improves your balance, helping you OM to your PR. Read more for aligment cues and modifications.
In case you are still on the fence whether or not you should hit up your mat, Worcerter Telegram highlights all the ways that Yoga for Runners can help improve flexibility, increase core strength, give you better body awareness, and prevent injuries. Read the article here, featuring yours truly.
Then get on your mat.
And OM to your PR!
Strengthens: Abdominal muscles, hip flexors, and spine.
Contraindications: Low back or neck injury. Late term pregnancy.
Main Focus: Balance on the “tripod” of the sitting bones and the tailbone, lifting the torso and the legs up. This will ensure correct alignment, and protect your lower back.
There is one thing runners love to do, and that is running. But to keep doing it for a long time, keep ourselves injury free, and get faster and better, we know we need to cross-train. A strong core is vital for a good running form, healthy biomechanics to prevent overuse injuries, and improvement in performance.
Boat pose gets deep into your core, strengthens the hip flexors, and can be customized to work your obliques as well. Follow my cues below, modify to make this posture more accessible, or consider challenging yourself with Boat Pose Twists, and OM to your PR. Read more for aligment cues and modifications.
Stretches: Mainly hamstrings. Also calves, knee flexors, hips and lower back.
Contraindications: Low back or hamstring injuries. Late term pregnancy. High blood pressure.
Main Focus: Spinal length. The rest of the lengthening through the back body will come with practice.
As runners we get used to a certain degree of soreness, to muscle tightness, we stop noticing minor aches and pains. And while some of the time this is innocuous, small aches can lead to misalignments while we run, which can then lead to major issues. This is why stretching is so critical to us.
Hamstring tightness can cause lower back pain, knee joint inflammation, and even foot injuries. So consider the time you spend on hamstring stretches an investment into your running future. Follow my cues below for Standing Forward Fold, one of the most effective hamstring stretches, and OM to your PR. Read more for aligment cues and modifications.