Many of my favorite yoga clients are runners. Often the runner’s initial reaction to yoga is that it is a necessary evil that they have been told will target problematic areas of their body that hinder their ability to run long distances. So they sigh and, with reluctance, show up in my studio. But eventually it becomes apparent after only several practices that the benefits far outweigh the exasperating time commitment and it’s always my pleasure as their teacher to see that concept unfold on their mat.
My father was a marathoner and even as a child I could understand the attraction. After work he would head out on the dusty dirt roads of the rural Wisconsin community I grew up in and return a different man — happier, refreshed, and to my young nose a heck of a lot smellier. Despite that, it was obvious my father had more energy than most dads, and he was smart. He practiced yoga to Lilias Folan on PBS early mornings before yoga was mainstream. It was the union of yoga and running that he still credits to his health and active lifestyle today.
In my early thirties I dabbled in running. But, honestly, if given the choice I will always default to my mat. However, I have a great respect for the runner’s drive and passion. I imagine that the thrill of mentally and physically challenging your body to peak performance is much like the thrill of strengthening your body and spirit with a challenging yoga sequence. And for that reason, as a yoga teacher, I feel compelled to give runners the tools that they need to avoid injury, correct imbalances, and lengthen the life of the sport that they love.
From runners, I often hear complaints of tight hamstrings, back problems, tight hips and bad knees, just to name a few. There are poses that will specifically target some of the runner’s banes… IT bands, hamstrings, sciatica pain, etc. But the real beauty of yoga is that it teaches the runner to be proactive and address the root of the problem. A great stretch such as Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) stretches the thighs, groins and psoas muscles. Because it is a hip opener the result is more flexion and extension of the knees. The idea that everything in our body is connected becomes apparent in yoga, which incidentally means yoke or union.
Before engaging in intensive stretches make sure to warm up with five to seven yoga sun salutations. These will help build heat and prepare your body. Otherwise practice these poses immediately after your run when your body is best prepared to accept them. They will not only help you to relax, but also aid in the removal of lactic acid from the muscles and help to prevent muscle soreness.
There are many yoga poses for runners. Some of my favorites, that I consider absolutely essential, are as follows:
Forward Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
This is a great pose for runners who experience sciatica pain. Begin in Downward Facing Dog. Step your right foot forward between your hands. Lengthen your left leg back and allow yourself to progressively (but gently) get heavier in your hip flexors and groin muscles, lowering your left knee to the mat. If you have sensitive knees, roll up a mat and place it under the back knee. Make sure that your right knee is stacked over your right ankle.
On an inhale lift your hands to your knees being mindful not to collapse into your spine. Exhale and press into the front foot, grounding yourself. Make sure your hips are square to the front. On the next inhale float your arms up and lengthen through your side body, fingertips reaching up to the ceiling. Lift your chest and enjoy the stretch in the front of your body. Slowly draw your shoulder blades towards the back of your torso and imagine that your heart shines forward. Hold the pose five to seven breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Reclined Big Toe Pose (Supta Padangusthasana)
Begin lying down on your mat. Breathe. Imagine the lengthening of your spine as your breath floods into your body. Make sure your neck is comfortably lengthened, and consider a blanket for support if your chin is higher than your forehead. Bring the right knee toward your chest, then loop a yoga strap around the arch of your right foot. Draw your right leg up and draw the thigh into your torso. It is OK if your leg is not at a 90 degree angle, but work towards the intention of getting your leg perpendicular to the floor. Your left leg remains stretched and extended on the mat, with toes pointed towards the ceiling. Melt your shoulders into the mat.
Here comes the most challenging part of this runner’s stretch: With your focus on alignment and breath, continue to hold the pose for a very minimum of one minute. To really experience the benefit of a lengthened hamstring, I often tell runners thirty seconds just won’t cut it and, to be honest, I strongly encourage at least two minutes on each side. Continue to breathe into the stretch. If you feel a release in your hamstrings after a minute of controlled breathing, gently encourage the stretch just a little bit more. Repeat on the other side.
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (The Beautiful Pigeon)
I call this pose beautiful because, although initially the runner approaches this pose with trepidation, it seems to be the one their body craves after they realize the positive benefits of opening their hips. There seems to be some magic in this pose as it stretches the piriformis muscle, often relieving knee and lower back pain for runners. Yogis will tell you it also releases emotion. I’m a believer.
Begin in downward facing dog. Bring your right knee into your center, accessing your core muscles, then thread it through so that your right heel and leg are perpendicular to the mat. Stretch your left leg back with careful attention to the line of your back leg. Your ankle behind you should look like an extension of the length of your leg, the top of your foot gently pressed into the mat.
If you are new to this pose, draw the heel of the bent leg closer to the hip flexor of the opposite leg, flexing your front foot to protect the joints around your knee. It is OK if your right knee angles towards the right edge of the mat.
Don’t worry if your hips are lifted in this pose. Use a blanket to prop underneath or rest your arms on a block in front of you. Make sure you are carefully considering your hips by centering them forward.
Square your shoulders forward. Puff your chest out (like a pigeon) and feel your collarbone expand. Direct your breath into any tension and be mindful to lift your chest as you breathe lengthening out of your lumbar spine. Again, Take the time to allow the hips to release and hold for a minimum (very minimum) of one minute.
To come out of this pose, place your hands on the mat and lift yourself, carefully drawing your right leg back so your feet are hip’s width apart, and gently lift your hips into downward facing dog again. Often you will notice an imbalance in your hips before repeating the pigeon on the other side; another testament to the power of this pose.
Wide-Legged Forward Fold (Prasarita Padottanasana)
This is another stretch I love to teach runners. It stretches the hamstrings and the lower back, which helps the lower back pain that some runner’s experience. There are many variations of this pose, but all of them rely on the anti-gravity concept of lengthening the spine down towards the floor.
Have a sturdy block available (I recommend cork) especially if your hamstrings are tight. Standing with legs wide on the mat (3 to 4 feet apart), turn your toes in slightly.
Keeping your spine long, with hands at your side, hinge at your hips, drawing your head down towards the floor. Place your palms on the block or, if you can comfortably reach, on the floor, and continue to draw the crown of your head down, elbows pointing behind you. Once you are settled into the pose, lift the back of your thighs up towards your booty. Make sure you continue to engage your legs and press into the inner and outer feet.
If your head easily reaches the floor, consider shortening the distance of your stance and walking your legs slightly in. You can also support your neck by interlacing your fingers and placing them behind your neck. Your pinky fingers should be right under the ridge of your scull. Gently lengthen through your entire spine, including your cervical spine.
Yoga is for everybody, but for runners and other performance athletes it offers an added bonus. It lengthens the life of the practice they love. For more great poses for runners, check out Sage Rountree’s book, An Athlete’s Guide to Yoga.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Plante