Written by Dr Kayleigh Darch (Clinical Psychologist) in April 2022
We all know how important the pre-run warm-up and post-run cool-down stretches are, but how many times have we skipped that part of the run? (If we’re being honest with ourselves!). We might get drawn into the run itself; focusing on our running technique, the distance we’re aiming for, the course we’ll take on the run, or our longer-term goals and training for races. Maybe we’re more focused on reaching the adrenaline rush we experience once we’re finished, or we’re just tight on time and life gets in the way. But stretches either side of the run (and some yoga postures and stretches on our rest days) benefit the activity of running itself. Yoga can help us strengthen and optimise our running performance and technique.
Read on if you want to learn more about the ways that yoga helps runners.
Why consider yoga if you are a runner?
You might have connotations and associations with yoga and “yogis” that make yoga seem a bit off-putting (I certainly did before I first tried yoga). I’m remembering some of my pre-conceptions such as images of people in complicated poses that seem completely unobtainable, groups of people chanting, or an idea about who practices yoga – maybe that stereotype of white Western women in a yoga class (I am aware that I do fall into this category…). However, trying yoga and going to yoga classes helps us challenge these biases and societal narratives and realise that yoga is accessible to us all and helpful to many groups of people, particularly athletes and runners.
When we run, we train up particular sets of muscles, and inadvertently ignore other muscle groups, which causes imbalances in the body and risks injury due to over-use. This is where yoga helps – yoga involves moving muscles, tendons and ligaments through their full range of motion and it includes all parts of the body, helping to restore and cultivate balance, and build core strength and stability. Running can be a challenge to the mind as much as it is a physical challenge for the body. When we run, our minds are with us thinking about what the body is doing and how it feels to be running, commenting and questioning the activity of running (which can support us if we are evaluating our performance positively, or it can be unhelpful to our run if we are judging ourselves, over-analysing or getting caught up in negative thoughts). Yoga is a practice for our mind, and it has many psychological benefits that can support running.
Body and mind benefits of yoga for runners
Improved flexibility and balance
The practice of yoga can involve balancing in many ways (on one leg or balancing upside down maybe?!), but yoga supports balance beyond this to include regulatory balance in our overall bodily system. Yoga sequences often including a pose working a particular area followed by a counter-posture using the opposing part of the body (for example, forward bends working the back of the body, hamstrings, lower back, and glutes can be counter-balanced with poses that open the front of the body, chest, quadriceps, and core). The opposing movements helps to restore balance in the body – muscles in the body which have been tightened and shortened are then loosened and lengthened. Running can throw our system off balance, particularly if our body was imbalanced before we started to run or if we over-train certain muscle groups. In a similar way, if we struggle with inflexibility in certain body areas then we risk over-compensating and relying more on other muscles to support our running. Research shows that regular yoga training supports improved muscular strength, endurance, flexibility, and balance (Boehde et al., 2005; Vardar-Yagli et al., 2015). Building muscular strength and flexibility in areas of the body that support and compliment running helps to foster balance in the body and reduce the physical stress that results from the impact of running on the body (Baptiste, 2007). Improving balance through yoga supports better co-ordination and control over how we use the body, which in turn helps with better running form and technique (Sharma, 2015).
Developing conscious breath control
Another key part of any yoga class or practice is working with the breath. During yoga, movements and stretches are co-ordinated with breathing – as you inhale, you move and as you exhale you move again, consciously linking the breath together with movement. Or in different yoga practices you might breathe into the yoga stretch whilst holding the posture and staying attuned to the quality of your breathing. In this way, yoga supports greater awareness and regulation of the breath. When we run, we move and we breathe, at the same time, although at times we might be out-of-sync with our breathing and struggle to regulate the breath according to our pace and performance that day. This can mean that we struggle against the run and our experience of running and overall performance is then compromised. Yoga can support running by helping us to notice the breath, learn to control breathing patterns, and then deliberately engaging a rhythm of breathing as we are running which is appropriately matched to the run (Sharma, 2015).
Improved cardiovascular functioning
Yoga, as with other movements and fitness activities, involves engaging our cardiovascular system – as we move and breathe on the mat during yoga, we work the heart and all of the circulatory system that supplies the body with blood. Studies have demonstrated the power of yoga to enhance cardiovascular endurance and anaerobic power in the body. Research has showed that regular yoga training supports improved cardiovascular health and endurance, metabolic health, and better oxygen regulation (Bera & Rajapurkar, 1993; Chu et al., 2014). These benefits from yoga have advantageous consequences for running in that improved cardiovascular functioning will support improved cardiovascular functioning during running.
Better body awareness
Just like the deliberate focus on the breath, the practice of yoga includes an internal focus paying close attention to the body and our inner sensations. When we move between yoga postures and hold stretches it is crucial to notice how the body feels and use the information that the body provides to us. Yoga is ultimately about finding a place of comfort in each stretch or pose, so sometimes during yoga that can mean moving out of a posture if we notice pain or doing things differently if we are recovering from an injury. Research shows that regular yoga practice helps to develop awareness of and responsiveness to body sensations, and that improved body responsiveness through yoga helps to reduce the tendency to judge our worth and value based on physical appearance (Daubenmier, 2005). Better body awareness and body-confidence supports other forms of fitness such as running. Through yoga we learn to be with our body and do what is helpful and supportive, and we need these same insights whilst running. It is important to recognise the range of factors that impact on our running and how these circumstances change day-by-day (Baptiste, 2007). The mindful awareness of the body we learn from yoga can help us do this when we run – we pay greater attention to the resources we have that day, our overall energy and tiredness levels, and the body’s limitations.
Yoga is a body and mind practice that yes, involves moving, stretching, and flowing through different postures, but each yoga class and practice typically ends with relaxation. During the final pose, we are invited to rest and relax the body and mind. If we are in a yoga class, then the yoga teacher might guide us through a relaxation practice that helps cultivate a sense of calm and restful awareness. These skills can be vital to running. Developing skills with relaxation on the yoga mat means that we can better regulate our arousal levels and emotional state which is helpful to running performance (Sharma, 2015). Learning relaxation can help us be more effective at using (or conserving) our energy resources and release bodily tension which supports improved athletic performance.
Reduced risk of injury
Finally, another key benefit of yoga for runners is the ways that it reduces the risk of injury (Baptiste, 2007). This relates to all that has been discussed so far in this article given that the improved balance and alignment, greater muscular strength, and better self-awareness we gain from yoga supports safer running technique. We learn to notice the relationships between the different parts of our body and take greater care if we have niggles or discomfort. We learn to rest when we need to and give the body time to heal if we experience pain.
So, whilst it might seem that yoga and running are at opposite ends of the fitness spectrum, they complement each other well. A helpful first step to incorporate yoga into your running routine might be to include some pre-run and post-run yoga postures that support these phases of your run. If you would like some tips on which yoga postures might work well at these times, then check out the Flying Gazelle Running and BAM Therapy blog pages and social media streams – another article is coming soon.
Happy (and safe) running! 😊
Baptiste, B. (2007). Three benefits of yoga for runners. Yoga Journal: https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/yoga-for-athletes/yoga-and-running/yoga-runners/
Bera, T. K. & Rajapurkar, M. V. (1993). Body composition, cardiovascular endurance and anaerobic power of yoga practitioner. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol. 37(3): 225-228.
Boehde ,D., Porcari, J., Greany, J., Udermann, B., Johanson, D., & Foster, C. (2005). The physiological effects of 8 weeks of yoga training. J Cardiopulm Rehabil Prev. 5: 290.
Chu, P., Gotink, R. A., Yeh, G. Y., Goldie, S. J., & Hunink, M. G. M. (2014). Th effectiveness of yoga in modifying risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. Eur J Prev Cardiol. 23(3): 291-307.
Daubenmier, J. J. (2005). The relationship of yoga, body awareness, and body responsiveness to self-objectification and disordered eating. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 29(2): 207-219.
Sharma, L. (2015). Benefits of yoga in sports. International Journal of Physical Education, Sports & Health. 1(3): 30-32.
Vardar-Yagli, N., Sener, G., Arikan, H., Saglam, M., Inal-Ince, D., Savci, S., Kutukcu, E., Altundag, K. et al. (2015). Do yoga and aerobic exercise training have impact on functional capacity, fatigue, peripheral muscle strength, and quality of life in breast cancer survivors? Integr Cancer Ther. 14(2): 125-32.