“Down Dog,” the teacher says. It’s the last one of class; by now my body is dripping in sweat and my muscles are particularly loose. With 10 minutes until beloved Savasana, I know which pose is coming next.
“Lift your right leg to the sky and pull it through for Sleeping Pigeon. Keep your right thigh parallel to the mat, and make sure your foot stays flexed.”
I glide my foot forward just as she says, anticipating what I’m about to feel. Sleeping Pigeon, a deep hip opener, is one of those love-hate poses for lots of yoga enthusiasts, but I presume even more so for runners like myself who have notoriously tight hips. I bend forward, the yoga pose directly targeting the part of my body that always feels like it’s taking the brunt of my daily runs on road or trail. I inhale deeply, trying to watch my exhale like the teacher often suggests, as I feel the effects of my 50-mile week.
I’ve been a runner for 15 years and a yoga practitioner for two. In those two years, yoga has become an irreplaceable complement to my training. When I started doing yoga more regularly (three to four times a week) I simultaneously became both stronger and faster. I’m not sure yogacan take all the credit, but I know it must deserve some.
Yoga can strengthen particular muscle groups that may get neglected when you run.
To find out, I hopped on the phone with one of my favorite yoga teachers from Colorado, Peter Michaelsen. With a B.A. in yoga studies from Naropa University, I figured he’d know a thing or two about how the practice might benefit other runners like me.
“One of the things that running does in our body is strengthen particular muscle groups,” he says. Most runners primarily use their quads and hamstrings, he says, which over time can lead to fatigue and pain from overuse. It can also lead to imbalances: If you’re only ever working a few muscle groups, other areas may end up a lot weaker and more prone to aches and injuries.
This makes sense to me; before I did yoga I often experienced lower back pain, which was due to a lack of hip mobility and core strength. I’m happy to say that doing yoga regularly has helped with this discomfort.
“Yoga is comprehensive,” Michaelsen adds. When you do this sort of total-body strengthening work, it can have a big impact on your running. “You can become faster because your [core] is [contributing to your run] as much as your legs, and your shoulders are now helping your arms swing.” Yoga helps get the whole body involved while running, he says.
Like any good patient (and writer), I decided to get a second opinion. I spoke with yoga instructor and running coach Cara Gilman. She was an all-in marathon runner until she suffered consecutive injuries and found her way onto a yoga mat. Interestingly, she echoed many of Michaelsen’s statements:
“Yoga is a great way to activate the muscles we don’t typically use when running alone,” she confirms. “As runners, we’re not used to activating our glutes and hips. Many key poses and postures in yoga force us to strengthen those muscles.”
Gilman asked if I ever found standing in one-legged postures in yoga, like Warrior III and Airplane, particularly challenging. I shake my head vigorously, saying yes. The reason, she suggests, is because those poses require me to use my hips and glutes, muscles that are often a runner’s biggest weakness.
It also helps to increase range of motion—something many runners may need to work on.
I wanted to run this concept by someone who wasn’t a yoga instructor. I was curious to hear from someone who was trained in exercise physiology.
Enter Alex Harrison, Ph.D., a sport performance coach who works with triathletes, runners, and weightlifters. I wanted to know: If a runner only runs, what happens? And how could inserting different types of movement—such as yoga—impact their performance?
Harrison explains that devout runners will most likely have limited ranges of motion for doing non-running kinds of movements. This is because when we run, our bodies are only moving forward and backward (also called the sagittal plane). This means that moving in other ways, say, laterally to do a side lunge, or diagonally to do a wood chop, might feel difficult and unfamiliar. If you only ever run and don’t do exercises that get you moving in other directions, you end up not only overworking the muscles you are using but also making it difficult to move in other ways, potentially increasing your risk of injury on the rare occasions you do.
This is where yoga comes in; it requires the body to move in frontal and transverse planes in poses like twists, lunges, and Warrior II.
Still, I wondered (and asked): So what? How does having better hip mobility and a larger range of motion affect my running performance? Harrison argues that a larger range of motion might not make you faster, but it will certainly help you avoid injury. That’s because if we’re used to staying stuck in one type of motion, any small change we make to our running form, from wearing new shoes to opening up our legs during strides, can cause the body to go beyond our typical range of motion, which could lead to strains, sprains, and tears galore. When you’re more used to working in a broader range, there’s less of a chance you’ll do something outside of your body’s capabilities.
Learning to breathe mindfully in the studio may also help you on a run.
OK, so the muscle stuff made sense to me. But you can arguably target ignored muscle groups and planes of movement with other activities besides yoga. So I wanted to dig deeper and find out: What other benefits can yoga provide runners that you can’t necessarily find in a weight room?
One particularly interesting physical benefit of yoga for runners has to do with breathing. I’m a big fan of Baptiste Yoga, which emphasizes ujjayi breathing, in which you inhale and exhale out of your nose. Many forms of yoga utilize specific breathing techniques, teaching you how to breathe in a purposeful way. “There is a focus on diaphragm breathing and expanding your lungs and the space around your chest,” says Michaelsen.
This can be helpful for a few reasons, says Marta Montenegro, M.S., C.S.C.S., adjunct professor of exercise science at Florida International University in Miami. When you focus on your breathing pattern during exercise, you’re actively connecting your mind and your body. This, she says, will help you better control your respiration rate, so you can maintain your pace for longer. Being acutely aware of your breathing (and not just zoning out for the duration of your run) will also get you focusing on other things like your body positioning and core engagement, both of which can help you run more efficiently.
“Also, yoga focuses on working the core, and the respiratory muscles are part of the core,” says Montenegro. When these muscle are stronger, it takes longer for them to tire out. “If yoga is training you to keep your core engaged and your respiratory muscles expanding and contracting, you will use less energy doing those things and that will improve your running economy.”
The mental benefits of yoga can help you stay focused when things get challenging.
I would argue I’ve personally experienced more mental gains from yoga than physical ones. As a runner, my mental game used to always be my biggest weakness; my brain would give up way before my body. During a race, as soon as I started feeling fatigued, I’d convince myself why it was OK to ease up and not chase a new PR. Instead of embracing a runner’s beloved nemesis—the pain cave—I ran (slowly) away from it. Yet my normal yoga practice has forced me to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, through sitting in the poses that incorporate a lot of hamstrings or core strength, focused on just noticing what it feels like versus reacting to the discomfort and trying to get out of it. This has translated to my running; now when I traverse up hills, I notice where my mind is going versus freaking out right away and slowing my pace down to that of a snail’s.
“Your body is capable of doing so much more than the mind thinks. In yoga, we try to be in each breath, which is like being in each step of a running practice. That’s the freedom of the ‘now, here’ moment. Not the one we think is going to come up in a mile or two from now,” Michaelsen says.
Another basic element of the mind-practice in yoga is concentration, or directing our mental awareness in a certain direction. “The mental component with yoga translates to all parts of our life, but especially when things start to get tough,” Michaelsen describes. In his words, the practice of yoga brings us to more of a central space of listening.
Gilman says that mental strength from yoga is crucial when it comes to running. “Your mental game during speed work, a hill workout, or balancing in half-moon pose [hinges on] what you’re thinking while these things are happening. [Yoga] allows you to practice mindfulness and to simply show up, no matter how hard a hill or holding a pose may be.”
You can add yoga to your routine in a couple different ways.
Yoga can definitely be a great item in a runner’s toolbox for both your physical and mental self. I for one have found immense value in it, and have more mobile muscles and mind because of it. There are so many different types of yoga too—from restorative Yin to vigorous vinyasa—so don’t hesitate to try a few different styles out to see what works for you, your body, and your training schedule.