By Hannah Corcoran
Recently, I had the good fortune of joining the Perth City Lululemon team for their latest Perth Run Collective launch. To kick off the season, we heard from a number of run leaders who shared a handful of their running aspirations for 2016. Of course, as the yogi heading up the post-run yoga session, I was thrilled that each person noted a goal to introduce a regular yoga practice as a compliment to their run training. I was also a little daunted – I had 10 minutes to prove to these people that their goals were well founded! Following my 10 minutes of fame and stretching, my mind was buzzing with pearls of wisdom that I wanted to share with the attendees, but alas, I got the gong. So here are a few more words for all those runners out there.
Despite being naturally drawn to yoga for many years, it took a particularly long and arduous rowing season for me to finally make it to a yoga class. Like most of us, I came to yoga with the aim of ‘using’ yoga as a tool to improve my flexibility and athletic performance. And like many before me, I certainly noticed some changes to my physical wellbeing and my rowing performance.
Of course, yoga has become a lot more to me now than just an adjunct to other physical activity – but that does not mean that I don't condone or practice other forms of sport – as always, it's all about balance, what makes you happy, and what works for your body (noting that this may change daily).
Whilst I am strongly of the belief that yoga is a wonderful complement to absolutely every single sport for every single athlete, I do feel concern that nowadays, yoga is being perceived in the athlete world as a bit of a miracle cure. Just like yoga, medicines only work when you take them correctly. If you want to see some serious benefit, expect to put in the hours, and take the time to find the right yoga fit for you. Also, be prepared to work in your yoga practice – even if you rack up hours of cardio training a week, an hour of gentle stretching is not necessarily what the doctor ordered for you to improve your performance on the track. Yoga is not all about building flexibility. As I have outlined below, there are so many ways your sport can benefit from yoga, so let go of the idea of stretching and rolling around on a mat for an hour when you go to a yoga class.
On the flip side, don't work too hard – a lifetime of tight hamstrings will not often unravel in 2 hours. Even to this day, I deal with imbalances and weaknesses in my body that I believe are attributed to 10 years of rowing on one side of the boat. No matter how hard you push, some things take time – in fact they may take longer if you push harder.
But this is not a bad news story. Beyond looking to yoga as a tool for increasing flexibility, there are a vast number of benefits that a regular yoga practice can bring to your run practice (or any other sport really). Here are just a few:
1. Show up
Some time ago, I made a commitment to turn up to my mat for my own personal practice Every. Single. Day. There are times when I seriously resist my daily practice (even though this is my passion), there are certainly days where I feel like I have regressed in my ability by about 3 years in 3 days. There is something about the practice of yoga that reminds us to turn up, despite the conditions and have a go (even if it's running half of your usual distance, or not making your PB). Yoga also teaches you to REALLY turn up – to shut off your mind and the mental distractions and think about each step of each run. And that is powerful stuff.
If you love 80’s music like I do, you know the mantra, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’. If it was a hurdle to put on your running shoes, it is likely that the first 2kms are going to feel like giant walls or mountains. If there is one thing I have learnt from my yoga teacher’s infamous 5 minute holds in downward facing dog, it's how my mind reacts to fatigue and discomfort in the body. Over time and many yoga practices, I have trained myself to respond to my very noisy inner voice with thoughts like, ‘breath through the sensation’, ‘the pain is a temporary illusion’, ‘you do not need to scratch your nose, your mind, and that fly are just trying to distract you from your greatness’, ‘no one ever died in downward facing dog… That I know of… You should google that.’ Yes, I am crazy. Crazy as I may be, I know that positive mindset and affirmation is a brilliant tool for any athlete, and you have an opportunity to hone it in every single yoga class.
Probably the biggest challenge in my first yoga class, was coming to terms that my mouth should remain closed for an hour and a half. Although you probably assume it was a challenge because that meant I couldn’t talk, it was a double challenge because, once upon a time, I must have been a mouth breather. Despite the various health benefits of nose breathing, yoga is important because it teaches us to breath consciously. It teaches us to take control of our breath and to breathe deeper. This helps to lower our stress levels, reduce muscle fatigue and increase our lung capacity. An absolute no brainer for any kind of cardio exercise.
4. Body awareness
Helen Gibson in her wonderful article speaks of how she runs with a yogic approach (e.g. scanning the body during her runs just as she does on her yoga mat). Thinking about weight distribution, looking for areas of tension and where the breath is moving during your run as you do during your yoga practice is sure to give you a greater understanding of how your body is responding to your run. This can also be a very useful tool in visualising the joints in your body and how they are affected by your running style. When I run, I try to visualise landing softly and rolling my foot from the heel to the toe along the ground in a controlled and fluid movement. Although it may not look that way, at least in my mind it does, and it makes me feel lighter as I land on the pavement, hopefully reducing impact to my ankles, knees and lumbar spine.
5. Be safe
I know how tempting it can be to push yourself to go for a run when you are just starting to recover from an injury or just keep running for one more song, even when your knee is aching. Yoga teaches us to listen to our body, so that we know when it is appropriate to stop and rest. When I practice yin yoga, I have to remind myself not to force myself to my pain threshold, but rather to find an edge that is comfortable to hold for a long period of time. Yin yoga is a powerful tool in increasing flexibility long term – but it happens only when you can fully relax and let go of the temptation to force the body.
Forcing yourself to run for 5 minutes longer may be the difference between an injury free and an injury prone runner. So much of our lives involve force; pushing ourselves for a promotion, a bigger house, a faster car. Your daily run could become a time to stop forcing, start enjoying each moment and your surroundings. It is ok to have an off day, learn to listen to and trust your body, as it intuitively knows the best route to take. And remember that there is always tomorrow, IF you don’t injure yourself.
6. Stabilise and strengthen
I have often come back to a regular run practice as a way to quickly get back in shape. The benefits of a regular running habit show up quickly and we find ourselves recovering strength and fitness in no time. What we need to be aware of is that running works mostly on the lower half of the body (hips to toes) and works us only in a forward and backward motion (along the saggital plane). So although we may be run fit and run strong, when we constantly work the same muscles over and over, we can create imbalances, and weakness or stiffness will often result in other parts of the body, exposing us to injury.
Any one yoga pose requires engagement of a myriad of muscles in the body (ones you didn’t know existed), so it's not unusual to be a very fit runner, who struggles to hold a warrior pose for very long. Yoga can help you to strengthen those muscles around the inner thighs and upper body that often get neglected from running. This in turn, can lead to better range of motion, translating to less aches and pains and stiffness from underused muscles.
Okay, so yoga’s definitely not all about stretching, but a good stretch is a big part of your practice and a wonderful way to round off a run session. When we are running, we certainly work our leg muscles (particularly if we are hitting the hills). In order to avoid pulling up very stiff the next day, stretching is encouraged. The act of stretching and performing yoga asanas, helps to lengthen those muscle groups that get overworked, thereby helping you to maintain, and over time, increase the range of motion in your joints (a.k.a increasing flexibility). If we take a cool down stretch post-run, it is really easy for us to fall into the habit of taking the same 3 or 4 stretches, maybe holding each one for a handful of seconds and being done with it. I recommend yoga in addition to any post-run stretch to help you hold stretches for longer, and give you some inspiration – some exciting new stretches to mix things up and maybe find a stretch that really targets a problem area for you.
Tonic Yoga is looking to introduce a Yoga for athletes class to its timetable shortly. We value your input, so feel free to contact us to Please share your running tips and favourite yoga poses for runners below!