Can yoga be beneficial to runners?

How yoga can help your running

Has your running reached a bit of a plateau? Rather than cranking up the mileage, why not try a different approach, and take up yoga?

Many coaches have in the past discouraged runners from doing yoga, believing it made them too supple or flexible. But Beryl Bender Birch, often credited as the creator of Power Yoga, put that idea to bed when she introduced yoga to the New York Road Runner’s Club in the 1980s.

Regular yoga practice soon saw injury rates falling rapidly among club runners and performances started to improve. So startling was the impact of yoga that it is now considered a useful addition to any athlete’s weekly training regime.

So how does yoga help runners?

There's more to yoga than just helping people become more flexible. Yoga does improve suppleness and strength, but it also helps improve balance and coordination, breathing capacity and mental focus.

A study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research found that athletes who practiced pranayama (yogic breathing) for a year or more showed greater exercise economy. This meant they were able to work harder for the same heart rate, and could exercise at a higher intensity before hitting the lactate threshold.

Research published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that yogic breathing increased lung capacity and function, even in asthma sufferers. While in other Indian research, the rate of recovery from a tough treadmill run was measured after a restorative yoga posture, called Savasana, compared to simply resting or sitting in a chair. The yoga pose saw the effects the run wear off in significantly shorter time.

Although running is a symmetrical activity, unlike, say, golf or tennis; it largely involves only the lower body, and only in a forwards motion. This can create imbalances in the body — for example, the muscles that move the legs sideways become weak while those that are overused become tight. The continual pounding in running can also compress the spine.

Yoga helps runners by redressing the balance. It flexes and extends the entire body in every direction, forwards, sideways, backwards and in rotation — so you get a more balanced workout as well as getting the opportunity to identify potential problem areas caused by running, such as over-tight hamstrings or weak glutes.

'Sport isn’t designed to create perfect balance and harmony in the body,' explains Rodney Yee, an American yoga guru and presenter of Yoga Conditioning for Sport (Gaiam Living Arts). 'Yoga can help to redress the balance and in doing so, enhance performance and reduce the risk of injury.'

If nothing else, practicing yoga forces you to spend more time on stretching; something that runners so frequently negelect.

One yoga pose to try — the Downward-facing dog

The Downward-facing dog is a popular yoga posture that stretches the entire back of the body, from the calves to the shoulders.

To perform this:

— Start on all fours with fingers facing forwards, hands under shoulders and knees under hips.

— Curl your toes under and push your body upwards so that your tailbone goes directly up into the air, arms, legs and spine straight, head relaxed.

— Press your heels down to the ground and think about lengthening through the spine. Imagine a cord is pulling your tailbone upwards.

— Hold for 15 to 20 seconds, then come down on to your knees and rest forehead on the floor for a moment. Repeat twice more.

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