I’ve been a trail runner for over 15 years, and a yoga practitioner for a decade. So when I decided to become a yoga instructor, naturally, I gravitated toward teaching runners, who are often nervous about attending their first class. They say things like, “Oh, I am so bad at yoga, I can’t even touch my toes,” or, “It’s so embarrassing, I’m just not flexible!”
I tell those students that touching their toes isn’t going to make them better runners. And that, despite the pretzel-like twists they see on Instagram, yoga isn’t about increasing flexibility. It’s about meeting yourself where you are. It’s about the harmony between mind and body, the union between individual and universe and, on a biomechanical level, it’s about balance.
It’s time to take that approach to the mat and improve your running. Here’s how.
Tightness and Efficiency
“To be an injury-free and efficient runner,” says Wesley Miller, 37, a running-mechanics-focused physical therapist in Asheville, North Carolina, “you need to have a balance of strength and flexibility to repeat the same motion over and over with relative symmetry.”
But this doesn’t require noodle flexibility, because running is a relatively low-range-of-motion sport.
“Much like a spring, you use your muscular system and passive connective system to generate passive energy,” says Miller. Simply put, muscle tension generates force with each step. And the more flexible you are, the less force is available.
“Muscle mass will create better stiffness and make you a better, more efficient runner. And the right amount of muscle mass is advantageous,”
Bottom line? Stretch what’s inflexible and strengthen what’s already mobile.
Strength and Posture
Thanks to modern-day “chair” lifestyles, many runners have hip flexors that never quite release even when running. Further, if the pelvis is misaligned in relation to the torso (think of the pelvis as a bowl you don’t want to spill in either direction) along with tight hip flexors, the glutes don’t fire. Result? Overused quads, a tight psoas and weak hamstrings and glutes, which makes for an inefficient running stride.
“On a biomechanical level, most runners don’t need to stretch by doing a forward fold,” says Joe Taft, an avid outdoor adventurer and yoga instructor in Asheville. “The majority of runners probably need to avoid typical postures done in a yoga class.”
Instead, shift your focus to stretching the front half of the body—opening the hip flexors, psoas and chest—while strengthening the back chain—calves, hamstrings and glutes—in addition to stabilizing core muscles.
Let the Breath Guide You
If you’ve ever been to a yoga class, you’ve likely heard the term prana. It’s an ancient Sanskrit word related to breath that describes the “aliveness” moving through all living things. And when prana moves uninhibited through the body, you feel invigorated, connected and expansive.
“Our biomechanical alignment facilitates efficient breath,” says Marcy Freed, a runner and yoga instructor in Columbus, Ohio. “If our posture collapses and inhibits our primary respiratory structure, the basic need to fuel our cells with oxygen is compromised.”
Focus on using intentional slow breathing as your guiding force for movement on the mat and consciously breathe into tight or weak spots to bring more awareness there. “By initiating and sustaining a long, slow, deep inhalation, we activate the parasympathetic nervous system,” says Freed. “If we master our breath, we can control how we fuel the body with oxygen when we run.”
So next time you step on your mat, let go of expectations. Let go of a specific “form” of yoga and just move. Stretch, yes, but also build strength and let your breath guide you to a balanced practice, one that’s guaranteed to enhance your efficiency on the trails.
Improve your posture on the trail with these three techniques on the mat.
- Work the foot. Imagine the foot as a three-pronged plug. In all postures, ground through the mound of the big toe, the mound of the little toe and the heel. Strengthen the arch by isometrically drawing the mound of the big toe toward the heel.
- Thighs back. Draw the inner thighs inward and back to push the thighs back (it will feel like you’re sticking out your butt). At the same time, draw in the low belly and keep the front of the rib cage pulled back (neutral). This creates a slight anterior pelvic tilt and a proper thoracic curve.
- Relax the shoulders back. Most runners roll the shoulders and neck forward, especially after long hours on the trail. To open the shoulders and restore proper form, lift the shoulders and then circle them up and back so that the scapula rests flat against the back. The neck will feel long and free and the head will feel light and buoyant.
6 Must-Do Yoga Exercises for Runners
1. High Lunge to Split Squat
From downward dog, inhale as you draw your right leg between your hands and place your foot on the ground. Inhale to raise your trunk. Distribute your weight equally between your front foot and the mound of your big toe on your left foot. Keep your shoulders back and your low belly in. Exhale and lower the left knee to the ground and inhale to rise back up. Take care to ensure the knee tracks properly on the way down and up.
Repeat 10 times and then exhale the hands to the mat and back to downward dog. Rest for a few breaths here before switching to the other side.
2. Plank Pose
This core-stabilizing pose works all sides of the trunk, including the shoulders. To get into the pose, place your elbows on the mat with fingers interlocked. Inhale and extend the legs out behind you, toes tucked and press up. Keep the belly button pulled in and the upper back puffed. Relax the jaw. Press into the big toes.
Breathe here for as long as you can with good form. Exhale to come down and rest on your stomach or in child’s pose. Repeat two to three times.
3. Mountain Pose
The basic standing posture is a crucial first step to master when it comes to alignment-based yoga.
Start with the feet hip-distance apart. Use the three steps listed on the previous page to find your form with arms down at your side or extended slightly out. While this is the perfect posture to ground yourself, it’s also ideal for strengthening arches and subtly firing up the back chain.
While you’ll likely return to this pose several times during a practice, the first time you find it, stay here for a minimum of five breaths. With each exhale, let your body ground, and on each inhale feel the spine lift.
4. Reclining Bound Angle
From lying flat on your back, inhale the knees up and feet together and exhale to slowly fan the knees out. If the pose strains the knees, alleviate it by placing a block under each leg. This relaxing posture offers a gentle hip-flexor opening and passive psoas release.
Stay here as long as you like. Inhale to draw the knees together and roll over to the right side to come out.
5. Dragon Pose
From a low lunge with the right foot untucked on the mat and the left knee bent with the left foot firmly planted, place the right hand out to the right of the mat and inhale the left arm up and back. If flexibility allows, hold the right foot with your left hand while twisting the torso to the left and opening the chest toward the ceiling.
This not only opens the chest, but stretches tight hip flexors. Breathe here for five deep breaths. On an exhale, slowly release. Inhale to switch sides.
Thanks to Taft’s influence, I rarely teach chair pose and instead opt for several rounds of deep and long-held squats.
Start with the feet a little wider than hip-distance apart with the toes pointing slightly out. Inhale and lift the arms up. Exhale as you sit into the squat, shifting your weight back while extending the arms up. As you sit, breathe deeply and widen the upper thighs, staying conscious that the knees track directly over the toes. Inhale to stand up and repeat.
Ashley Arnold is the former associate editor of Trail Runner. She currently lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she teaches yoga for runners and Aha Movement, a practice inspired by running, dance and yoga. Connect with her on Instagram @ashleyharnold.