Growing up, I was never very athletic. I never really enjoyed team sports. I was average at baseball, soccer, and basketball—scrawny and uncoordinated. I didn’t even bother to try out for football.
But early on, I discovered a love for running and have been running most of my life. I found joy in running, not in running the fastest or the longest but rather just in the running itself. For me, the joy comes from the solitude of a long run and from the full-body movement of running, especially when I manage a comfortable and sustainable pace. Running also clears my mind and often even feels spiritual to me. Growing up, I never felt better than during and after a long run, especially a trail run.
That is, until I discovered yoga.
When I started practicing yoga in my early 20s I was excited to discover another activity that wasn’t a competitive sport and also left me feeling as good in body, mind, and spirit the way running did. But when I told my yoga friends that in addition to practicing yoga I also enjoyed running, they’d often raise their eyebrows above their bindi and matter-of-factly inform me that yoga and running just don’t mix. Yet as someone who does both I beg to differ. On the contrary, yoga has improved my running and has kept me running well and largely injury-free for decades.
In many ways running has improved my yoga practice by giving me more stamina, focus, and breath capacity. However, in this article I want to explore some of the many ways that yoga can benefit runners and how incorporating yoga into your training routine can make a significant difference in your enjoyment, performance, and longevity of your running.
The Physical Benefits of Yoga for Runners
1. Better Flexibility
One of the biggest benefits of yoga for runners is better flexibility. Running primarily involves repetitive movements in a forward direction which almost always leads to tight muscles. Tight muscles contribute to reduced range of motion which means that the tighter a runner’s muscles get, the more effort they have to use to make their body move. Yoga postures stretch and lengthen muscles and help runners enjoy greater flexibility and mobility, a benefit that feels like finally, someone has released the parking brake on your running.
Running tightens specific muscle groups such as the hamstrings, hip flexors, and calves (always my nemesis). I maintain flexibility and freedom in these muscle groups with poses like Downdog (Adho Mukha Svanasana), Kneeling Lunge (Anjaneyasana), and Pigeon (Kapotasana) or Figure 4 Stretch. By keeping the body limber, runners not only enhance their running form but they also reduce the risk of strain and injury. Flexible bodies can adapt to the dynamic movements of running much better than tight bodies, making running smoother and much more enjoyable.
2. Physical Balance and Stability
Yoga has improved my balance, stability, and proprioception which helps me to negotiate technical terrain on trails or uneven surfaces on the road and helps prevent me from performing any unintended Pete Rose slides during a run (one of the few technical baseball terms I gleaned in my brief little-league career).
Poses like Tree Pose (Vrikshasana) and Warrior III (Virabhadrasana III) can help runners develop better balance, stability, and proprioception. These poses also help to strengthen the ankles and feet which helps to prevent runners from rolling an ankle during a run which can curb a runner with a sprain or even a break.
3. Increased Strength
More than just flexibility, yoga is also about strength, a shared benefit for runners. Without fail, right at about mile 20 of a marathon, the nagging thought invariably pops into my head, “I should have held Chair Pose (Utkatasana) and Bridge Pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana) a bit longer to build up my quads and hamstrings.” Strength building poses such as these help runners move forward with less fatigue and better for. Running when you’re weak leads to poor form and increases the possibility for injuries.
Running isn’t only about lower body strength either; it’s truly a full-body endeavor. Something I love about yoga, and why it’s such a complement to other sports and forms of movement, including running, is that yoga also benefits the entire body. Poses like Plank Pose (Phalakasana), Lower Pushup (Chaturanga Dandasana), and Downward Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) require the activation of multiple muscles simultaneously which has a direct benefit for a full-bodied approach to running.
Yoga builds a strong upper body which is useful to maintain proper posture during runs and prevent the upper body from collapsing. Collapsing in the upper body can lead to inefficient breathing and reduced performance. A strong and upright upper body keeps the lungs open and receptive to the breath.
Then there’s the core. A strong core is crucial for maintaining stability while running. Yoga poses that engage the core and help to build strength in this area include Boat Pose (Navasana), Crow Pose, (Bakasana) and Scale Pose (Tolasana). A strong and stable core also improves posture and prevents issues like lower back pain, which is common among runners.
4. Better Breathing Techniques
Yoga’s emphasis on coordinating movement and breath helps runners benefit greatly from learning to control their breath. Proper breathing techniques for runners can help runners stay steady and energized all the way through a run rather than sucking wind so hard that they see stars and have to stop to catch their breath. Learning to breathe well and efficiently while holding poses in yoga can also help a runner enhance their endurance and reduce fatigue. With a regular yoga practice, runners can develop a deeper understanding of their breath and learn how to synchronize it with their running cadence.
Yogic breathing exercises (aka pranayama) helps runners improve their lung capacity and oxygen intake making energy more readily available and accessible to the necessary muscles. Techniques like deep belly breathing and ujjayi breath can even be applied during runs to stay relaxed and energized, even and especially when running uphill.
The Mental Benefits of Yoga for Runners
1. Body/Mind Balance
Sure, running requires strength, endurance, and mental focus but, in addition to the benefit of physical balance, yoga also taught me about balancing my body-mind connection which helped me learn to work with my body instead of against. This body-mind balance helps runners to improve performance, prevent injuries, and ensures many years of joyful running.
The human will is often stronger than the human body, especially with endurance sports where the misdirected motto is often, “No pain, no gain.” But “pushing through the pain” while pounding the pavement or hitting the trails can take a serious toll on the body, one that can even outweigh the physical and mental benefits of the sport and can lead to permanent injury or burnout which ultimately shortens the amount of years a runner can enjoy the sport.
Yoga taught me instead to listen to the constant signals my body gives me during a run and helps me to work in tandem with it rather than working against it. When runners are in tune with their bodies, they can make adjustments to their stride, posture, and gait during runs, reducing the risk of overuse injuries. It also helps runners recognize when they need to rest and recover, preventing burnout and overtraining. After I discovered yoga, my new motto became, “No pain? I’m game!” Later, I discovered training methods such as the Maffetone Method which supports a slow and steady way of building strength and speed while training very comfortably within the body’s limits. With a strong mind-body connection, runners learn to balance effort and ease (a primary yoga directive) while running which leads to maximizing movement and minimizing effort, helping runners keep enjoying the sport for many years.
2. Stress Reduction
Yes, running can be an incredible tool to help clear and center your mind. Some of my greatest insights have come midway through a long run. This is in part due to the amount of oxygen flow to the brain as well as the many endorphins released during running. Yoga provides a valuable opportunity for runners to regularly “get into the flow,” a blissful mental state that can often be found while running. In addition to the active postures, the meditative aspect of yoga encourages mindfulness and relaxation which can be particularly helpful for managing pre-race jitters, focus during a run, or post-run tension.
Plus, meditation and deep relaxation practices such as Yoga Nidra (deeply relaxing guided meditation) can enhance mental resilience, boost confidence, and improve overall mental well-being, which can positively impact a runner’s performance and enjoyment of the sport.
3. Enhanced Focus and Concentration
Running sometimes requires mental toughness, focus and concentration, especially during long training runs or races. Yoga cultivates mental clarity and concentration through mindfulness and meditation practices. Creating a rhythm with your footsteps during a run can have the same mental effect as meditation and can put a person into a blissful state, the same mental state as several repetitions of a mantra or the rhythm of a sustained shamanic drum beat for several minutes. Plus, the ability to stay focused on the present moment can be a game-changer for runners, allowing them to avoid self-limiting beliefs or other mental issues that can act as a governor for performance.
Often, yoga incorporates Sankalpas or intentions which can help runners to set intentions and goals for their practice. This can translate into a more structured and purposeful approach to running. Whether it’s completing a challenging trail run or achieving a personal best in a race, the mental discipline cultivated through yoga can help runners stay motivated and committed, all the while listening to the real needs of their bodies.
Preventing and Recovering from Injuries
In addition to enhancing performance and mental well-being, yoga can be a valuable tool for preventing and recovering from running-related injuries. Here’s how:
1. Injury Prevention: Yoga helps correct muscle imbalances, improve posture, and increase flexibility, reducing the risk of injuries such as IT band syndrome, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis.
2. Rehabilitation: If you’re recovering from an injury, yoga can be a gentle way to regain strength and flexibility in the affected areas while avoiding high-impact activities.
3. Active Recovery: Gentle yoga, Corpse Pose (Savasana), and Yoga Nidra can be incorporated into your post-run routine to aid in muscle recovery, reduce soreness, and promote relaxation.
So, at the end of the day, yoga and running are wonderful complements and the value of yoga for runners is enormous. By incorporating yoga into a training routine, runners can reap a multitude of physical and mental benefits that will enhance running performance and overall well-being. From increased flexibility and strength to improved balance and focus, yoga provides runners with a holistic, balanced approach to training that can help prevent injuries and promote longevity in the sport.
Whether you’re a seasoned marathoner or a beginner looking to start a running journey, I invite you to integrate yoga into your training regimen. The synergy between yoga and running can lead to a healthier, more enjoyable running experience, helping you reach your fitness goals while staying injury-free and mentally resilient on the road or trail. So, roll out your yoga mat and lace up your running shoes—your body and mind will thank you for it.