The Importance of Balancing Yoga and Running

My first yoga teacher had a strong athletic background. She was a keen runner and cyclist with strong connections with other trainers in those sports. Many of us in the class were also runners so she invited a running coach to lead some classes. From that point I understood the importance of balancing yoga and running to reap substantial benefits.

Balancing yoga and running improves flexibility and range of motion in your muscles. Yoga’s complete body strength training ensures all your muscles remain strong. It also means you don’t develop muscle imbalances and avoid injuries. Additionally mindful breathing improves a runner’s mental focus.

When I was young running was easy, it was just something everyone with a basic level of fitness can do. As I got older, into my 30’s running was more difficult I began to realize it’s going to take some effort to keep running while staying injury and pain-free. And that’s where yoga comes in. 

Regular yoga will help you keep running for longer and maximise your performance by helping you improving the following fundamental elements of running:

  • Balance
  • Core Strength
  • Flexibility and Mobility 
  • Breathing and Aerobic capacity
  • Injury Prevention
  • Mental Focus and Mindfulness

Yoga for Running Balance

What is the difference between running and walking? Obviously when you are running you are moving faster but you are also for an instant moving with both feet leaving the ground! One of the most important factors to achieve this feat is balance and most runners take it for granted. 

yoga and running_running balance

Running requires your center of gravity or balance point to be constantly moving forward. Only half of the energy your body uses during running actually goes toward forward propulsion. The other half goes toward preventing yourself from falling down and maintaining your balance.

There is a lot of talk about improving your stability in running. The belief is that the more stable you are the less balance you require. So running experts and trainers tend to focus on strengthening stabilising muscles, stride patterns and wearing the right footwear. These activities will increase your stability and reduce the amount of energy you use to maintain balance.

Running Balance vs Running Stability

Unfortunately just improving your stability will not compensate for a lack of balance. The result is that when you are running you are wasting energy maintaining your balance. The artificial stability provided by smooth roads and state of the art footwear impede your opportunity to develop your balancing skills.

Furthermore having great balance reduces the risk of injury especially to your ankles. And your ankles are where you should start in improving your balance.

yoga and running_Running Balance vs Running Stability

To build your balance, you need to start from the ground up; the foot and ankle are your foundation. When you have a strong ankle, you are less likely to be injured and much more likely to keep your balance under uneven surfaces. 

You want to be able to maintain your balance as you change directions or make a quick-change movement in running, especially in trail running. You also want to focus on strengthening your core and glutes.

Yoga for Running Balance Poses

For runners standing yoga poses are excellent for improving balance as they strengthen your ankles, core and glutes. Below are 3 poses that I recommend:

Tree Pose

A popular beginners standing balance pose which strengthens your legs and core. It may look simple to perform but requires flexibility, strength, focus and patience. Additionally the pose helps to remedy flat feet and is therapeutic for sciatica.

How to: Begin in a standing position with a good posture and alignment. Focus your attention and shift weight to your left leg and raise your right foot off the floor. Rest your right foot on the inside of your left thigh or calf but not on your knee. Raise your arms up and focus on a non moving object to maintain your balance. Hold for 5 breaths than repeat on opposite side

Dancer Pose

This standing balance pose includes a deep backbend so it will not only improve balance but increase your flexibility. It is fantastic for strengthening ankles and legs as well as opening your chest, hips and shoulders.

How to: Begin in a standing position with your feet together. Lift left leg up to knee level and clasp onto the outside of the foot with the left hand. Extend the left arm forward and up. Press your left foot firmly into your left hand to lift your leg higher and deepen the backbend. Activate your core and find a focus point to maintain your balance. Hold for 5 to 10 breathsthan repeat on opposite side

Warrior III Pose

Another standing balance pose that requires the engagement of many body parts. It is a dynamic standing posture which requires the use of muscles throughout your arms, core and legs. Warrior III is a great pose for not only improving runners balance but their coordination and posture.

How to: Begin in a high lunge position, raise your arms above your head. Then bring your palms together at the center of your chest. Lean forward until your back leg extends straight back, even with your hips. Engage your upper back and extend your chest forward. Keep your foot flexed and your gaze downward. 

Focus on keeping your standing leg straight and then reach your arms forward, forming a “T” shape with your body. Hold for 5 breaths before repeating on the other side.

Core Strength

Your core is very important to your running performance. I have already alluded to the fact core strength plays a large part in a runners balance and posture. A strong core enables you to handle any missteps especially when you are on unsteady ground such as trail runs. Consequently a strong core will keep you upright and moving forward on any surface or terrain.

Avioding Imbalances and Injuries

Core strength aids your running in a couple of other major ways. It is a key component in your ability to avoid running related injuries. It prevents pain, reduces wear and tear of joints, and reduces the chances of damage to muscles and bones. When you are running you are primarily in the sagittal plane of motion, moving forward and backward. 

When you operate in one plane of motion you have a higher chance of developing weakness in other muscle areas. For runners the weaknesses are lateral on the outside muscles. This can result in issues with your knee tracking and pain to the outside of your hip.

Running is a high impact activity which can be stressful on weight bearing joints including the ankle, hips, knees and shins. This stress if not addressed will lead to repetitive injuries and limit your running progress. A strong core will help to reduce the impact of the constant pounding on the ground when you run. It will provide an extra defence so your body is more capable of absorbing some of the impact.

Exercises for Core Strength

Strengthening your core requires exercises and training that reinforces the way your abs, hips, lower back and pelvis work together. There are many types and exercise and training disciplines that are great for building core strength such as TRX and functional training

All of the core exercises you do in these disciplines are based on yoga core poses. Yoga also offers the most holistic approach to building and maintaining core strength. Essentially everything about yoga is core focused so establishing a regular yoga routine is great for your core.

Yoga for Runners Core Strength Exercises

Many popular core exercises are isolated movements that target only one or two areas of your body. An example of this basic crunch targets your front or anterior core. While a crunch where you cross one shoulder over to the opposite knee targets your side or obliques. 

Core strength yoga poses for runners are integrated core exercises that target all areas of it. Your core has three-dimensional depth and functional movement in all three planes of motion. The deeper muscles include the transverse abdominals, multifidus, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and many other deeper muscles. Here are 5 yoga exercise that are most effective in building and maintain core strength for runners.

Vinyasa Plank to Chaturanga to Upward Dog to Downward Dog

This is a popular yoga vinyasa sequence that is quite challenging but extremely effective. It requires full engagement of your core throughout and strengthens the arms, spine and waist. Additionally holding yourself in the low plank (Chaturanga) position engages muscles in the arms and wrists as well as your abs and lower back. This is a great sequence to warm up your whole body, 

Side Plank

A powerful arm balance that targets the quadratus lumborum area of the core. Strengthening this area of the abdominal wall helps prevent back pain occurring when you are running. To hold your position in this pose you really have to activate all your core muscles which will ensure your hips dont sag. You want to be one long, strong line of energy in this pose. This is really a full-body pose where you need to engage your legs, arms and back.

Bird Dog

This yoga for runners pose not only strengthens and stabilises your core but it also challenges your balance. It is also hugely beneficial to your back as it encourages a neutral spine and will relieve any lower back pain. This simple pose can be adapted easily to increase the intensity as shown in the video below.

Boat Pose

Another pose that not only strengthens your core but also your hip flexors and spine. If you master this pose your will see real improvements in the strength of your muscles. You will also experience a chest opening that will help to increase your lung capacity. It can be a difficult pose to do comfortably so you can modify by keeping the knees bent and your hands resting on the floor behind you.

Locust Pose

A very challenging pose that requires effort to lift your body off the floor and hold for a few breaths. It strengthens your core and the entire back of the body. Your deep core muscles that support the spine also get a good workout in this pose. Finally Locust conditions your legs and glutes. The gluteus maximus contracts and strengthens on the way up, and lengthens and relaxes as you lower down.

Flexibility and Mobility

In recent years there have been a number of studies looking at the importance of flexibility for runners. This research focused on whether stretching helps or hinders runners. Between 2007 and 2009, over 2,000 runners enrolled on the “Stretch Study”. This research was commissioned by the United States Track and Field. The initial conclusion of the research was that

Runners who switched from stretching to not stretching experienced a higher rate of injury, as did runners who switched from not stretching to stretching.

However the credibility of the research quickly came into question. Firstly the entire study was conducted online with no in-person monitoring or tracking. Secondly, less than 50% of the participants who enrolled on the study completed it. Additionally the study on tracked pre-run stretching, not stretching in general. Furthermore the recommended stretching routine was 3 to 5 minutes which is not long enough.

Strong Scientific Evidence 

Studies conducted by the American Journal of Sports Medicine considered a more scientific approach to flexibility and injury rates. Using thorough statistical analysis it was concluded that patellar tendonitis and runner’s knee was linked to poor hamstring and quadriceps flexibility. 

Further scientific evidence showed that regular calf stretching is an effective treatment of plantar fasciitis as it decreases tension in the calves. Based on this research and my experience I do believe improving your flexibility will help your running.

Yoga poses for Runners Flexibility and Mobility

Incorporating yoga into your running training will improve your flexibility and mobility. Your goal is not to get super flexible but to ensure you have a decent range of motion. Other running training programs can decrease your range of motion in your hips and all areas of your legs. Performing yoga poses to increase your flexibility and mobility in those areas will ensure you gain and maintain a good range of motion.

Downward Facing Dog

This is one of most recognised yoga poses and the staple of many sequences. The pose helps to improve your body posture as well as your body balance. It also strengthens your arms, shoulders, feet, calves and hamstring muscles.

How to: Begin in tabletop position with your wrists inline with your shoulders. Tuck your toes, straighten your knees and lift your hips while engaging your core. Keep your head between your arms. Press down through the heels and pedal your feet back and forth to stretch out the calve muscles.

Bridge Pose

Running puts a lot of pressure on your hips which decreases the range of motion and your overall running performance. Bridge pose helps to build strength in your hips. When doing this pose correctly you will also engage your core and warm up your lower back. It offers a nice stretch for the upper and front body.

How to: Begin lying face-up on the floor, knees bent at a 90-degree angle. Keeping your heels on the floor, raise your hips until they are in a straight line with your shoulders and knees. Hold hips parallel to the ground for a two-second count, then lower.

Lizard Pose

This is a pose that really opens your hips! It is a great stretch for the hip flexors, hamstrings and quads. Doing Lizard regularly will improve the mobility of your hips and strengthen muscles in your legs.

How to: Begin on all fours in Downward Dog. Step your right foot forward to the outside edge of your right hand, coming into a lunge position. Lower your left knee to the ground and press into your hips, keeping your arms and back straight. From here depending on your flexibility you have the option to lower onto your forearms.

Low Lunge

A fantastic pose to improve your range of motion in your lower body. It is a very effective pose for runners aa it stretches out tightness in groin, hamstrings, hips and quadriceps. Holding this pose for a long period will develop stamina and build endurance in your thighs for long distance runs.

How to: Begin in Downward facing dog, exhale and step your right foot between your hands. Lower your left knee to the floor and slide it back as far as feels comfortable. Inhale and raise your arms, framing your ears. Focus on drawing pubic bone to your navel and lifting the ribcage up. Stay in the pose for up to a minute. Use your inhales to lengthen the spine and exhales to deepen the stretch.

Breathing and Aerobic Capacity

For both running and yoga your breathing plays a vital role. When running your aerobic capacity determines how much oxygen your body can deliver to your exercising muscles. Consequently increasing the amount of oxygen you have available can help you run faster. Many runners perform exercises and workouts to increase their aerobic capacity or VO2 Max.

Breathing in yoga is different. While running, your breath is shallow; in yoga, you take deep, long breaths to connect your movements and postures. The results in awakening the deeper parts of your lungs. But this type of pranayama and asana breathing can also help your running. It can help to maximise your aerobic capacity by increasing your abilities to pump large amounts of oxygen-rich blood to working muscles.

Yogic Breathing Mechanics

A more active type of yoga practice would be the most effective at increasing your oxygen capacity. Furthermore research has found that Yogic exercises performed for one hour daily including asanas, breathing exercises and pranayamas seems to improve VO2 max. It also found that even if the Yogic exercises are not very vigorous, VO2 max was found to increase.

the video below it demonstrates exercises that can help improve your breathing mechanics when you are running. It covers the difference between belly and chest breathing and how important it is to get air into your belly. Also how having the correct posture improves your breathing and how your breathing is related to your movement. Finally the nose mile breathing challenge details a practical way to practice your breathing mechanics.

Injury Prevention 

Avid runners are most susceptible to overuse injuries, but falling on a course can bring about injury too. To defend against either kind of injury it is important to maintain good running skills with a balanced body. Designing a yoga program that fits your body needs can help you in reducing pains and aches.

Yoga for runners enables you to improve your body movements. It will also harmonise your strength and stamina. The exercises target the problems that arise when you are running. It counteracts the strains you encounter when running and boosts your body confidence. By doing yoga, you increase your chances of recovering from an injury or persistent pain. Below are some of the best yoga for runners poses for injury preventation.

Triangle Pose

A therapeutic yoga pose that benefits your body in various ways. Triangle pose involves a deep stretch of the groin, hips, and hamstrings. It also encompasses the opening of shoulders and chest. Extended triangle pose is also beneficial in toning the ankles and knees. Fitness experts recommend it to improve your metabolism, curb anxiety, osteoporosis and flat feet. 

Triangle pose is one of the advanced yoga stretches for runners. It helps to ensure your body is stable and balanced both physically and mentally. Other proven benefits of triangle pose include stress relief and improved digestion. It can assist in alleviating back pain and treatment of neck pain and sciatica.

Reclining Cobbler’s Pose

Though this pose is simple, it comes with distinct benefits. Reclining Cobbler’s Pose is one of the best yoga stretches for runners as it targets the quads, opens up your hips and releases any tight abductors. The pose is great for relaxing tense muscles. It helps to reduce fatigue, depression, and anxiety so that you can focus on improving your athletic performance. Furthermore, it stimulates the heart muscles and calms the pelvic region making you more flexible.

Mental Focus and Mindfulness

When you practice yoga regularly you become more attuned with your body. Furthermore the combination of breathing and movement has a positive impact on your mental focus. Your self awareness increases when you are on your yoga mat and you are practicing mindfulness by concentrating on the present moment. This aspect of yoga can help your running when you are facing difficult challenges.

Running can be very competitive and this can be difficult to handle. In yoga you are encouraged to focus on yourself and not worry about what others are doing. It also emphasises that there is no end goal to practising yoga. Every time you step on the mat you are working on your own improvements and developments without competing against other yogis. Consequently yoga for runners is an opportunity for you to practice mental strength – the kind that requires you to be OK with slowing down and stillness.

Yoga for Runners Harmony

Sage Rountree, author of The Runner’s Guide to Yoga believes that “Running and yoga go together like yang and yin”. This is because they both involve utilising your body, breathing and mind in unison to test and surpass the boundaries of what you think you can do. 

Yoga for runners will have such a direct and positive impact on your running. It will keep you balanced through the challenges of increasing your mileage and help you avoid injuries. Furthermore you will develop your breathing skills and increase your mental strength ensuring you become a better runner.

Time for Action

If you are a keen runner, whether you are a competitive one or just love running it is time for you to incorporate yoga into your training plans. Start by incorporating a few poses and before and after your runs, I guarantee you see a significant difference. It’s not a big commitment, five minutes before running and ten minutes after finishing. Next step is to attend a class or do some online courses with the view to developing regular practices. Once you achieve this you will really experience all the benefits of yoga for runners.

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