Beyond Stretching: Why Yoga is Good for Runners


There are two types of ‘confident-idiot’ when it comes to giving runners advice. The first is really sure of their opinion. The second is really sure of their opinion and read a research article that supports their opinion. The second is worse because they carry the research paper around like a baton – to beat you over the head with.

Why am I bringing this up in a post about yoga? Probably because you’ve heard the pros and cons of stretching via two such idiots waving contradictory pieces of evidence. Stretching increases range of motion. Stretching decreases jump height. Dynamic stretching is good; static stretching is bad. Followers of this blog will have hopefully noticed by now, that we explain concepts and encourage application of concepts in the training context of the individual. An ‘is it good or is it bad’ mentality arises from human’s deep aversion to uncertainty and desire for simplicity. This blog aims to empower the runner by making them comfortable swimming in the sea of uncertainty – the reality in which we operate.

Concept 1: Sustained Posture

A sustained posture of any kind, of which there any many in the modern world, requires a consistent low level of muscle activation and/or tissue (ligaments, fascia etc.) stretch or compression. The chances are that attending a yoga class, of any kind, alters this posture. This simple concept could end the discussion now. Practicing yoga very quickly lets you know the sins of your sustained postures (in my case upper back, neck and shoulders). These limitations may or may not be having an impact on your pain or performance. Simply being able to move with freedom and carry less tension around is helpful for the runner who’s got enough tension developed by their ambition. The human body is designed to adapt and select the most efficient movement pattern to accomplish what you aim to achieve. This is one of the reasons mechanics change with fatigue. Reducing the effects of your sustained postures provides the body with a greater number of movement options e.g. extending from the hip might be useful but not if you cannot do it.

Concept 2: Variability is a Runners Best Friend

Monotony of training is associated with illness and injury, something runners often forget. Variety in a training routine can help you with the boredom of the slow and steady running efforts required for consistent improvement. Variability, of course, is also tissue specific. While you may use your musculoskeletal tissues in a very repetitive way when running; the postures in yoga use many of the same muscles in a different way. Contracting and relaxing muscles without the impact of running aids recovery. Furthermore, strong isometric (meaning no movement i.e. standing on a step or kicking out against wall) muscle contractions lead to a reduction in pain for those with knee or achilles tendon problems.

Concept 3: Co-ordinated Movement (neuromuscular control)

Dynamic movement activities such as running require co-ordinated muscle action. Unlike many forms of training yoga requires you to develop co-ordinated movement skills. After about 6 months, when you go from a high to low plank, you feel the whole unit moving in sync rather than your abs trembling. The same can be said for the ability to control many postures on one leg – you don’t run on two legs, so it’s good to practice on one. If you have engaged in a strenuous weight or circuit training programme early season – yoga maintains your conditioning efforts wonderfully while you focus a little more on running.

Concept 4: Increased Head-Space = Increased Self-Control

As we discussed last week, high stress environments deplete head-space reserves and impair the self-control a runner needs. Yoga is an activity that allows a runner to destress. Unlike running where you’ll be focused on pace, distance, heart rate, breathing, how you feel and what you’re doing tomorrow – in yoga, someone tells you exactly what to do for a whole hour. This allows you to switch off your brain and refuel your head-space reserve. Most good yoga teachers make 10 minutes at the end for complete relaxation and even the most intense thinkers (me included) will almost drift off by the end.

Questions and Answers

  • Can I do Pilates instead? Answer: try to stop thinking like that, think concepts. Does it alter sustained posture? Yes. Does it offer variability? Does it require co-ordinated muscle activity? Yes. Does someone tell me what to do for an hour? Yes. Can I do Pilates instead? Yes.
  • Does it matter what type of yoga I do – there are so many? Answer: No, see answer to question 1.
  • How often? Answer: Depends on context. Once a week is better than none. I do it twice a week religiously.
  • Will I get too flexible? Answer: No, have a look at the woman beside and you’ll realise how far off the mark you are.
  • Can I do it the same day as a run – before or after? Answer: Yes, I do it on run days. You get the satisfaction of a double day knowing you have genuinely advanced your cause in both sessions. Doing it before is great to limber up and doing after is great to unwind post run. Either is good.