If we ask ten runners how do you become a better runner?, my conservative guess is that about eight of them will simply respond that in order to become a better runner, someone needs to do only one thing: run. To a degree, this makes logical sense, after all. It seems far-fetched to think that someone would be able to improve his running — either in terms of pace or distance — by doing something not-running-related, like rollerblading, for example. In order to run well, one need only run. It’s as simple as that.
Except that it’s really not that easy. If it were, then the world’s best runners, the ones holding the Olympic gold medals and the world records and the biggest brand endorsements, would only be running miles all day and all night. Instead, a little research into the subject reveals that the world’s best runners spend lots of time running each week — without question — yet they also spend a ton of time each week devoted to ancillary components of training, like weight training, flexibility, and mobility work.
Yoga: a runner’s BFF
In this way, when we talk about ancillary work for runners, yoga can play an important role and satisfy a large part of a runner’s training puzzle. Yoga in and of itself won’t necessarily make a runner “better,” but in conjunction with other components to the training puzzle, it could be the difference between a good runner and a great runner.
Many people incorrectly equate yoga with basically lying around on the ground, doing some light stretching, and spending lots of time saying “om” and “namaste.” While that can be part of someone’s yoga practice, it’s not obligatory. Plus, just as is the case with running, there are tons of different types of yoga. If you’re not interested in “om”-ing and “namaste”-ing your day away, no one’s going to make you.
So why yoga?
Yoga is a great ancillary component to a runner’s training plan because it helps fill in the missing parts of the puzzle, to put it succinctly. Most of the time, runners only run as part of their training program. They spend as little time as possible to anything but racking up the miles because they think that accumulating more mileage will equate to becoming better, stronger, fitter, and faster.
The shock factor
The fact of the matter is that running is a pretty hard sport for our bodies. There’s a lot of pounding involved, regardless if you’re running on pavement or on trails, and some research has suggested that each footstrike yields up to four times your body weight in force reverberating throughout your body. Think about that: if you’re running for an hour at a time, taking hundreds of thousands of steps, that’s a lot of shock to your system.
Incorporating a regular yoga practice into a running routine can help allay some of the issues resulting from all the pounding. Some people think of yoga as being restorative, giving runners an opportunity to “return to center” and recalibrate their equilibrium, so to speak. Practicing yoga is often a great way of forcing ourselves to take the time to literally slow down and stretch out our tired muscles — especially those who are feeling especially banged up from all the pounding. Doing so regularly may help ensure that runners can keep going farther, and faster, for longer.
Solving muscle imbalance woes
Additionally, while running is a great whole-body exercise, it can also get really repetitive and leave some muscles really, really strong — such as our quads — and others incredibly weak and/or under-utilized — such as our hamstrings, glutes, or core. An excessive muscle imbalance can be disastrous in the long-term and may result in overuse niggles at best or full-blown, season-ending injuries, at worst.
This is perhaps where yoga’s shining star burns most brightly. If runners devote time each week to even a simple, basic yoga practice, they essentially make themselves do the work to correct for the imbalances that their running is yielding.
What might this look like? For example, many runners find that they have really strong quads but that their glutes aren’t firing as they should be or that their hamstrings are really, really weak. Completing a yoga practice each week can help to ameliorate the imbalances instead of allowing them to intensify (and possibly result in a full-blown injury). Some types of yoga are better suited for this type of fitness goal than others, so I’d encourage you to be discerning when you’re selecting which type of practice you’d like to complete.
Slowing down and providing greater mental clarity and focus
It’s no surprise that runners are really driven people. We want to do the very best we can, all the time, and sometimes we can catastrophize when things don’t go according to plan, especially on important workout days or on race day. In fact, many runners would agree that they’ve got their physical training locked down; their mental training, however, leaves something to be desired.
Yoga can be fantastic when it comes to helping runners develop greater mental clarity and focus: mental training, for lack of a better phrase. Many times, when runners are completing a yoga practice, they’re forcing themselves to literally and figuratively slow down and stay in the present moment, in the present breath, not thinking at all about what happened before or what may happen in the future. Yoga teaches runners to stay in the here and now and to face reality as it comes to them, not how they imagine it might be.
This mental training can be instrumental for runners, particularly on race day, because in high-stakes environments, many times runners’ minds quit before their bodies do. Runners who practice yoga regularly may report that they feel a better sense of calm, and a greater mental focus, in stressful and anxiety-producing environments than those who don’t supplement their physical training with the “mental training,” such as yoga.
What’s holding you back?
Fortunately, we all live in an era where we have ready access to tons of resources for low- or no-costs, and this is especially true when it comes to yoga and running. Runners can absolutely pay for a boutique setting’s “yoga for runners” session, or they can simply look online and see what’s available to them via tons of different streaming services. It’s mostly just a matter of finding the best type of yoga, the one that fits their fitness and running goals the best, and fortunately, there are numerous different practices of yoga out there.
Runners stand to benefit so greatly from yoga that it’s surprising to think that more runners aren’t already yogis in the first place. Take the first step, and go do some research. Commit to something small at first — maybe 10 minutes, 3 times a week — and watch your running change.