Increase flexibility, develop agility and strength, and sharpen mental focus.
To stay healthy, active and engaged in sports, runners and other endurance athletes need corrective modalities to amend muscular imbalances, prevent overuse injuries and ensure longevity. Yoga offers one of the most dynamic returns on investment, as it increases strength, flexibility, agility, balance and mental acuity, and can assist with recovery from high-intensity training.
“Yoga shines a spotlight on all the blind spots you’ve developed from years of training,” said YuMee Chung, a Toronto-based Ashtanga Vinyasa and advanced certified Jivamukti yoga instructor and creator of the Passport to Prana, a prepayment plan of sorts for yoga classes. For endurance athletes, Chung advocates yin yoga—the feminine, calming counterpart to more masculine, on-the-go, high intensity yang movements like running. Yin yoga focuses on the lower body, with a lot of work in the hips, Chung said, and because of the mellow, slow and focused approach, can be surprisingly intense and restorative. Maintaining poses for five minutes or longer has a dramatic effect on the tight, sore and often inflamed muscles, tissues, fascia and joints that runners have. “Holding a pose for more than 72 seconds has an amazing ability to restore and rebuild connective tissue and the skeleton as well,” Chung explained. “Runners, cyclists and triathletes use their bodies in precise ways; they use the same muscles to do the same things. Yoga can bring awareness to the actions you’re placing on the body and, aside from the biceps, we hit just about every muscle.”
Sage Rountree, registered Yoga Alliance teacher, USAT- and RRCA-certified coach, and author of The Athlete’s Guides, a series of instructive books for active people, is also the co-owner of Carrboro Yoga Company in Carrboro, N.C. Rountree advocates restorative yoga for endurance athletes as a balanced counterpoint to high-impact endurance training. Her latest book, “The Athlete’s Guide to Recovery,” includes an entire chapter on restorative yoga, which includes mellow, relaxing poses that are easy to perform using everyday household items like a wall or chair for assistance—a pillow-supported child’s pose provides a good example. If restorative yoga sounds too slow and easy for runners accustomed to high intensity cardiovascular exercise, it’s suppose to: The point is to restore and rebuild, not break the body down further. Doing too much, too fast of any movement will inevitably lead to injury.
A runner and triathlete, Rountree understands that it’s hard to tame the competitive beast; however, she challenges the athletes who attend her yoga for runners classes to channel that fire into mental concentration and to recognize that yoga can be challenging in ways that differ completely from running. “If people think it’s too easy, they just haven’t been to the right class,” Rountree asserted. “And some others can think it’s too hard because they took a class above their skill level or needs.”
Rountree melds several styles of yoga with only a bit of Vinyasa, or flow, for warmup into her classes for runners and includes 20 to 30 minutes on the floor and 60 to 70 minutes standing. Rountree focuses on opening up the hips, stretching the IT band and developing strength all around the core in her yoga for runners classes. She likes pigeon pose for the hips, plank or warrior III for the core, eagle pose for the calves and ankles, and arrow lunge for the entire body.
Finding the right class, teacher and even studio can be a trial-and-error process, but it’s well worth the reward of rejuvenation, increased mental focus, strength, balance and flexibility. Seek a class that’s group-specific, such as yoga for runners, or call the studio and ask the manager if there are any instructors who are also endurance athletes, as these individuals can often provide guidance for their like-minded students.
Try to practice yoga at home for 10 minutes to cool down after a workout or as part of a dynamic warmup—for example, perform sun salutations before a run: “Just don’t hold any of the poses for too long because it will diminish your muscle strength; we know now that static stretching is not the best idea before a run,” Rountree cautioned.
Are there any potential drawbacks to endurance athletes performing yoga? “The only problem would be doing too much intensity when you’re in an intense training cycle,” Rountree said. When immersed in a strenuous training regimen, Rountree advises that athletes stray from hot yoga, where rooms are typically heated to 95-100 degrees F. “I don’t love that for athletes because they’re already getting the intensity somewhere else,” she said.