Hip & Healthy: How Yoga Makes Running Easier

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I’ve always liked yoga, but never loved it. But in the last month, I started noticing how yoga improved the way I ran.

I noticed this correlation somewhat accidentally. On Fridays, I needed a workout that wouldn’t leave me too sore for my Saturday morning long runs, and yoga seemed like a good option. For two weeks in a row, I took an hour-long yoga class at Yoga to the People, and I noticed on the following Saturdays that my runs felt easier and stronger.  When I skipped yoga, my legs felt heavier and sore during my long run the next day. As I thought more about it, yoga was serving a lot of functional purposes that could potentially improve my running.

  • Balance
    Recently, my running coach suggested a balance test where you stand on one leg with the other leg bent at a 90-degree angle and your arms folded behind your head. That was easy enough, but when she instructed me to close my eyes and hold it, I failed miserably -- I barely made it 10 seconds before wobbling and lowering my raised leg.

    I’ve just recently come to understand why balance is so important to running; when you’re running, you are always one leg. Therefore, strong balance will make you a much more efficient runner. I know myself well enough to realize that I probably won’t consistently do balance exercises on my own -- but I will go to a yoga class, where I can sneak in my stability work through one-legged poses, such as tree, warrior 3 and eagle.
  • Core Strength
    In every yoga class I have taken, engaging the core and breathing properly are crticial. Having a strong center helps prepare you for every pose to come; proper breathing helps you learn to focus and listen to your body.

    The same is true for running -- it takes a lot of core strength to stay upright and maintain proper form while pounding mile after mile.  Likewise, listening to and controlling your breath is the key to understanding how to pace yourself and gauge your effort level. As I tend to start hunching over when I get tired during a long run, focusing on form, breath and core stability through yoga helps me run in good form and at proper efforts levels as well.
  • Flexibility
    I used to be able to bend like a rubber band, but as I have gotten older, my muscles just aren’t as pliable as they used to be. Since I am a lazy stretcher, I like that yoga lengthens and stretches my muscles in a fluid, continuous way rather than boring static stretches that I can’t wait to finish. There may be mixed opinions on whether yogis need to stretch as well, but I know that any extra stretching yoga will allow me to sneak into my schedule can’t hurt.

This weekend I decided to reconsider the type of yoga I am usually attracted to — hot and sweaty yoga — and see if a slower, more restorative form might allow me to really hone in on the aspects of yoga that lend themselves to strong running form.

I tried out a Somatic yoga class, which focuses on breathing, mindfulness and slow transitions through postures. The class allowed me to work on two out of three of my focus areas: many of the poses were held for long periods of time, either on the mat or against the wall, allowing me to really work on balance and core strength.

We moved through a slow salutation incorporating warrior 3 variations, which allowed me to practice my balance on one leg. Next we moved to the wall, where we positioned our hand on the grounds and had one leg outstretched to the wall, and again I was able to focus on balance and control.

As we held warrior 3, even though we moved very slowly, my heart was beating quite fast and I realized I needed to relax and make sure to deepen my breathing. The one area that I would have liked to go deeper into was the stretching and flexibility. While there were the traditional upward and downward dogs, we didn’t do many flows that really worked deep into the muscles.  I like when I leave a yoga class feeling like I just had a massage.

I definitely plan to continue practicing yoga before my long runs to seamlessly incorporate stretching, balance and core strength into one workout. I'm not sure that I have found the perfect type of yoga to target all three areas, but I won't stop searching. My work on the mat might just pay off on the road.

Melissa is a NYC resident and workout junkie. She keeps motivated to stay fit and active by trying out new workout classes, signing up for races, and keeping an eye out for a fun fitness challenge. She hopes to complete the New York City Marathon for the second time in 2011. Read more about her healthy adventures in New York City at her blog fitnessnyc.wordpress.com.

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