This is an excerpt from Yoga for Runners by Christine Felstead.
Yoga for Injury Prevention
Runners love to run, and to have longevity in the sport, they would be wise to develop a smart plan to mitigate the risk of injury. Taking care of the controllable factors is a good place to start—that is, finding and following a running program suited to your personal running history. Starting with a plan is especially important when you are new to running, as is having the advice and guidance of a supportive running coach or experienced running friend. If you don’t have a coach or a friend to advise you, a myriad of training programs and methods are available through books and the Internet.
Next, buy a good pair of running shoes from a knowledgeable salesperson at a runners’ shop. Unlike when purchasing general use shoes, which are suitable if they simply feel comfortable, many factors should be taken into account when purchasing running shoes, such as pronation, supination, arch type, and style of running. A knowledgeable salesperson will be able to evaluate your needs and recommend an appropriate shoe. Not only does this ensure that your money is well spent, but it is also key to injury prevention and comfort.
So now you have a plan, have purchased a suitable pair of running shoes, and are all set to start your program. But have you considered incorporating a way to reduce the risk of injury into this program? Knowing that many risk factors are associated with the physical stress of running and muscle imbalances, you need to counter these risks. Runners are generally eager to get on the road and deal with injuries only when they occur. A safer and smarter strategy, and one that is more likely to help you meet your overall fitness goals, is to integrate injury prevention into your program at the outset.
Yoga is a perfect complement to running, and integrating a yoga practice into your weekly fitness plan is an excellent way to safeguard against injuries. In addition to eliminating those nagging aches and pains that like to settle into the body, yoga can prevent and heal injuries.
Yoga immediately reveals and addresses the muscle imbalances that often lead to injury. By its very nature, yoga helps restore the body to balance and symmetry. Runners who take part in yoga are often surprised to discover the differences in strength and flexibility between their right and left sides. Likewise, many make the unexpected discovery that they have a weak upper body and core and learn that this can contribute to injury. But often most astonishing is the discovery that their legs may be strong for running but not overall, because they have not developed strength in all muscle groups.
Take a simple lunge, for example. It is not uncommon for runners new to yoga to be very unstable and shaky in this pose, doing all they can to stay upright and not fall over, rather than being grounded through the feet, stable in the legs, and strong through the torso with straight arms extended overhead and breathing deeply and calmly. The position of the legs in a basic high lunge may seem very similar to a running stride, but a running stride involves movement; the lunge is static, meaning that you can’t escape the work. During a lunge all the muscles in the legs, as well as the ankles and feet, are either contracting or stretching.
When executed with correct alignment and attention to detail, the high lunge holds many benefits for runners:
Bent Front Leg
- Strengthens the hamstrings
- Strengthens the ankle
- Strengthens the gluteus medius
- Strengthens muscles of the front shin
- Strengthens the inner quadriceps
- Stretches the outer quadriceps
Straight Back Leg
- Stretches the sole of the foot
- Stretches the ankle joint
- Stretches the Achilles tendon
- Stretches the calf
- Stretches the hip flexors
- Lengthens the spine
- Strengthens the abdominals
- Strengthens the muscles of the upper back
- Stretches the shoulder muscles
- Improves the range of motion of the shoulder joint
- Improves balance
- Improves focus and concentration
Lunges can be very challenging for runners at the beginning. However, the balance of strength and flexibility they develop reduces the risk of a number of injuries. Additionally, as runners improve in their performance of the lunge, their running strides lengthen, they move with greater ease, and their athletic performance improves. Finally, remaining in the pose for a period of time requires the focus of mind and will, as does successfully crossing the finish line at a race. And these are the benefits from merely one pose! Compound this effect with the number of yoga poses done in a full yoga practice, and the results are truly astounding.
A yoga practice, especially one designed to meet the specific needs of runners, reduces the risk of injury. A yoga practice that focuses on proper alignment with a balanced blend of stretching and strengthening is ideal. Furthermore, practiced mindfully with appropriate attention to detail and accompanied by deep diaphragmatic breathing, yoga offers tremendous mind–body benefits.
Whether you have been running for years or planning your very first run, integrating yoga will benefit you. It is never too late to start a yoga practice, and there is no such thing as being too stiff for yoga. Many runners turn to yoga when they have had an injury and use it as a way to recover. When the symptoms subside, they consider themselves cured and return to their previous routines, but often the injury returns and then they return to yoga.
Rather than using yoga on an irregular, as-needed basis, integrate it into your program on an ongoing basis by making time for it in your weekly workout. Think of it as putting money in the bank for that rainy day, and perhaps you will help to ensure that the rainy day will never come. Approached in this manner, yoga will keep your body strong and balanced for running and for the physical demands of everyday life. Moreover, like interest in your bank account, the benefits of yoga compound over time. Even after only a few weeks of regular practice, many students feel stronger and more limber and are able to bring increased body awareness to their running. Additionally, it is not uncommon for runners who have started a yoga practice to run faster, set new personal bests, and then wonder whether yoga had something to do with it.
I had run three marathons, including Iron Man and Boston, and was training for my fourth. It was a fund-raiser taking place in Ireland, where I am from, so many friends and family were planning to cheer me on. I was running 60 miles (97 km) per week and feeling good, except for some nagging hip and lower-back discomfort that I thought, or hoped, would go away with physio treatments. However, the pain got worse, becoming so intense that running was out of the question. I was in a state of depression seeing this goal vanish.
A friend suggested yoga, and luckily I found Yoga for Runners. I was completely new to yoga and surprised at how stiff I was. I thought yoga was OK, and at least it gave me something physical to focus on while not running. I did five yoga classes per week for two weeks with no running. I was feeling better and did a few short runs. About five weeks prior to the marathon, I started some longer runs, but throughout kept doing yoga a few times a week. The pain was virtually gone, but I was fearful it would return if I pushed it. Compared to my previous training, I felt undertrained, but decided I would try to run the race anyway and not care about time. At the beginning of the race, I felt very relaxed. To my astonishment, I had a very strong finish and ran a personal best time of 3:08.
My pain was in the lower back, hip, and sciatica. Reflecting on my experience, I know the injury was a result of years of training hard and doing no stretching to speak of. Yoga completely loosened my hamstrings, which then loosened my hips and lower back. My upper body felt stronger as well. My stride completely came back, and my whole body felt much less stressed. I felt great overall, body and mind. Yoga saved me, and I will always make time for it in my training.
Learn more about Yoga for Runners.