Yoga for Runners: Stay Injury Free, Improve Performance and Lung Capacity
Founder of None to Run
January 24, 2023
I took one of Christine's Yoga for Runners classes back in 2006. I had been wanting to try yoga for some time, but felt a bit intimidated by it due to how inflexible I was.
When I found out about Christine's class I knew this was my chance. I was a runner with very tight hamstrings, but wanted to give yoga a try.
Tell us about how you got started with yoga to supplement your running.
Christine Felstead: I started taking yoga classes in the early 90’s – just before the yoga boon! I had no idea what I was getting myself into - I simply wanted to improve my posture. I thought I was at the peak of my fitness as a marathoner but yoga started to redefine my notion of ‘fitness’, primarily with respect to flexibility and strength so, as painful as it was, I stayed with it.
For about a year I was happy to attend one class a week and then I started to use what I learned in class and included some post-run stretching. As I started to experience deeper and deeper changes in my body – my hamstrings getting longer, some of the persistent aches and pains subsiding, I became more intrigued about yoga.
Then I got VERY serious about yoga and completed my Yoga Instructors certification (2001).Through my immersion in yoga I was amazed at how my body started to feel healthier with less aches and pains, less tension in my upper body, my posture improved and my running felt easier.
I was so excited and so keen to share my experience with my fellow runners, many of whom were constantly on the brink of injury. So I put together my first Yoga for Runners workshop and made sure all my running buddies attended. It was a hit and since that time my classes and workshops have expanded in numbers, style and content. In recent years I developed a Teacher Training Program to help spread the yoga for runners benefits across the globe.
How does yoga for runners differ from a more traditional yoga class?
CF: The word ‘yoga’ is so simple and yet so complex. There are so many styles of yoga that it is important for students to find both a style and an instructor that they connect with.
While all forms of yoga are good, for runners it is important that the style of yoga they practice suits their specific needs.My yoga for runners classes do just that – hips, hamstrings and lower back are mainstays of the practice but I also include work to strengthen specific muscle groups that are weak in runners.
My goal is not only flexibility but to balance the flexibility and the strength of key muscle groups as this is a major cause of running injuries.
Furthermore, the energy is different in yoga for runners classes, a little more casual, my comments throughout the class tailored to runners, both physically and mentally.I believe that ‘no body’ is too stiff yoga and so my classes are made accessible to all.
The classes are designed specifically for the runner’s body and to improve their running – it doesn’t really matter if one cannot touch their toes!
Students are encouraged to stay within their limits, but to also push towards their edge.
Many runners comment that they feel the class was designed ‘just for them’!
HN: What are the most common problem areas you see in runners and what yoga poses can help?
CF: The main trouble spots for runners are hips, hamstrings and knees. Below are the common student complaints followed by some specific yoga poses to address them.
Hips – tight, painful. More and more I have students that have been diagnosed with injuries due to weak gluteus muscles.
Yoga helps by stretching muscles that are tight, typically the external rotators with the piriformis being the biggest culprit.
Specific gluteus strengthening work is introduced and reinforced throughout the practice.Good stretches for piriformis: Pigeon or Double Pigeon (see the pictures below)
Single Pigeon Pose
Double Pigeon Pose
Hamstrings – tight (cause of many lower back problems also)
Simple hamstring stretching, but done mindfully so that belly of tight hamstring is stretched without undue strain on the tendon. Note it is very common for runners and yogis alike to overstretch the hamstrings!
Hamstring Stretch (Note: place a strap at the base of foot and keep leg straight)
Knees – painful
The cause of knee problems is varied but often in runners is due to weak inner quadriceps muscle and tight outer quadriceps which creates a torquing action in the knee joint. The knee is a simple hinge and lateral movement should be minimized.The answer is to strengthen the inner quad, (wall squat shown below) and to stretch the outer quads (frog pose below).
Wall Squat (Note: align knees over ankles and toes pointed forward)
HN: Aside from improved flexibility and range of motion, what other positive changes can a runner expect to gain from yoga?
CF: The initial draw to yoga for runners is the most obvious – the stretching. Quickly students realize the strengthening aspect as well and as they develop a regular yoga practice they start to feel better in their bodies, overall less aches and pains and much more mindful about their body for everyday living.
Benefits of yoga for runners:
Improved Posture – becoming more aware of upper body carriage – the shoulders do not belong by the ears!! They apply this awareness during their time sitting (often at computers), standing and during their runs as well.
Become better tuned to the body. Runners have great body awareness as it relates to running. Additionally they have high pain threshold and are prone to running through discomfort and pain. Through yoga they expand their understanding of their body and learn to better read the subtle messages being given.
Strengthen leg muscles that are underutilized in running (inner quads, glutes). This helps to balance the body and will reduce risk of injury.
Strengthen muscles that are not used in running (upper body, core).
Improve lung capacity through deep diaphragmatic yoga breathing.
Improve mental clarity and focus.
Reduce overall mental and physical stress.
Improve sleep – many students comment on how well they sleep after a yoga class.
CF: Yoga is a health system for both the body and the mind. While in many of my workshops I will focus on a particular part of the body and relate the benefits of each pose to it (i.e., quads, hamstrings), the truth is that each and every pose affects many muscles and joints.
Through the movement and the holding of poses, yoga requires some muscles to stretch and some to contract (agonist/antagonist muscle actions).
Through these actions, applied with proper alignment and integrity, every ‘body’ will get what it needs from each pose. Specific poses will allow students to work deeply in a particular area and then include a counter pose to restore the body to a more neutral position.
A properly designed yoga for runners session will have a positive effect on all typical runners issues – e.g., downward dog will lengthen the spine, stretch the hamstrings, calves and Achilles, strengthen upper body; a combination of hamstring stretching and hip opening and strengthening will reduce IT band strain.
The best way for runners to remain healthy, so that they can keep running, is to integrate yoga into their regular weekly workout regimen.
Even if this means running a few miles less per work to make time for some yoga......the body will be thankful and the rewards worth it. Better still, a body more balanced in areas of strength; flexibility and endurance is fitter....and isn’t overall fitness a main reason for running!
Christine's Yoga for Runners DVDs (click on images below)