Supple Strides

Getting ready for the NYC loop in Central Park? If you are one of the thousands of athletes training for the New York City marathon, alternating running and yoga is your best bet. Whether you are running to shed off some extra pounds, or running to release tension and gain clarity you can always benefit from a yoga practice targeting your specific needs. Yoga and running are complimentary and blend seamlessly.

I personally had a very hard time doing seated meditation when I committed to Yoga. At that point I was an active runner. Not as an athlete, though. I was running because it set me into meditation mode. After the first few laps, I felt as if I was no longer bound to gravity and my feet never touched the ground. Running for me became the most ecstatic form of dynamic meditation. I would run for hours every day, and relish being in the “zone.” But when I stopped my body felt stifled. My hamstrings and Achilles had gotten so tight that I had a hard time going down the stairs. I soaked my feet in lavender salts. I rubbed sesame oil to sooth my tendons. But what really relieved my sore legs was my yoga practice – tailored to my running routine, of course.

Nothing beats a soothing and stretchy practice after jogging or running. In fact, it is not only the stretching that helps runners. Runners are often reluctant to try yoga; their most common fear is that they are not flexible enough. They are just afraid of popping into a class for runners and being surrounded by lithe and flexible bodies. This fear is often driven by the many media images showing people in advanced yoga poses, fueling the notion that you have to be able to bend like a pretzel to do yoga. This is the biggest illusion. Yoga can be suited to every body type. You can start at any age regardless of physical condition. Mind you, those who are the stiffest have the most to gain.

The truth is, that running is a repetitive exercise that can create excessive tightness in the leg muscles, and with time throw your body out of balance. On a physical level, yoga restores balance and symmetry to the body, making it the perfect complement to running. Runners can also benefit from yoga’s effects on strength, balance and joint health. Many of the problems they face, including tight hips, knees and lower back can be resolved by practicing a healthy mix of hip openers, twists, quad strengtheners and hamstring openers.

If you skip your warm-up and post-running stretches your muscles will become shorter and tighter, and your body more unstable. As a result the body will try to compensate for this wobbliness by putting unnecessary pressure on the muscles, joints and bones of the legs and back.

As much as my running routine toned my butt and shed my belly fat it weakened my thigh muscles and destabilized my hips and knee joints. This made my ankles wobbly and the ligaments around the wrist of the foot rather loose. I had to modify my yoga practice – which was primarily focused on increasing flexibility, and add a strengthening twist to it. The key is to gain flexibility while maintaining strength. A good blend of forward bends, back bends, inversions, standing poses and twists helps loosen and lengthen all the muscles of the body, to reverse the muscle tightness caused by running, and to make your body more flexible and stable. It is important to change levels and add twists to forward bends and backbends in order to target the hip and lower back area.

This cross-training approach helps align the muscles and bones and boosts overall efficiency. As a result, you experience less stiffness and you’re at a lower risk for injury. The yoga routine for runners should also emphasize alignment over flow. This will help correct any arising postural and gait problems that could potentially lead to knee, hip and back pain. When you honor your anatomical specificity and find the energetic alignment within every pose the routine becomes like a total-body workout. You end up building overall strength and stamina, while promoting flexibility and amplifying your range of motion

Another essential tip is to alternate asana with pranayama – i.e. toss in some breathing techniques while you are holding certain asanas that allow deep diaphragmatic breathing. Lung capacity is of prime importance for runners, because it creates the ability to maintain an even breathing pattern through all phases of running. The better the lung capacity is, the more oxygen is circulated through the system, which is most helpful for running long and strong. Yogic breathing involves slow, deep inhalations and long exhalations, increasing lung capacity and overall endurance. The controlled breath helps to strengthen the respiratory system and helps you become aware of the body as an energy system, not as a solid structure. This really aids your running and brings you more in touch with your body – helping you to avoid potential injuries.

It is also wise to decide whether you need a rigorous or restorative practice. You will be surprised to discover muscles and tendons you never knew existed. Make sure to do a few deep yoga stretches before and after runs. If you don’t stretch before a run, you risk injuring your cold muscles. Stretching after a run keeps your muscles long and loose and can prevent the soreness caused by a buildup of lactic acid.

I find both running and yoga as tools to tune to what each moment has to offer. This mindfulness allows us to focus on the task at hand, without worrying about the past or the future. Also the quieting of the mind while stretching and strengthening washes away the pain of muscle tension caused by long runs and daily stress. As the range of motion increases, you will learn how to run from the center, employing your entire center, not only the legs – using your arms and torso to counterbalance. Interestingly enough, a running stride involves only the lower body and movement in one plane – backward and forward. This strengthens certain muscles, while others remain underused and weak. Runners pride themselves on strong legs but when faced with holding a standing yoga pose, they get the jelly-leg syndrome. This is simply because a properly aligned yoga pose involves using all the muscles in a variety of planes. The integrated yoga practice oxygenates the blood and creates more energy, leaving the body and mind feeling restored and energized. Generally, yoga provides a vehicle through which the body can actively recover from the physical demands of running.

As you find your ultimate yoga practice to support your athletic lifestyle you will no longer have tightness in your legs or hips. You will get lighter, stronger and more flexible. Like a dear your strides will get supple – you will stride into leaps and bounds. And the next marathon will feel like a breeze, an effortless home run.

Yoga for Runners: Supple Strides (open level)

This Yogea routine is especially designed to assist runners in getting their bodies stronger and suppler while boosting their lung capacity and opening their mind to the journey, not the final outcome. A gentle warm up focuses on lengthening the hamstrings and calves and opening the hips. Standing poses bring strength and stability, while kneeling lateral twists allow deep stretching of the gluteus and psoas. Seated forward bends pair with supine abductor stretches and neutrally rotated standing twists help stretch the IT band and massage the lower back. The emphasis is on activating all leg muscles, making them longer, stronger and limber. A supine reclining back bending sequence counters the stretching of the hamstrings and realigns the hips, legs and torso. A closing grounding relaxation helps you release any harboring tension so you feel lighter and energized for the next “run home”.

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