We’ve said it here before — to be the best runner you can be, you need to do more than run. Sure, a long run feels great if you only have an hour or so to get something in. But if all you do is run, you’re setting yourself up for muscle imbalances that lead to injuries. Great fitness combines cardio-pulmonary efficiency, strength, agility, and flexibility with that endurance long-distance runners crave.
There are a lot of cross-training choices for runners, but if you only have time for one, yoga is a good one. The total-body integration that comes from yoga’s combination of strength, flexibility, breathing, and mental focus will make your runs feel better, and your downtime less sore.
“Yoga can help elongate the muscles overtightened from repetitive motions of running, to create proper alignment and prevent injuries,” says Novant Clinical Exercise Physiologist Taylor Pigg. “Yoga helps not just in prevention of injuries, but after the run it can bring oxygen-rich blood back to those muscles to aid recovery.”
If you’ve never tried yoga before, don’t be put off by its unfamiliarity. Think of it as an enhanced pre-run stretch and post-run recovery exercise. Pigg suggests the 5 yoga poses below to get your started. Don’t forget to breathe deeply and slowly while you do them to increase circulation and relieve stress!
Downward Facing Dog
This stretch and its many variations are a yoga student’s best friend — and always fun for a joke or two. When unleashed, it stretches your calves and lower back.
“Downward Dog is a good stretch for the posterior muscles that tend to stay tight and make your back hurt,” says Pigg. It can also strengthen arms and upper body, core, and legs — basically everything.
Start with the basic Downward Dog: Lie flat with your hands on your mat a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Life up and point your hips to the sky to make a “triangle” with your body. For variations, reach one arm over and grab the opposite ankle and hold, or lift one leg so it is in line with back and shoulders. You can even try bending that knee for a little extra work, but take your time and don’t push it if it hurts too much!
The pigeon is a good, basic pose for something runners don’t do nearly enough — open their hips. Those muscles and tendons need a good stretch to stay loose and keep you limber as the miles roll on. This stretch will strengthen your hip flexors, piriformis, and glutes.
“Pigeon Pose is good if you have sciatica and flare-ups,” says Pigg. If running makes your back and hips sore and tight, this is for you.
From Downward Dog, bring one leg forward and across, so the outside of the foot is down on the mat. Keep the other leg extended. Bend the open hip down to the mat and hold. Take a deep, slow breath.
This is another great pose for tight hip flexors, says Pigg, and one many runners are already familiar with. Thought of as a basic running stretch, low lunges can help with hip, knee, and back alignment for a balanced, more efficient run.
“Runners have tight hips, because when you’re running those muscles are tightening a lot, and runners don’t take a lot of time to elongate those muscles,” says Pigg. “That can cause the hips to get out of alignment, which can hurt knees and ankles.”
From your pigeon pose, slide the bent leg forward so your foot is flat on the mat in front of you. Stretch your back up straight and rest your hands on your knee. Breathe deep and exhale!
Cobra will stretch and strengthen your lower back and core, says Pigg. Lie on your belly with your legs behind you and your palms flat on the mat next to your ribs. Push your chest off the mat, trying to lift with your back muscles while using your hands to steady yourself.
“These are the muscles that support your lumbar spine, and will help strengthen your back, keep your core and your hips strong, and keep attaching muscles around your hips stabilized,” says Pigg. “If you have a stronger lower back and core, you don’t have to compensate with other muscles.”
As runners, all of your movement starts with a strong core and back. Keeping them strong can help add power to your run, whether distance or sprinting.
Thread the Needle, and other shoulder/neck stretches
Don’t exclude your upper body from your stretching routine! If you’ve ever been running and felt tightness across your shoulders, consider loosening up your trapezius muscle. Thread the Needle, Eagle Arms, and Bear Hug will help your whole body to work together by loosening up your traps.
To thread the needle, start on your hands and knees in tabletop position. Thread one arm under the other and bend down to bring your ear to the mat. Hold, breathe, and repeat on the other side.
For Eagle Arms, sit up. Cross your arms at the elbow and intertwine them so your palms are together. Bring your elbows up in line with your shoulders and hold. Breathe!
One more? Give yourself a bear hug. It will stretch and loosen the muscles across your back that get tight easily when you run. It’s also a great way to end your new yoga routine. Congrats!