27 Mar

Trying Yoga

Yoga class

Running - we love it! The benefits are many fold - increased cardiovascular fitness, weight loss and an improved sense of well being to mention just a few. But is there a downside?

Even the most evangelical running enthusiast recognises that runners are prone to injury. Running, and road running in particular, is a high intensity activity. It puts your body under considerable stress and strain.

There are a number of important steps every runner should take to minimise the chance of injury. These include ensuring you wear the right footwear - today's running shoes are brilliant examples of modern technology and offer lots of cushioning and protection; following a stretching regime before, but more importantly, after running; and introducing other activities into your training programme.

One of the other activities that is growing in popularity for runners is yoga. And after a period where there were doubts about the compatibility of running and yoga, the general view is that yoga is an excellent cross training activity for runners.

How come? I put that question Gerry Kielty, principal yoga teacher and co-director at the Balance Centre. "Yoga is an activity that is complementary to many sports and I've worked with footballers, cyclists, and triathletes as well as runners. They've all reported benefits and at a number of levels.

"Runners tend to develop short hard muscles while yoga practice encourages long strong muscles. Compact muscles offer little give and lots of resistance making them prone to pulls and strains. That's not so evident in longer stronger muscles.
"Muscle groupings need to operate effectively together for efficient biomechanical movement. Tight hip flexors and hamstrings are complaints common to runners and they are complaints that often go in tandem. In fact runners can often sustain a series of different injuries that after fuller investigation are shown to be part of the same underlying issue.

"Running is essentially a parallel action; it involves mainly the lower body, and one single plane of motion - forwards. This can create imbalances in the body - for example, the muscles that move the legs sideways become weak while those that are overused become tight. The continual pounding in running can also compress the spine. Runners should consider how they counteract the pressures they place on their body through running.

"Even before we start to think about specific positions, the general practice of yoga gives an individual a greater awareness of their posture. It gets you to think about how you sit and how you stand. You start to develop a better awareness of how your body works.

"The most obvious benefits of yoga for runners however start with the postures, which can correct muscle imbalances resulting from high impact training. Yoga exercises condition the muscular and skeletal system and can help prevent pain and injury.

"Another key benefit of yoga is that it introduces many people to more disciplined breathing and studies have shown that athletes who practised yogic breathing for an extended period (12 months or more) showed greater exercise economy. They were able to work harder for the same heart rate, and could exercise at a higher intensity. I believe most runners could increase their lung capacity and that few are fulfilling their full potential.

"Stretching is an important part of the broader running activity but from my experience few runners carry out a proper stretching regime. Yoga can help runners to create and perfect a proper set of pre and post-run stretches that counter the negative effects of the parallel action."

Gerry also says that yoga builds body strength and is a excellent form of core conditioning: "The general perception is that yoga is an aid to flexibility but even some very powerful athletes with serious backgrounds in strength training recognise the strength building aspects to yoga.

"To emphasise the versatility of the yoga discipline, it can be very effective in preparing the cardiovascular system and muscles for peak performance ie your big race. But aside from the physical aspects of yoga, breathing exercises, relaxation and self understanding can help train the mind for competition and to improve confidence and focus."

I asked Gerry to highlight just one yoga posture which runners might incorporate into their training programme: "Downward-facing dog is the classic exercise and it is very effective. This posture stretches the entire back of the body, from calves to shoulders. Start on all fours with fingers facing forwards, hands under shoulders and knees under hips. Curl your toes under and push your body upwards so that your tailbone goes directly up into the air, arms, legs and spine straight, head relaxed. Release your heels down to the ground and think about lengthening through the spine. Imagine a cord is pulling your tailbone upwards. Hold for 15-20 seconds, then come down on to your knees and rest forehead on the floor for a moment. Repeat the exercise three times."