Why Every Runner Should Be a Yogi by Jordan Mason

I’ve been a runner for longer than I’ve been most anything else. I started as a hesitant high school cross country runner, too slow to compete on varsity, but getting up at 7am every day of the summer to train. Back then I was looking for a team – a community – and an identity as an athlete at a school where I was otherwise unknown. But the discipline of daily running turned out to be so much more than either of those things, and it continues to shape and mark my life.

The more serious I became about running, the clearer it was to me that I was never going to be fast, and that if I wanted to win anything, I had to start out-running people in distance. So I ran the 10k, then the marathon, then (eventually, when things in my life aligned) the ultramarathon. I ventured off-road into trail running, mostly for the fun and playfulness of exploring the wilderness, but also the laid-back trail running community. I discovered the pure bliss of connecting movement and physical effort with the age-old calm and beauty of the earth. I learned non-reaction; especially in ultrarunning, the ability to observe thoughts and emotions while staying the course is essential. You learn important lessons about life, like nothing is permanent, and pain can lead to joy, and the essentials are just water, food, and breath.

Not unlike the lessons you learn in yoga, actually.

My life as a yogi began sometime in college, and it was not because I was looking to learn the great lessons of life. I just wanted something difficult to do, to sweat and exhaust myself, and to complement my running life at a time when I was battling injury and lack of motivation. I started taking Bikram and eventually moved into Vinyasa classes because they offered the injury prevention benefits my body needed, as well as the self-compassion I had been missing.

Today I practice multiple styles of yoga regularly, because they are all at my fingertips at Decatur Yoga, as well as Pilates which has been even more beneficial for injury prevention. But it’s not just about preventing injury – there are huge spiritual and mental benefits to yoga and Pilates that, like running, have become a way of life for me. The more I can align breath with movement, intentions with actions, body with earth, the more integrity and peace I feel in my life.

For runners, what are the physical benefits of doing yoga? The obvious answer is increased flexibility. As runners, we perform the same movement in one plane repeatedly for an extended period of time, resulting in tightness on the backside of the body, specifically, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and feet. On the front side of the body, we can find tightness in our pectorals, hip flexors, and quads, as well as the lateral stabilizers, the IT band, gluteus medius, and inner thighs, which are under a great deal of stress in running. For those who only run, and perhaps sit down in cars or at desks, this will create some major tightness over time and begin to pull the joints and soft tissue until something “gives.” Yoga may not make a runner into a bendy person, but giving time and attention to lengthening muscles will prevent some common running problems.

Yoga helps stabilize some areas of the body that need to be strong for running. The truth is that although running will strengthen some muscles, it can also just create excess tightness instead of real strength, especially in the core. A tight muscle is not necessarily a strong muscle! And the muscles recruited to stabilize your body in running (including the transverse abdominals, glute med, lower back, inner thighs, and shin muscles, mainly) cannot be strengthened by running if they aren’t already firing correctly. Many, many runners are not firing their glutes, leading to overworking of the hamstrings and stress on the IT band, eventually creating runner’s knee and hamstring injury. So, fire those glutes!

Many yoga poses, like those fabulous lunges and chair poses Joe always uses in class, strengthen the glutes and work the entire pelvis. Core work, like boat pose, plank, or Pilates exercises, will stabilize the entire body. Crescent lunge will open up the hip flexors while strengthening the quads and glutes and well as improving balance. Warrior 3 and other poses involving balance on one leg will strengthen the shin and foot muscles. Restorative and Therapeutic classes can calm and balance the body in times of stress or injury. When you start to think about it, there are countless examples of ways that yoga can lengthen and strengthen muscles, as well as massage joints and maintain range of motion.

Tomorrow I am running my next race, a 15k trail run, and as part of my mental and physical preparation you’ll find me in Michelle’s Pilates class today at noon. If you’re a runner, join me on the mat for yoga and Pilates and notice the difference it can make in your body – not just to sweat and burn calories, but for the long-term health of the body temple you inhabit.

Jordan has been passionate about movement and fitness all her life, primarily through running (on and off-road), hiking, Pilates, and yoga. She draws inspiration from nature and exploring the world on foot each day. Jordan is also an avid blogger and student of theology and ethics. Coming to Atlanta in 2013 to begin her Master of Divinity degree, she has since graduated and is currently managing Decatur Yoga & Pilates full-time. Visit her personal blog!

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