Yoga for Runners: How Yoga Can Improve Performance and Prevent Injury

18 Jun

Running is my medicine. It delivers an abundance of benefits to my life, some of which include greater energy and vitality, a clearer mind, a leaner body, a better mood, etc., etc., etc…But with all of these incredible gifts running has brought me, it has also done its share of damage to my body. I have chronic hamstring tendonitis and a groin strain that has never quite healed. My muscles are constantly tight and shortened (it’s always fun when I can hardly touch my toes in my 6am class!), and sometimes during long runs my knees bug me. I found though if I balance my 30-40 miles of running per week with a yoga practice, these injuries and pains do not manifest themselves much, and I am able to run with ease and be relatively pain-free. And most importantly, as long as I couple running with yoga, I will be able to run for the rest of my life.

Here are some of the most common injuries runners face and the yoga poses that help prevent and treat them. Throughout each pose, make sure to breath deeply, inhaling and exhaling evenly through your nose. The breath work in your yoga practice will only increase lung capacity and thus performance out on the road.

Common Injury #1: IT Band Syndrome. The Illiotibial band is a huge band of fibrous connective tissue that starts at the hip and travels all the way down the outside of the leg, connecting to the tibia (shin bone). When it becomes tight and less mobile, it can create friction across the knee-joint and therefore pain and discomfort. It is progressive, and if left untreated can cause bursitis. It is crucial to stretch the IT band after every run. Give these poses a try and see how your next run feels!

Gohmukasana 

Sit up tall  with your legs outstretched in front of you, then bend your knees and put your feet on the floor. Slide your left foot under the right knee to the outside of the right hip. Then cross your right leg over the left, stacking the right knee on top of the left, and bring the right foot to the outside of the left hip. Try to bring the heels equidistant from the hips: with the right leg on top you’ll have to tug the right heel in closer to the left hip. Sit evenly on the sitting bones. Take an inhale and extend both arms overhead as you reach out of your low back, lengthening your torso. Reach long out in front of you creating as much space in your spine as possible, then gently release your hands to the floor. If you can comfortably lean forwards with your hand on the floor, they can stay in your lap. Stay here for 10-15 breaths, then switch sides.

Double Pigeon (aka Fire Log)

Sit on one edge of a thickly-folded blanket, knees bent, feet on the floor. Lightly shrug your shoulders up, strongly roll the heads of your upper arm bones back, and press the bottom tips of your shoulder blades into your back. Slide your left foot under your right leg to the outside of your right hip, and lay the outer leg on the floor. Then, stack your right leg on top of the left. Be sure the right ankle is outside the left knee (so the sole is perpendicular to the floor). Press through your heels and spread your toes. Keeping your front torso long, exhale and fold forward from your groins. Be sure not to round forward from your belly: Keep the space between your pubis and navel long. Lay your hands on the floor in front of your shins. Stay for 10-15 breaths then switch sides.

Common Injury #2: Shin Splints. Shin splints are usually caused by tight calf muscles and weak shin muscles that come from overtraining, and are very common in beginning runners. They can cause serious pain along the outside of the lower leg or in the soft tissue behind the bone. The key to healing and preventing shin splints is of course stretching and if necessary, backing off on mileage until the pain subsides.

Ardha Hanumanasana (aka Half Split)

Come to your knees, sitting on your heels. Extend the heel of your right leg forward, straightening the leg. Position your hips directly over the left knee. Draw the right toes toward you as you fold forward over your straight leg. Place your hands on the floor or on blocks for support. Hold for 5-10 breaths and repeat on the other side.

High Lunge

From Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), bend your knees and with an inhale, step your left foot back toward the back edge of your mat with the ball of the foot on the floor. Step back far enough so that your right knee can form a right angle.Lay your torso on your front thigh and lengthen it forward. To soften your right groin, imagine that the thigh is sinking toward the floor under your torso’s weight. Look forward. Simultaneously, firm the left thigh and push it up toward the ceiling, holding the left knee straight. Stretch your left heel toward the floor, and hold for 5-10 breaths. Exhale and step your right foot back beside the left and repeat with the other leg.

Common Injury #3: Patella Femoral Syndrome (aka Runner’s Knee). This here is the most common injury runners face, and it occurs much more frequently in female runners than males, suggesting it has something to do with the shape of the hips/pelvis in relationship to the knees. Symptoms of PFS are pain at the front of the knee cap that worsens with incline and uneven terrain, pain towards the back of the knee, and crackling/popping sounds and the feeling the knee may give out. Some causes of PFS are tight calves and hamstrings and weak quads. Here are a couple poses that will stretch the hamstrings and strengthen the quadricep muscles.

Parsvottanasana (aka Pyramid Pose)

Start standing in Mountain Pose with your feet together and hands at your sides. Place your hand on your hips, and step your left foot back about 3-4 feet. Have your feet at least hips distance apart, wider if you feel wobbly or imbalanced. Have your left foot facing forwards with your heel on the floor. Narrow your stance if that helps you get your heel on the ground. Engage your right quadricep as you gently draw your right hip back and bring your left hip forward, squaring off your hips. Be mindful not to lock out your right knee. Take an inhale, and as you exhale hinge forward at your hips over your front leg. Stop before your back begins to round, and hold the pose here for 5-10 breaths. Inhale to come out, return to Mountain pose and switch sides.

Utkatasana (aka Chair Pose)

Begin in Mountain Pose with your feet together, or separate them if that relieves any tension in your low back. As you inhale, extend your arms overhead and bend your knees to sit down in your invisible chair. Keep your weight in your heels as you sit your hips down low, drawing your tailbone to the floor and reaching your torso up and away from your pelvis. Draw your shoulders down your back and away from your ears, and spin your pinkie fingers towards one another. The lower you sit, the harder your quads work–just remember to keep the weight in your heels to protect your knees! Hold for 5-10 breaths and release.

Common Injury #4: Plantar Fasciitis. Plantar fascia is the connective tissue that runs from the heels of the feet to the base of the toes and can be injured through overuse, increased mileage and poor running shoes. It does not seems like yoga could do much to help this condition, but since plantar fascia is in relationship with the fascia of the back leg, it helps greatly the lengthen and increase the suppleness of the back body in order to get to the feet.

Pascimottanasana

Sit on the floor with your buttocks supported on a folded blanket and your legs straight in front of you. Press actively through your heels. Inhale, and keeping the front torso long, lean forward from the hip joints, not the waist. Lengthen the tailbone away from the back of your pelvis. If possible take the sides of the feet with your hands, thumbs on the soles, elbows fully extended; if this isn’t possible, loop a strap around the foot soles, and hold the strap firmly. Be sure your elbows are straight, not bent. With each inhalation, lift and lengthen the front torso just slightly; with each exhalation release a little more fully into the forward bend. Hold for 10-15 breaths.

Common Injury #5: Pulled Muscle. This goes without too much explanation, but when you overuse a muscle, do not stretch it properly (or at all!) and do not take measures to strengthen it, then a pull or strain is likely to occur. Since there are too many muscles at risk of injury to list in this article, I will mention two. The groin and the hamstring. First I will describe a pose to stretch the groin, then another for the hamstrings.

Baddha Konasana 

Sit with your legs straight out in front of you, raising your pelvis on a blanket if your hips or groins are tight. Exhale, bend your knees, pull your heels toward your pelvis, then drop your knees out to the sides and press the soles of your feet together. Bring your heels as close to your pelvis as you comfortably can. With the first and second finger and thumb, grasp the big toe of each foot. Always keep the outer edges of the feet firmly on the floor. If it isn’t possible to hold the toes, clasp each hand around the same-side ankle or shin.Sit so that the pubis in front and the tailbone in back are equidistant from the floor. Firm the sacrum and shoulder blades against the back and lengthen the front torso through the top of the sternum.Never force your knees down. Instead release the heads of the thigh bones toward the floor. When this action leads, the knees follow. Hold for 10-15 breaths.

Padangusthasana

Stand upright with your inner feet parallel and about six inches apart. Contract your front thigh muscles to lift your kneecaps. Keeping your legs completely straight, exhale and bend forward from your hip joints, moving your torso and head as one unit. Slide the index and middle fingers of each hand between the big toes and the second toes. Then curl those fingers under and grip the big toes firmly, wrapping the thumbs around the other two fingers to secure the wrap. Press your toes down against your fingers. (If you can’t reach your toes without overly rounding your back, pass a strap under the ball of each foot and hold the straps.)With an inhalation, lift your torso as if you were going to stand up again, straightening your elbows. As you exhale, fold back down. Repeat a couple of more times, and then hold in your forward fold for 10-15 breaths.

These poses can be done in any sequence or added to your pre-existing cross training routine. I suggest you do them at least three times per week to prevent injury and keep your muscles long and supple. And as always, follow-up with a nice long Savasana and you’ll be the most blissed out runner on the trail. Namaste yogis!

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