by Christine Felstead
Ask any runner if he or she stretches and occasionally you’ll run across one that says, “yes, I stretch after all my runs”. However, most will bashfully comment, “I know I should but..”. Most runners want to spend as much time on the road as possible and taking time to stretch is not a priority. So, the miles keep building, the runs are euphoric and then one day you notice a spot in your body that doesn’t feel right. You don’t think about it too much and hope you will be able to ‘run through it’. One day the feeling turns to pain and you finally decide to take some curative action. What will you turn to? This article will introduce you to using yoga as therapy and, more importantly, how to use it as a means to keep the ‘pain’ away and continue building those miles with a healthy body.
While running, certain muscle groups are used in continuous repetition and, over time, these muscles will shorten. Without opportunity to restore length, muscles will continue to contract and eventually restrict the range of motion of related joints, create misalignment in the body that in turn makes one more prone to injury. While each body is unique, it is safe to say that runners are susceptible to tightness in the hamstrings, lower back, achilles and feet. Initial soreness is an early warning that something is out of alignment. Rarely will the issue go away simply by ‘running through it’. Moreover, taking time off running may cause the acute pain to subside but once you’re back on the road it is very common for the injury to flare up. Unless the initial muscle imbalance that caused the injury is treated, the same injury will reoccur.
To balance the effects of running, it is advisable to counteract the tightening and contraction of muscles with intelligent stretching. Yoga is a perfect companion activity for runners, providing the basis for flexibility and relaxation. In addition, recent research conducted at U.C. Davis demonstrates that yoga improves strength, aerobic capacity and lung functioning. Finally, yoga develops acute mental focus, which also benefits runners at times when they need to dig deep to meet racing goals.
As the popularity of yoga hits an all-time high, yoga classes can be found at community centres, church basements, health clubs and, of course, yoga studios. If you decide to try yoga as a stay healthy strategy you may want to experiment and find a teacher and style of yoga that suits you. Plan to take a yoga class at least once per week to begin reaping the benefits. At a yoga class you will also learn the many yoga poses (known as asanas) that you can incorporate in your post run activity. Below is an introductory posture to get you on your way!
Start on your hands and knees. Keep your legs about hip width apart and your arms shoulder width apart. Your middle fingers should be parallel, pointing straight ahead, arms straight. Inhale and curl your toes under, as if getting ready to stand on your toes. Exhale and straighten your legs; push upward with your arms. The goal is to lengthen the spine while keeping your legs straight and your feet flat on the ground. However, in the beginning it’s okay to bend the knees a bit and to keep your heels raised. The important thing is to work on lengthening the spine. Don’t let your shoulders creep up by your ears — keep them down. Weight should be evenly distributed between your hands and feet. Hold the position for a few breaths. Come down on and exhale. Repeat several times.
Here is a testimonial by a runner that used yoga to get her back on the road.
” Burnt out! I was exhausted, mentally and physically, having done the Boston Marathon and Ironman Florida within 6 months. In May, I committed to raise funds for Team Diabetes Canada and to run the Dublin Marathon as a result in October. What had I done? By summer I was convinced I didn’t have it in me to do another 26.2 miler. I lost all motivation and struggled with one nagging ache after another. I had to stop running because of intense pain in my hips and lower back while running.
” In an effort to improve my flexibility and deal with some of my aches and pains I attended a yoga class at a nearby yoga studio. I loved it and was soon going 4-5 times a week. After 2 weeks of attending regular yoga classes, I started running again and, to my surprise, was virtually pain free. I cut my running mileage down, felt like yoga was giving me strength and went to Dublin hoping to just “do” the distance. Was I surprised! I had the race of my life, setting a personal best. I felt yoga was an integral part of my rehabilitation and training effort and made me a more balanced athlete. I am thankful to having found yoga just in time! ”
(Nicola Cantley, Toronto, Ont)
* This article first appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of Running Room Magazine.