If you’re an avid runner, chances are yoga isn’t on the top of your list. Notoriously, those that run find yoga harder due to them having generally tighter muscles, which make deep stretches much more difficult (and painful) to perform.
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As a result, most runners steer clear of yoga. As you can imagine, 60 minutes of excruciatingly deep stretches just doesn’t have much of an appeal. However, yoga is something that shouldn’t be ignored by runners as it can actually bring many benefits to your overall performance.
Why runners should do yoga
Firstly, it will develop muscular strength, range of motion and flexibility in the key supporting muscles used in running, such as the quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors, helping to prevent injuries.
This is because holding poses targeting certain muscle groups often used by runners – for long periods of time – will create elasticity and loosen up the joints, ligaments and connective tissues, helping them to run with less stiffness and a greater ease of movement.
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Secondly, yoga will strengthen the areas runners usually ignore – such as mind space and stress – through better, more conscious breathing. The focused breathing performed throughout yoga can make us more aware of sensations in the body, as well as teach us that slower breathing is more relaxing.
Runners can therefore use the breathwork practised throughout yoga to increase oxygen intake and help reduce performance anxiety.
The best yoga for runners
We met with London-based yoga teacher Daniela Olds, who showed us a host of the most suitable yoga poses for runners. Here are the top seven poses she recommends trying for yourself, as well as how to do them.
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Check out the standard pose on the right (modeled by our very own Lee Bell) alongside some deeper alternatives to try on the left (demonstrated by Olds herself) – if you’re brave enough to go a little further.
Pose 1: Warrior II, or Virabhadrasana II
"Warrior II promotes the opening of the hips, which is really good for runners because their hips are generally quite closed,” explains Olds. “Being static, it's also a nice easy one to begin with before going any deeper.”
How to do it
Place your left foot parallel to the back of your mat at a 90-degree angle, and line up the heel of your right foot with the heel of your left, pointing it forward in front of you. Now, bend your front knee while keeping your back leg straight and open out your arms.
“The front knee is always on top of the ankle to keep it at a 90-degree angle,” says Olds. “Engage the legs by gently squeezing the muscles onto the bone – especially the back leg which you should keep straight – and press more into the back heel so it further opens up and stretches the hip flexor, pelvis and groin muscles of both legs.”
Open your pelvis to face the left side of your mat and keep the tailbone down with the glutes slightly engaged, and shoulders squared on top for the hips. Gaze over your front middle finger.
“The most important thing here is to keep the wrists in line with the shoulders and the neck relaxed,” she adds.
To deepen the pose, arch the back and lift the right hand up towards the sky while bringing the left hand around your back, placing it on the right hip or inner thigh if (you can reach!) to create a bind. Come onto the ball of your right foot and push down into your toes to further open the hip flexors.
If you have the option, go deeper into the backbend and bring the raised right hand back slightly, pointing at the sky behind your head. Look up to complete the pose.
Pose 2: Dancer, or Natarajasana
“Dancer is not only a good pose for practising balance on the foot that is being stood on, but also promotes hip opening as it adds a stretch in the quadricep for the raised leg,” says Olds. “The core has to be engaged so you don't flop to the side, meaning it’s good for equilibrium and strengthening the legs.”
How to do it
Put your weight into your right foot and bend your left knee to lift your left foot off the floor. Grasp the instep of your left foot with your left hand (a belt can be used here) so that your thumb rests on the sole of your foot pointing in the direction of your toes.
At the same time, lift your right arm straight up to the ceiling and push strongly into your left leg to bring it higher into the air. Bring your torso forward as a counterbalance and as you do so, fix your gaze (or Drishti) on something that doesn't move to prevent you from toppling over.
To take this pose deeper, place the knee of the raised leg into the crook of the elbow and bind the hands above the head.
Pose 3: Pigeon, or Eka Pada Rajakapotasana
If there’s limited mobility, use a block under the buttock of your bent leg (as illustrated in the pose on the right) for extra support.
How to do it
Bend your right knee as if you were going to perform a lunge, but instead of placing your foot down, bring your right knee to the floor on the outside of your right hand. Release your left knee to your mat, keeping the entire left leg flat on the mat.
Ensuring that your left foot is pointing straight back, square your hips towards the front of your mat. You can either bend over your right leg and bring your elbows to the floor and rest your forehead on the mat, or use your core to stabilise yourself and bring palms to heart centre.
“In the advanced option we open up the heart turning the pose into a backbend, so the back is targeted too,” says Olds. “This opening and lengthening the front part of the body [works] the psoas as well as the hips and hamstrings.
” To perform this, bend the knee of your straight leg and point your foot towards the sky. If possible, reach back with your left hand and grab the foot. Slide it into the crease of your elbow and if you’re really adventurous (and it doesn’t hurt!) try to bind by raising your right hand over your head and grabbing the left to complete the pose.”
Pose 4: Camel, or Ustrasana
“In Camel pose you are activating and opening the front part of the body – mainly the quadriceps and the hip flexors – by stretching the whole psoas muscle,” says Olds. “We must be careful here not to compress the lower back – achieved by simply extending and lifting the chest up throughout.”
How to do it
To perform Camel, start by kneeling on your mat with your hands on your hips. With your knees under your hips and toes tucked under you, look towards the sky and lean back until your hands meet your heels. Keep your chest open extending upwards throughout.
“You can do it with your feet flat pointing your toes back and away from the body, but ideally you want the feet under the heels and the hands on top,” adds Olds.
The advanced pose goes deep into the whole front of the body – from the shoulder all the way into the front of the knee. If you think you’re able to perform it, untuck your toes and lay the tops of your feet flat on the mat, pointing your toes away from you.
Bring your hands onto your thighs and use your core strength to arch through your back and lower the crown of the head to the floor, pressing into your toes to protect the knees.
Pose 5: Half Splits, or Ardha Hanumanasana
“Splits pose goes extremely deep into the hips – in fact, this is the deepest pose you can do for the hips and hamstrings,” says Olds, adding that it's a particularly great pose for runners if they can perform it. However, you don’t need to be able to go fully into the pose to reap the rewards. A less deep, supported variation will suffice.
How to do it
Start in lunge pose with your back knee flat on the mat, toes pointed away from you, and your front leg bent at a 90-degree angle. Place both hands on the floor and gently straighten your front leg before gradually sliding the front heel forward, as far as your hamstrings allow.
Place a block under the hipbone of your front leg for more support and breath through the pose, making sure your back leg remains straight from the hip and doesn’t extend towards either side.
“The hamstring of the front, extended leg ideally wants to be pushed through the heel so that it better targets the quads and hip flexors on both sides,” explains Olds.
Deeper variation (Full Splits, or Hanumanasana)
To achieve full splits, simply keep pushing your front leg forward, gently, until your pelvis reaches the floor. You shouldn’t feel any pain while performing this pose.
Olds adds: “The important thing here is not to back bend. It's easy to forget that the core needs to be engaged and the shoulders must be on top of the hips and ideally the hips squared off with both facing forwards. This is why we engage the core to lift the body up and not flop onto the side of the hip.”
Pose 6: Half Saddle, or Virasana
“Saddle targets the front part of the leg as well as the quadriceps, the knees, the psoas and front part of the chest, which are all areas known to be tight for runners,” says Olds.
How to do it
Sitting with the knees together and underneath you with the heels outside of the hips (use blocks or blankets if really tight here) and lower your back towards the floor until you can lean onto your hands. If you feel comfortable on your knees and ankles you can lean back and take it deeper (outlined below).
“Those who are more stiff, or beginners, can use a block underneath their buttocks, or fold over the mat under the knee to protect it,” she adds.
Deeper variation (Supta Virasana)
Once you’re on your hands, try and lower to your forearms and then the elbows. Once you are on your elbows, place your hands on the back of the pelvis and release your lower back and upper buttocks by spreading the flesh down toward the tailbone.
“The important thing here is to relax the shoulder and relax the lower back so that it's not compressed,” she explains. “This can also be done with a bolster underneath for extra comfort or support.”
Pose 7: Child’s Pose, or Balasana
"For runners, the most important area to focus on is the hips because as we run they tend to become closed up,” Olds explains. “Runners also usually have really tight quads and hamstrings and really strong core but what can help is the opening of the chest so you're not rigid, bringing more mobility and flexibility into the lower back. Child's Pose (or Happy Baby) are perfect for this.
How to do it
Kneel on the floor with your toes together and your knees hip-width apart. Rest your palms on top of your thighs. On an exhale, lower your torso between your knees. Extend your arms alongside your torso with your palms facing down and relax your shoulders toward the ground.
Deeper, alternative pose (Happy Baby, or Ananda Balasana)
“With the Happy Baby, we are targeting the lower back, which is usually best performed after saddle or camel pose as they are both known to compress the lower back area so it's good to release that.
“To do it, lay on your back and bend your knees into your belly. Next, grip the outsides of your feet with your hands, or ankles if you can’t reach. Open your knees slightly wider than your torso and try to bring them up towards your armpits. Each ankle should be positioned directly over the knees so the shins are at a right-angle to the floor. Flex through the heels and push through your feet into your hands to create resistance.
“This pose targets the lower and mid- back, stretching the glutes as well as the groin muscles,” adds Olds. “You can then focus on straightening the legs, whether that's just one or both to really hit the hamstring area.”
Thanks to EQUINOX for allowing the use of its London studio for this guide.