Why Yoga and Running Make Sense Together

by Allison Torres Burtka

I’ve been running and practicing yoga for years—at various levels of seriousness and frequency. I get similar things out of both: They help me de-stress, be in the moment and put aside worries, breathe deeply, feel strong, and generally feel better. Still, for the most part, I’ve thought of them as separate and pretty much unrelated, except that yoga helps loosen up parts that running tightens up. More recently, I’ve started to appreciate how much yoga helps me with running.

Yoga brings balance to runners.

Some runners who are unfamiliar with yoga might think it’s just stretching. But it builds both strength and flexibility, and yoga’s focus on breathing can help as well. I took up yoga long after running, at a time when I was also rowing regularly, and yoga helped me deal with low back issues that rowing exacerbated. I also found that the breathing techniques helped me relax intentionally in a way I never had before.

I’ve taken different types of yoga classes over the years, and the ones I take now include holding a bunch of postures to build strength. It occurred to me during a class, in the middle of a long series of postures balancing on one leg—when I could feel probably 10 different muscles around my ankle starting to burn—that this must be helping me avoid injury when my foot lands wrong during a run.

I wanted to learn how I could use yoga more purposely to help with running, so I attended a “Yoga for Runners” workshop through metro Detroit’s Yoga Shelter, taught by Robyn Childers, who has been practicing yoga for years and has run several marathons and half-marathons.

With running, “the nature of the movements and the impact create really rigid, tight muscles,” Robyn explained. “Yoga keeps them more pliable than just simple stretching, because the postures are dynamic, and they’re also weight-bearing, so they strengthen your joints in a way that stretching does not.”

By holding weight-bearing postures, you’re using your own body weight to strengthen all of your joints and bones, Robyn said. For example, she juxtaposed a favorite runner strength-builder—wall sits—with chair pose, a posture in which you sit back as if you are sitting on an invisible chair, but you’re not holding onto anything. “I know many runners swear by wall sits. They back their back up against the wall and squat down, and, really, they’re only targeting their quads,” she said. “Whereas if you’re holding chair posture, you’re using your lower back, your core, all the muscles nearest your spine, your abdominal area—you’re targeting several muscle groups at once, including your quads.” She added that if you hold your arms up during chair pose, with your biceps hugging your ears, you’re also strengthening your upper back and shoulders, and everything’s in alignment, which can help your running form.

Yoga also improves mobility, Robyn said. “Your stride changes a little, and you’re able to recover more quickly,” so you might be better able to hit that personal record you’ve been after. In the workshop, she led us through postures that strengthen the core, open up the hips, loosen the hamstrings, and build strength throughout the body. She offered running-specific tips, like how a certain seated pose can prevent plantar fasciitis. She also explained how paying attention to how many right and left strides you take per breath can help eliminate side stitches if you regulate uneven numbers of steps per breath.

Regulating my breathing has been an issue for me since I was a kid with exercise-induced asthma. I was always scared of my breath becoming short. Now, it’s less of an issue, but I wondered how I might use my breath differently while running. Robyn said that practicing breathing—inhaling and exhaling for even counts and then lengthening both—can help me increase my V02 max. That makes total sense, but I’d never considered doing it for the purpose of improving my running.

Having some practice with your breath “gives you a choice about how you respond when it feels like your breath is getting choppy—instead of panicking or compromising your form and dumping forward”—or needing to slow down, Robyn explained. “Your energy goes more into the effort of your running performance.”

As a longtime yogi who was newer to running, Robyn said that when she started running seriously, she noticed that her breathing and posture “were head and shoulders above the average runner because of my yoga practice. You pay such strong attention to your breathing and how it influences your posture when you’re practicing, and you also pay attention to how your posture influences your breathing. And together, they influence the deepest parts of your mind—your subconscious.”

I agree—It’s not exactly the same as the runner’s high, but it’s something I find equally hard to describe. I get to a physical and mental state of peace.

At races, Robyn said she sees runners pulled off to the side in yoga poses. They may know these poses from practicing yoga, or they may find them intuitively because their bodies are screaming at them to do something. She noted that babies naturally go right into yoga poses—with good form!—“but as we age, our bodies become more rigid” from repetitive motions and hunching over. But, “if you maintain a regular yoga practice, you can recover.”

Several nostril-breathing techniques can benefit runners. In vinyasa yoga, “we practice Ujjayi pranayama—that’s steady, focused breathing in through the nose and out through the nose, with a little more force on the exhale, and it engages the lower belly,” Robyn explained. Other techniques include alternate nostril breathing (switching from one to the other), fire breathing (short, rapid breaths out through the nose), and exhale retention. When someone is huffing and puffing through the mouth, that’s a stress response, she said. “The central nervous system is calmed when you breathe through your nose.”

I’ve known for a long time that yoga and running are good for me, body and soul. But now I am a little more conscious of how the things I learn and practice in yoga can enhance my running experience.

Robyn Childers is planning to teach another Yoga for Runners workshop in the spring and lead a running and yoga program—essentially a 5k training program that will include a group run and 45 minutes of yoga at the Royal Oak Yoga Shelter for eight Saturday mornings, leading up to a 5k race in Detroit. The program will welcome beginners, and participants will get to learn more about the connection between running and yoga.