Are running and yoga a good match, or is it too much of a stretch?

Over the past few years I've dabbled in yoga. I've attended Hatha, Ashtanga, Yin and Flow classes and completed a yoga retreat or as I like to call it a 'Yoga-bender' in Costa Rica.

Despite all the Oms I've chanted and the downward dogs I've held, I still have a love-hate relationship with yoga.

I love feeling tall and lithe after a class and how my body feels freer on my next run, but for the 60-minutes when I'm stretching, twisting and folding my body in all directions I want to cry.

My hips, glutes, calves and ankles feel like they are on fire, I curse under my breath, and I have dreadful visions of lashing out at the well-meaning yoga instructor if she dares place her cosmic hands on my hips and encourages me to go 'deeper'.

But lots of runners and athletes, whether pro or amateur, have found yoga to be helpful in improving their strength and flexibility, enhancing mind-body connection, increasing breath control and mental toughness and preventing injury

So why should runners roll out their yoga mat and is attending a yoga class a carte blanche substitute for a training run? These are some of the questions I put to former NRL player for the Sharks turned endurance runner Ben Lucas and weekend warrior runner Craig Tarling.

Strength and flexibility

Lucas is a Director of Sydney's Flow Athletic and has completed 35 marathons and five ultras. He's also trained 100 non-runners to complete their first marathon and recently helped 60 people cross the City2Surf finish line.

He says that running can lead to injury because of its repetitive nature and that yoga restores balance and symmetry to the body, making it the perfect complement to running.

"I started yoga when I was training for an ultra and was running around 150kms a week, and pulling up really sore," says Lucas.

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"Yoga helped my recovery, but it wasn't just my physical wellness that benefited. Being in my own head was the hardest part of the yoga class, and learning how to quiet the 'monkey mind' and hold a pose helped my mental toughness, which I needed to run endurance races."

Lucas says he started with one yoga class a week and during the peak of his training was hitting the mat four times a week.

"After consistently practicing yoga I noticed a positive change in my performance," says Lucas. "I had more range of motion in my hips and they felt loser. My body felt freer, my running stride and economy improved, and I felt fresher after longer runs," says Lucas.

Core competence

Middle distance runner Craig Tarling is training for the City2Sea in November and his first marathon in 2017. He's been running for 12 years and practicing yoga for three. He says yoga has improved his core stability, upper body strength and flexibility.

"Core strength is really important for runners as it helps to maintain good posture and keeps the body even and balanced when running," says Tarling.

"Yoga involves a lot of holding and moving your body weight around in different poses, so it's more of a whole body strengthening exercise when compared with running.

"As well as improved muscle and core strength, yoga has increased my flexibility and range of movement. As a runner, I have tight hamstrings, glutes and hip flexors and I have suffered niggly strains and injuries in these areas. Since starting yoga I suffer fewer injuries and recover from runs more quickly," says Tarling.

Complement, not substitute

While practicing yoga as a supplement to your running regimen can improve some of the shortcomings of your run training, research reveals it's not ideal as a straight replacement.

A review of previous research on the intensity levels reached and energy expended during yoga sessions published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise suggest that, while some forms of yoga can provide moderate cardiovascular benefits, runners should best view yoga as a strength and flexibility complement to rather than a substitute for their primary sport.

Much like starting out running, Lucas says runners who want to give yoga a try need to start at the appropriate level for their bodies.

"Someone new to running isn't expected to run 10kms in the first week, and the same goes for yoga – in that beginners shouldn't attend an intermediate or advanced yoga class no matter what style of yoga they are trying," Lucas says.

Don't bend over backwards

Tarling also cautions new-to-yoga runners to avoid pushing it too far. "As runners, we all have different bodies and our own problem areas that we need to be aware of. Yoga can cause injury if one pushes too hard or isn't adequately warmed-up," says Tarling.

He adds, "runners are by their nature often quite competitive and it's easy to fall into the trap of comparing yourself to other people and then pushing too far and hurting yourself. You need to be aware and respect your physical limits in yoga."

Strike the right pose

For beginners, Lucas recommends attending one class a week and building up to at least two a week to experience the benefits of yoga on your running performance. Both he and Trailing say the following poses are perfect for your post-run routine.

Runner's lunge

This basic pose is found in most yoga classes, with several modifications and variations. Benefits include strengthening the quadriceps and gluteus muscles, stretching the psoas and hips and developing stamina and endurance in your thighs.

Downward dog

This is a deceptively challenging pose that actually requires a lot of strength. It's a great post-run stretch for the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches, and hands and strengthens the arms and leg muscles.

Standing forward bend

If you have tight hamstrings, this is the pose for you! This incredibly beneficial posture is both therapeutic and revitalising. It stretches the hamstrings, calves, and hips and helps to strengthen the thighs and knees.

Half pigeon

Open up tight glutes and hips with one of the best known 'hip-opener' poses – the half pigeon. This pose is an extremely effective hip opener that helps to increase external range of motion of the femur in the hip socket and lengthens the hip flexors. Trailing says, "Pigeon pose has done wonders for my hip flexibility and I no longer get hip flexor and hamstring strains like I used to."

Do you combine yoga and running training? Leave a comment in the Comments section.

The goal of one day completing an ultra-marathon inspires running fanatic Laura Hill to clock up the kilometres each week. With a day job in the corporate world, Laura loves nothing more than lacing up her runners and hitting the pavement to clear her mind and challenge her body.

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