When it comes to cross-training, yoga is a healthy and low-impact form of exercise that can help to improve strength and flexibility, leading to better running performance.
If you haven’t tried yoga yet as a way of improving your performance and speeding up recovery, we recommend beginning with these 9 yoga postures for runners.
The benefits of yoga for runners
Incorporating yoga into your daily fitness practice can be beneficial for runners for a variety of reasons. It is a physical and mental exercise, which makes it very efficient at relieving both physical and mental stress.
This is partly due to being mindful of your body and partly due to the mechanism of breathing in yoga. The way you breathe—deep and slow—results in your autonomic nervous system being activated, which reduces blood pressure, slows the heart rate, and increases the amount of oxygen in the body.
This doesn’t just help to reduce stress; it also increases vital energy in the body. When you have more energy, you can do your yoga poses more effectively, leading to an increase in strength and flexibility.
Yoga builds strength by using your own body weight. Isometric holds are a large part of yoga—instead of building muscle by flexing them, you are building muscle by doing static movements that involve holding the muscle in place for an extended period of time.
Because it is a low-impact exercise, it is also much safer on the joints, keeping them strong and reducing the chance of injury.
Regular stretching also helps to improve our range of motion over time, making you more flexible which helps you to run more freely and without pain in tight muscles or tendons.
Cooling down with yoga
After your run, doing some yoga can help to loosen up muscles that may be feeling tight after exercise.
It is also an effective way to bring your heart rate down to resting level when you are finished your run. Stretching and loosening the muscles immediately after running can help to accelerate recovery.
Yoga Exercises Runners Should Try
1. Downward Dog
Position yourself on all fours, with your hands flat on the floor, wrists beneath your shoulder joints, and knees under the hip joints. Your feet should be flexed so your toes are touching the ground.
Push your hips upwards by straightening your legs. At the same time, push your hips backward until your heels are flat on the floor. Make sure your hands stay firmly planted on the mat while you do this.
When your hips are in the right position, your arms should be stretched out in front of you, extending from the shoulders past the ears. Your head should be facing inwards, looking at your knees.
Your body should be in a “V” position, with both your hands and your feet flat on your yoga mat. Make sure you keep your back straight and don’t arch it or concave it.
When in this position, engage your shoulders and upper back by slightly rotating your upper arms to open up the chest. Also, engage your quads to help you stay strong in this position for an extended time.
2. Low Lunge
It is easiest to go into a low lunge pose from downward dog pose. Bring your right foot up and place it between your palms, while they are still flat on the mat. Make sure your ankle is in line with your knee and you are not leaning forwards or backwards.
Lower your left knee to the mat and flip your foot over so it is resting with the bridge on the mat. If you can, slide it backwards a little more until you can feel a comfortable—but not painful—pull in the muscles.
As you inhale, lift your hands in a sweeping motion in front of you, until they are above your head. Raise your chest and tilt your pelvis inwards so your whole torso is in line. Hold it for as long as you can before lowering your hands back to the floor.
3. Half Lord of the Fishes Pose
This is a twisting pose that can help to stretch the shoulders, neck, and back.
Begin sitting on your yoga mat with your legs straight out in front of you. Bend your left knee upwards, and place your foot on the floor in front of you.
Bend your right leg underneath you, so your right heel is resting against your left glute and your right knee is resting on the floor in front of you. Then, lift your left foot and place it on the other side of your right leg. You should feel a stretch in your glutes and your hamstrings.
Place your left hand on the floor behind you so you can lean on it. Inhale and lift your right arm to the skies, keeping it close to your ear. Then, exhale and—at the same time—twist your torso slightly to the left hand side while bringing your right arm down.
Rest the outside of the right tricep against the outside of the left thigh, with your hand in the air. Make sure you are twisting your torso and not your neck!
Hold this pose. Every time you inhale, extend the spine a little more. Every time you exhale, twist slightly more until you can go no further. Be careful not to push yourself too much and cause injury.
4. Reclining Hand to Big Toe
This pose helps to alleviate tension in the hamstrings. You will need a belt, towel, or resistance band to help you in the beginning.
Start by lying on your back with your legs straight. Bend your right knee and bring it up towards your chest. Hook the towel, belt, or resistance band under your midfoot. Then, straighten your leg upwards, towards the ceiling.
Make sure your leg, elbows, and back are all straight. Your back and head should still be on the mat – make sure your back isn’t arching. Your leg doesn’t need to be at 90 degrees. You can bring it up as much as you want to until you can feel the stretch in your hamstring.
5. Reclining Pigeon
This yoga posture helps to stretch the hips. Lie on your back with your right leg bent and your foot on the floor. Cross your left ankle over your right knee, with your left knee pointing out to the side.
Lean forward slightly and wrap your hands around your right hamstring, under your left ankle. Lie back again slowly until your shoulders touch the ground, pulling your hamstring towards you. You can also wrap your hands around the front of your right knee instead of the hamstring if that is more comfortable for you.
Hold this position for as long as you can. After each breath, try to pull your hamstring a little closer, until you feel you can go no further. Switch sides and do it again, until you feel both sides are well stretched.
6. Reclining Spinal Twist
You can do this pose one leg at a time, or with both legs at once.
Start by lying on your back on your yoga mat. If you want to do both legs at once, lift your knees to your chest and spread your arms out so your upper body forms a T shape, with your palms facing the ceiling.
Make sure you are not tilting your pelvis inwards—by contracting your lower abdominals—so that your lower back is flat against the mat. Exhale and swing your knees in a controlled manner over to one side and turn your head to the other side. Hold this for as long as you feel comfortable, and then come back to the center and do the other side.
If you want to do it with just one leg at a time, just lift one leg to your chest at a time and stretch out just the arm on the same side as that knee. Twist your knee over to the opposite side, holding it in place with your other hand, while you turn your head in the opposite direction.
Relax, hold for a few seconds until you feel the stretch and return to the center to switch legs.
7. Pigeon Pose
Pigeon pose is meant to open up the hips. It’s easiest and safest to begin this pose from downward dog.
When you are in the V position, lift one leg straight out behind you, and then bring it in, under your torso, and place your knee on the mat behind your wrist—outside of your hip. You want to twist your knee slightly so that your foot is sitting underneath your groin area, not under your thigh.
Then, walk your other foot backwards slowly so that your hip joint is as far extended as it can be without causing your pain or discomfort. The bridge of your foot should be on the mat at this point, not your toes. Make sure that this leg remains straight and doesn’t accidentally curve to the side.
The more flexible you become, the more you will be able to move your bent leg forward to be almost parallel with the top edge of your mat.
Once you have a stable base like this, walk your hands forward until you can lay your head down on your arms. If you aren’t flexible enough yet, find a medium-sized block or platform you can use to lay your head on.
Try to hold this pose for 10 breaths before slowly and carefully unfolding yourself and switching to the other side.
8. Waterfall: Legs Up the Wall
You can lie flat on the floor for this pose or you can use a bolster, like a pillow or folded up blanket. If you’re using a cushion, place it slightly away from the wall. When you lie down, it should be supporting your lower back.
You should lie with your bottom as close to the wall as possible, and have your legs up against the wall. If you can’t straighten your legs yet, that’s okay. Just keep them against the wall at whatever angle is comfortable for you. This is a static pose, so you will hold it for as long as you can.
9. Pyramid Pose
Stand as if you are going to do a lunge, with your right foot forward (facing forward) and your left foot behind you (facing the front left corner of your yoga mat). Your feet should not be in line with each other; instead, there should be a small gap between their positions on the mat.
Tighten your lower abs to bring the navel inwards and upwards, while tilting your tailbone towards the floor. Try not to lock your knees, but keep them slightly bent.
Interlace your fingers behind your back and press your arms backwards, stretching the shoulders and opening up the chest. Hold this position for a few seconds, and then—keeping your arms locked behind you—begin to bend slowly at the waist, keeping your back straight.
When your torso is parallel to the floor, pause for a second or two to breathe. Then, unlink your hands and keep bending forward, until your fingertips are resting on the yoga mat next to your foot.
If you need to, you can bring your back foot a little closer. As you get more flexible and your balance improves, you can lift your hands and place them behind your calf—like you’re holding it.