by Rachel Ahalt, Certified Yoga Instructor
Yoga has long been credited with reducing stress and increasing flexibility, but did you know that it can be the key to faster running times? Incredibly, spending time on my mat and not on the road has led me to personal records (PRs) the last three times I have raced!
My shift from mostly “runner” to mostly “yogi” has occurred over a number of years, gradually shifting to an everyday practice and a once-in-a-while run. You can imagine my surprise when in my mid-forties I started throwing down times that beat the PRs I held in my twenties. I certainly wondered what was happening and knew it was related to my yoga practice, but basically chalked it up to yoga magic (typically said in a voice of whispery wonderment). It turns out, there’s a perfectly good scientific explanation to this newfound speed.
The science of running mechanics is too big to fully cover in this article, but the overall principles are fairly simple. Efficient, fast running is best achieved through alignment. Building from the feet to the head, you should be lifted, fluid and forward, by which I mean your energy moves ever forward, not crossing your mid-line. I’ll confess prior to researching for a "Yoga for Runners" workshop, that I’d never geeked out on my run mechanics. I’d stuck with what I’d learned in sports – do it more and do it faster and better for results. However, in my case, I’d developed a tendency to heavy heel strike, pronate and collapse in the chest as I added mileage and fatigued. Turns out, those things slow a runner down!
Yoga has the ability to change any misalignment in the body. Opening and strengthening muscles can literally move bones over time. Runners benefit particularly from opening their highly worked leg muscles, most commonly the hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, Achilles tendon, and quadriceps. There is also great benefit from opening the torso and shoulders, especially the lesser considered upper chest and rotator cuff muscles. Core strength also plays a huge factor as you work into the middle and end miles of your runs.
It’s intuitive that increased flexibility is “good” for a runner, but how does it create speed? Kona Ironman’s fastest runners have an amazing 20-25 percent angle at the hip flexor and the ideal 5 percent arc in the back (hello backbends!). These angles come together to for optimal power. If you’d like great visual information on this, check out the YouTube videos. You’ll literally see how flexibility creates speed. Tight hip flexors and quadriceps not only shortened my hip angle, but also created chronic back pain; in fact it was this back pain that lead me to yoga in the first place. Opening my body gave me the relief I was looking for and the unexpected delight of faster runs.
A consistent yoga practice is truly a gift that gives in deep and wondrous ways. Get on your mat and see what benefits are waiting for you – on and off the track!