Hello and welcome to part II!
Assuming you’ve read part I, you’ll be familiar with what I’m doing and why I’m writing this blog. If not, you can read Part I here.
A good question at this point might be to ask: Why might yoga practice be beneficial for runners?
I think most people involved in either yoga or running would probably come up with some of the following reasons: Stretching (the practice of yoga postures obviously incorporates stretching), strength & conditioning (core strengh etc.), functional movement (mobility), and increased body awareness (proprioception). Perhaps some less obvious benefits might be: Breathing and concentration/ mental focus (The wider pracice of yoga includes exercises in controlled breathing and concentration). All these things would, at first glance, appear to be supportive of athletic activity.
Let’s have a look at each of these area’s in more detail:
Somwhat suprisingly, when I did some digging it would appear that stretching, warming up and warming down, has little impact on running performace or injury prevention (at least accoring to the research I could find – see refrences). The overall conclusion seems to be that there is insufficent evidence to encourage nor to discontine pre/ post run stretching, and generally that more research would be a good idea. One thing to note is that most of the research carried out has been with athletic populations who already posess a good range of motion, and whilst stretching does not appear to increase individual muscle length, it does increase tolerance to stretch and range of motion. Some studies also indicated that, at the extremes of the flexibility distribution, injury was more likely i.e. amongst the most and least flexible. Given that most people tend to be inflexible there may be greater benefits (and conversely reason for caution for the hiper-mobile).
Strength & Conditioning:
Studies in this field are not specific to yoga but there appears to be good evidence that strength training improves athletic performance and helps to prevent injury.
A 2016 meta-analysis (see references) concluded that regular strength training has a beneficial effect on the performance of runners. Runners may find that there is weakness in the core, hips and glutes; no specific studies exist but my experience is that a regular yoga practice can strengthen these key areas. I’d love to carry out some research on this, maybe one day I will!
Stiffness in the joints can prevent movement through a normal or functional range of motion. This is likely to be restrictive to athletic performance. For example, if the hip flexor is restricted or weak, a person would be less able to lift the knee or extend the leg to push off when running. This might also apply to the ankle when the foot might be unable to move through a normal range of flexion and extension and prevent optimal running form. During modern postural yoga practice we sequentially move through all the muscles and joints of the body taking the range of motion gently toward the current edge which, over time, can extend the available range.
One of the accepted benefits of postural yoga practice is an increased awareness of how the body is positioned in space, and also a better idea of what it feels like (feedback). I can’t find any research to support this but, on an anecdotal level, I’m onside with this one! Having run a good few beginners yoga courses over the years, it’s clear that a lot of people have very little idea how their limbs are positioned without visual confirmation. The ability to intuitively sense this appears to improve quite quickly with regular practice. It seems sensible to me that having an awareness of what the body is doing and what it feels like as a result is of benefit to any movement based activity.
In yoga we constantly encourage deep even breathing encouraging full expansion and contraction of the rib cage and diaphragm. We also practice specific breathing exercises called pranayama (literally breath-control). I’ve often seen it claimed that this leads to enhanced lung capacity and lung function and this seems to be backed up by the data/ research available (for example, a 2017 study found a positive effect on voluntary ventilation in swimmers – see references).
Concentration ( dharana) is one of the eight limbs or auxiliaries of classical yoga (from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, amongst other texts). This is an integral as part of yoga practice and builds on the foundation of pratyahara (sense withdrawal or inward focus) and leads to the state of meditation (dyhana). This is clearly something that cannot easily be proven but I believe that cultivating the ability to focus the mind will help enormously with the mental challenges which can arise during a run (the last 5 miles of a marathon for example).
N.B In a note to the yoga purists, I am well aware that the primary purpose of yoga is not to support athletics. However, for me, it’s certainly a nice side benefit whilst on the long and winding path to self realisation – so no angry comments from the yoga police please 😉
So how’s my training going? Well, I’m now almost through my training plan with only 3 weeks to go until race day. I’ve peaked at the 22 mile training run and I’m now into the taper (scaling back training before a race event). Things have panned out as I’d hoped in terms of avoiding injury; this may be down to following a structured training plan (which I’d heartily recommend) but I maintain that my regular yoga practice has helped me along.
In part III I’ll cover what practices/ postures I’ve found to be most helpful in my training and recovery.
The Impact of Stretching on Sports Injury Risk: A Systematic Review of the Literature – Thacker SB1, Gilchrist J, Stroup DF, Kimsey CD Jr. 2004
Does warming up prevent injury in sport? Fradkin AJ, Gabbe BJ, Cameron PA. 2006
Yogic breathing practices improve lung functions of competitive young swimmers Chirag Sunil Hakked, Ragavendrasamy Balakrishnan, Manjunath Nandi Krishnamurthy 2017
Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials Balsalobre-Fernández C1, Santos-Concejero J, Grivas GV. 2016