With all of us having a lot more free time on our hands currently, it is unsurprising that three quarters of people in Britain have taken up a new form of exercise during lockdown, myself included. During the past two months I have finally started adding yoga regularly into my weekly routine by following along with different YouTube videos. As a runner, it is easy to get swept up in the routine of only running and forgetting how beneficial other forms of exercise can be to your body, mind and running performance. Cross-training allows us to rest the muscles used in running, working on different muscles that are not often activated and therefore promoting overall body balance. In turn, this helps to prevent overuse injuries due to giving your body a rest from the repetitive, high-impact notion of running.
Aspects that we, in Western cultures, identify with the word 'yoga' include exercises and postures, breathing and sometimes meditation, generally referred to as Hatha yoga. Yoga is considered as a mind-body exercise, aiming to achieve a state of emotional, physical, spiritual and physiological well-being. Yoga is considered an excellent, alternative exercise that can help you become a better runner through increasing overall strength and flexibility and reducing heart rate, blood pressure and back pain. Whilst the benefits discussed in this post are tailored to runners, they definitely extend further to those who are not involved in running at all. Yoga provides many benefits, discussed below, that can prove helpful in improving the physical and mental well-being of all.
As expected, yoga poses can help create elasticity and loosen up our muscles, joints and ligaments, improving our overall flexibility and range of motion. In particular, significant flexibility improvements have been found within the hamstrings, lower back and ankles as a result of regular yoga sessions. Improving flexibility can have numerous positive effects on our running performance, as touched upon in my previous blog post, with yoga improving the flexibility of athletes considerably more than basic stretching alone. Research has found sports performance to be greatly enhanced through implementing yoga regularly into a training programme with it also improving other components of fitness essential for sports performance.
Yoga practices help to develop strength, particularly in the key muscles that are used for running such as the quads, hamstrings, core and hip flexors. Additionally, it strengthens the deep connective tissue which ultimately helps to prevent or minimise the risk of injury, especially for runners. Following a 12-week yoga programme has been found to cause significant improvements in muscular strength and muscular endurance for both men and women, particularly in the lower limbs and abdominal muscles. People regularly practicing yoga have reported their ability to maintain poses drastically increasing over time, put down to improvements in strength and stability.
An element of yoga not regularly considered as a benefit to runners is breathing. Yoga encourages conscious breathing, helping us become aware of sensations caused within our bodies due to our breathing. This breath work can help create a more relaxed mental state as well as increasing our oxygen intake, thus likely improving our running performance. An improved quality and depth of breathing has been found from completing regular yoga, with many finding their ability to integrate this deeper breathing into other aspects of life heightened. Reductions in the resting heart rate of women has also been found, thought to result from the reduction of respiratory rate caused by relaxation and breathing techniques in the yoga training. Therefore, this indicates improved breathing work can have further positive effects on our cardiovascular system which is key during most sports.
All too often posture is neglected and it's importance underestimated. Your posture influences the alignment of your spine, the central channel of the nervous system, and therefore is important for our overall body health. Anyone who has tried yoga will likely recognise the phrase 'elongate the spine'. Yoga teaches us to do this without adding tension, focusing on alignment and standing taller and stronger with improvements to trunk extension and trunk flexion being found. Increasing this body awareness also means you are more likely to notice if you are slouching and can quickly work to correct it. Building on posture will reflect in your running technique and allow you to make improvements on your running form, ultimately increasing running efficiency. Alongside this, keeping your back flexible and correcting posture can be effective in treating and preventing back pain, something that can often result from incorrect running form.
Finally, yet perhaps one of the most important benefits for runners and non-runners alike, is the benefit of balancing out our mind. For runners, it can help teach the importance of resting, promoting recovery and healing, stopping us from over-training and causing added stress to our bodies. Additionally, improved mindfulness can be of use when a run becomes a tough, mental challenge since it has been found to enhance mental focus, concentration, will power and determination.
Generally, the relaxation and breathing techniques applied in yoga aim to clear the mind of worry which can considerably improve our levels of stress. Stress itself often leads to disorders such as anxiety, depression, obesity and diabetes and, since yoga helps target our bodies stress response through activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, it can aid in relieving these disorders. More and more often yoga is being offered alongside psychotherapy in order to help individuals cope with stress, anxieties and emotional wounds outside of the therapy session. Anxiety in particular has been found to be closely linked to sympathetic activation, with a shift towards our parasympathetic system being found to be effective for improving the intensity of anxiety in the short term. Therefore, whilst yoga offers considerable mental benefits to sportspeople it also has been shown to be effective in helping with disorders commonly experienced by all individuals.
Personally, I have thoroughly enjoyed adding yoga into my morning routines. Not only does it leave me feeling more energised for the day ahead but I have noticed a great improvement in my flexibility and core strength over the past couple of months. Using my extra time to promote recovery from running has been beneficial in terms of noticing less niggles and less fatigued legs, even after a hard session. As well as this, it has been fun to challenge myself in new ways and add something different into my routine. Before lockdown, I was regularly attending a variety of different gym classes. However, now this is not possible, yoga has been a great alternative to break up my weekly running and strength sessions and give my body some well-earned TLC. Have you tried any new forms of exercise during lockdown? Let me know in the comments!
My favourite yoga YouTube channels to use are:
Sarah Beth Yoga: https://www.youtube.com/user/SarahBethShow
Yoga with Adrienne: https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene