The Benefits of Yoga for Runners, Backed by Research

The Benefits of Yoga for Runners, Backed by Research

Yoga has been around for thousands of years, but we’ve seen a surge in its popularity since the beginning of the 20th century. Even more recently, data from a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics saw almost a five-percent jump in yoga practice between 2012 and 2017.

Runners of all levels can benefit from adding yoga to their regular cross-training routines. The physical and mental components of yoga can help you build muscle, prevent injuries and other health complications, and boost your focus—to name a few.

Here, we delve into what yoga even is, all the ways it boosts your health and performance, and how you can incorporate it into your everyday life.

The practice of yoga dates back about 2,000 years ago. The Indian sage Patanjali is believed to have collated the practice of yoga into the Yoga Sutra, “which contains 195 statements that serves as a philosophical guidebook for most of the yoga that is practiced today,” according to the Yoga Journal.

Yoga combines physical poses, breathing techniques, and meditation, however improved fitness was not originally a primary goal—mental focus was. It wasn’t until the practice started to gain popularity in the Western world in the 1920s and 1930s that better physical fitness became a priority.

There are many types of yoga. Some of the most popular are:

• Ashtanga yoga: Applies six established sequences of postures that rapidly link every movement to breath.

• Bikram (or “hot”) yoga: Rooms are heated to nearly 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity. It consists of 26 poses and a sequence of two breathing exercises.

• Power yoga: A more athletic type of yoga that is based on ashtanga yoga.

The type of yoga class you may want to attend depends on a few factors, such as how much experience you have and whether you want something more relaxing or more intense. However, it might take a bit of trial-and-error to find the class that works best for you.

Researchers are constantly publishing new studies about how adding yoga to your cross-training routine can help you become a better runner and give your overall health a boost. For instance, preliminary research presented at the American Heart Association’s Hypertension Scientific Sessions in 2019 found that three hot yoga classes weekly for 12 weeks had some serious benefits for your heart—one of your body’s most essential muscular organs. Specifically, hot yoga and room-temperature yoga can help lower your blood pressure. High blood pressure puts extra strain on your heart, according to the Mayo Clinic, and can lead to complications such as heart attack, heart failure, sudden cardiac death, and stroke.

It’s also no surprise that yoga is good for your brain. A 2019 review in the journal Brain Plasticity looked at 11 previous studies that focused on the relationship between yoga practice and brain health and found that those who practiced yoga had more gray matter volume in their brains. Translation? More gray matter means better overall brain function—especially when it comes to aging—and even higher intelligence. Plus, a 2020 review published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that yoga can even help reduce symptoms of depression.

If you’re prone to migraines or back pain, another win for yoga is that it’s been shown to reduce those types of pain. A 2020 study in the journal Neurology found that doing yoga three days a week for as little as one month was enough to ward off migraines—without the use of medication. A 2020 review published in the journal Holistic Nursing Practice found that a long-term yoga practice helped reduce back pain due to the “combination of physical poses with mindful, focused relaxation and emphasis on breathing techniques.”

The best part? You don’t need to go all out with the hardest yoga poses to reap these benefits. While yoga can be an intense workout, even the simplest yoga flows a few times a week will help.

No matter how fit you are when it comes to running, you can still reap measurable benefits from adding yoga to your cross-training training routine.

More intense versions of yoga, such as hot yoga or power yoga, can help improve your overall fitness—whether that’s getting faster at sprinting, or going farther on a long run—by getting your heart rate up and building muscle.

Getting your heart rate up with exercise strengthens your heart, helping it become more efficient at pumping blood throughout your body, according to Kaiser Permanente Washington. This, in turn, “allows your heart to work better under stress and keeps you from getting winded during high-intensity activities.” This means your speedwork and long runs will get easier.

Strengthening your lower body, upper body, and core through yoga helps you gain more power on your runs and prevent injury, too. Strength training not only helps build strength in your muscles and tendons, but increases the flexibility of your ligaments, which decreases your risk of any strains or tears, according to Athletic Lab, a sport science research and training facility in Cary, North Carolina.

There are also many yoga flows that focus on stretching, which is also key for preventing injuries because it increases blood flow to your muscles and improves the range of motion of your joints, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Plus, a relaxing yoga session at night can even help you sleep, making it way easier to get up for your early-morning run.

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If you’re going to your first yoga class or are returning to your practice after a long break, you might be wondering about the gear you need and poses to know in order to get started.

A yoga mat and yoga blocks are essential. (The blocks are there to help shorten the distance between you and the floor in case you need to make a pose easier.) Here are a few gear recommendations to get you started:

While many yoga studios offer virtual classes, not to mention the variety that can be found on YouTube, here are 30 individual poses you can learn—and instructions on how to do them correctly:

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