Yoga for Athletes

30 Yoga Tips to Prevent Injury

Runners, stay healthy by protecting, stretching, and cross-training with yoga.

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No one wants to get hurt. Injuries are both painful and can sideline athletes for months—a real bummer if you are trying to improve on a time or training for a race. With smart training, though, there’s no reason an injury should stand in your way. Spending some serious time on your yoga mat might be your best bet. Practicing yoga asanas can help keep muscles supple, and yoga’s emphasis on mindfulness can bring about increased focus and awareness—which experts say is key for protection.

PROTECT

meditation

Be body-aware. One key way yoga can help prevent running injuries is by cultivating mindfulness. The more aware you are of how your body feels from day to day or from pose to pose, the more likely you are to notice tight or injury-prone areas that need attention.

CROSS-TRAIN

Partner with yoga. Training for a marathon? Yoga makes a great training partner. “Yoga helps you stay injury-free by cultivating a balance between strength and flexibility in the body,” says yoga teacher and running coach Sage Rountree.

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STRETCH

Stretch smarter. Yoga’s combination of active and passive stretching is one way it helps keep injuries at bay. Active stretching—moving and stretching the body dynamically, as in Sun Salutations, for example—creates warmth and suppleness in the tissues. Passive stretching—holding a posture for a minute or more in a way that’s relaxed—allows muscles to lengthen even more. So be sure to include both types of stretching in your practice. And practice often!

PROTECT

Get shoe-fit. Before you lace up, make sure your shoe is appropriate for your stride and level of experience so you can pound the pavement pain-free. Consult a local running shop to get sized and fit for the best brand and model of shoe for you.

STRETCH

Flex, point, fl-oint your feet. Hitting the pavement again and again can take its toll on your tootsies, so it’s essential for runners to take time to care for them. A typical yoga practice stretches, strengthens and brings increased awareness to the feet. “You couldn’t ask for a better set of tools to reawaken the feet,” says yoga teacher Rodney Yee.

STRETCH

foot and hands

Massage your dogs. Love a good foot massage? Tias Little suggests this simple exercise to warm up your feet and show them some love: Stand on a tennis ball and roll it back and forth under your foot, working the toes, the ball of the foot, the arch, and the heel.

STRETCH

Stretch your soles—and your soul. Target the muscles and connective tissue on the sole of your foot and stretch the deep layer of calf muscles that moves the toes and supports the arch of the foot. Try this to keep your feet healthy and avoid plantar fasciitis: Come onto your hands and knees and tuck your toes under. Slowly lean the weight of your hips back and sit on your heels. To start, keep your hands on the floor in front of you. As the pose becomes comfortable, you can progress to sitting upright with all of your weight on your heels, palms in your lap.

STRETCH

Try this key pose for runners. Supta Padangusthasana (Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose) stretches the hamstrings and the entire line of tissue that runs along the back of the hip, thigh, and calf, which tugs on the sole of the foot when it gets tight—a common problem for runners. Try this: Lie on your back, put a strap around the ball of your right foot, and extend your right leg up. Keep your head and shoulders on the floor and grab the strap with both hands. Keep your thigh close to your belly as you lightly push into the strap with the ball of your right foot. After a few breaths, switch sides.

STRETCH

Keep your hips happy. Runners are notorious for having tight hips. Over time, that tightness can lead to limited mobility, additional stress on the back of the leg, and increased tension in the plantar fascia. Lie on the floor with both feet on a wall and your knees bent. Place your right ankle on your left knee and flex your right foot. With your right hand, gently push the right thigh, just above the knee, away from your head. Keep your hips, spine, and head on the floor and relax your neck. Hold for a few breaths and repeat on the other side.

STRETCH

Do you understand your IT band? One of the most common causes of knee pain in runners is irritation of the iliotibial band (IT band), a thick band of fascia that runs from the top of the outer hip to just below the outer knee. It’s a common misconception that stretching the IT band itself will fix this. However, the band is simply a fibrous sheet; the surrounding muscles are the cause of the problem, such as the hip muscles that attach to the IT band.

STRETCH

Hit the right spot. This Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) variation stretches the hamstrings where they meet the IT band: Start by standing. Cross your right ankle over your left. With your knees slightly bent, fold forward and rest your hands on the floor, a block, or a chair. Reach your sitting bones toward the sky and move your ribs away from your pelvis to prevent your back from rounding. Hold for 1 minute, and then repeat, crossing your left ankle over right.

STRETCH

Make a habit of hip openers. As a simple rule of thumb for keeping the IT band and the muscles around it in peak condition so you can run pain-free, focus on hip openers as well as quadriceps and hamstring stretches, all of which can reduce the pull on the IT band.

STRETCH

Roll out. Using a foam roller can be an effective way to release tension in the IT band. To reach the high-friction zone between the quadriceps and the IT band, imagine your thigh is a shoebox: The outside of the thigh is one side of the box, and the front of the thigh is another side. Roll where the corner of the box would be—about halfway between the front and the outer thigh.

PROTECT

Learn when to listen. Competitive and endurance sports like running encourage us to override the internal voice that says, “Slow down, stop, I can’t, it hurts.” Sometimes overcoming this voice is the key to a breakthrough performance: We achieve things we never realized we were capable of because we ignore the voice of self-doubt. Sometimes overcoming this voice is a direct path to injury: We do damage to ourselves because we ignore the voice of self-protection, says Sage Rountree, a yoga teacher and running coach. But, approached mindfully, your time on the mat can be like a language lab, giving you opportunity to listen, to make mistakes, and to correct them compassionately.

STRETCH

Hit hidden tension. This Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) variation stretches the difficult-to-reach tensor fasciae latae at the top of the IT band. Come to a Low Lunge with your right leg forward. Lift your hips up and back until they are directly over your left knee. Keeping your lower back neutral, place your right hand on your right thigh and extend your left hand overhead and to the right. You should feel this in your outer left hip. Hold and breathe for 30–60 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

CROSS-TRAIN

Bring your body into balance. The pain most runners feel is not from the running in and of itself, but from imbalances that running causes and exacerbates. Yoga can help you balance them out, so you can keep running long and hard for years to come.

CROSS-TRAIN

Focus your practice. Yoga can be the ultimate cross-training for runners if you target your practice. Poses that mimic the running stride, like lunges, can help you stay flexible through the range of motion you use to run. Hip stretches that target the external rotators like Eka Pada Rajakapotanasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose) and Gomukhasana (Cow Face Pose) can help avoid overuse injuries like Iliotibial Band Syndrome and Piriformis Syndrome.

CROSS-TRAIN

Build mind-body awareness. Runners can use yoga practice to balance strength, increase range of motion, and train the body and mind. Asanas move your body through gravitational dimensions while teaching you how to coordinate your breath with each subtle movement. The eventual result is that your body, mind, and breath are integrated in all actions.

PROTECT

Boost your body intel. If you’re a runner, you’re probably aware that when you run your body releases endorphins that can also act as a natural painkiller. These “feel-good” chemicals can mask the onset of injury or illness. That’s why it’s vital for runners to develop body intuition to help recognize their body’s signals to slow down or back off. This is often one of the hardest, but most valuable, lessons athletes learn on their yoga mats.

CROSS-TRAIN

Conquer chronic injury. There’s no need to be sidelined by injuries and discomfort brought on by your running training. Chronic injuries can eventually self-correct through a gentle yet consistent yoga practice. Remember, your body has an inherent intelligence to find a state of equilibrium no matter how many times your feet hit the pavement.

STRETCH

Lower your lunge. Almost an extreme exaggeration of the running stride, this version of Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) addresses tight hip flexors and makes the knee joint more stable, too. From your hands and knees, bring your right foot between your hands. Exhaling, lower your hips and take your back knee to the floor. Runners’ hips are notoriously tight, so if you need to, start with a 90-degree angle between your front and back thighs. Eventually, you can lower your hips so the angle increases to about 180 degrees. Hold for 30 seconds, then switch sides.

PROTECT

Build strength and awareness. This Ardha Chandrasana (Half Moon Pose) variation can give you muscle strength as well as a better awareness of the position of your body in space. Set a block about 12 inches in front of your right foot and slightly to the right of it. Rest your right hand on the block, positioning it beneath your shoulder. Lift your left leg and put your foot against the wall or doorframe. Runners tend to collapse in the chest and shoulders, so stack your left shoulder above your right and extend your left arm above your body. Feel the external rotation of both legs opening the hips. Hold for a minute, then switch sides.

STRETCH

Break into your back body. Runners tend to get stuck in their frontal plane. Janu Sirsasana (Head-of-the-Knee Pose) brings awareness and openness to the back body. Sit with your legs extended (if your lower back rounds, sit on a folded blanket or two). Inhale and bend your right knee to the right, bringing the sole of your right foot to your inner left thigh. Root down through your sitting bones. Exhale and rotate your torso slightly to the left. Stay here or hinge forward from your hips until you feel a stretch down the back of your left leg. Keep your left quadriceps muscles engaged to release your hamstrings. Hold for up to a minute before switching sides.

STRETCH

Twist out tension.Bharadvaja’s Twist hits several common problem areas for runner—the spine, shoulders, and hips. It can be especially good for an achy low back. Start sitting on the floor. Bend your knees, and swing your legs off to the right. Let the top of your right ankle rest in the arch of your left foot. Inhale as you lift your chest and exhale as you twist to the left. Bring your right hand on your left thigh and place your left hand on the floor behind you. Take several deep breaths, then switch sides.

PROTECT

Man in Vrksasana

Stop shin splints before they start. To avoid shin splints, yoga teacher and running coach Sage Rountree recommends incorporating both strengthening and stretching to balance the lower legs. One way to strengthen the lower legs with yoga is to practice standing balance poses like Vrksasana (Tree Pose) standing on a thick, cushy yoga mat to challenge your balance and work your muscles. Try increasing the thickness of your mat by folding it over once or twice to challenge yourself even more.

PROTECT

Don’t forget your feet. You may not give much thought to strengthening anything below your knees, but strong ankles, calves, and feet can help you avoid sprains and shin splints. To build strength, lift up onto the balls of your feet when you practice standing poses like Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and Utkatasana (Chair Pose).

STRETCH

Pop a squat. If your calves or Achilles tendon are tight, incorporate a few squats into your yoga sessions. Try both a tight stance, knees between your arms, and a wide stance (Malasana or Garland Pose). If your calves are very tight, you may need to take a blanket under your heels for balance, slowly unfolding it over time so your heels move toward the floor.

PROTECT

Respect fatigue. All runners experience fatigue from time to time. Fatigue is the result of cumulative stress on your body—from training volume, from your yoga practice, from not sleeping or resting enough, or from any of life’s stressors. When you find yourself in a state of fatigue, take extra care in your yoga practice. Being aware of the tendency to be sloppy during times of exhaustion can help you to avoid injuries. Remember to rest often, move slowly, and keep it gentle. You’ll restore your energy quickly and can get back to a more rigorous practice soon.

CROSS-TRAIN

Tree Pose Vrksasana

Diagnose imbalances. Vrksasana (Tree Pose) teaches balance and strengthens the muscles around your joints—which is helpful whether you run on the road, trails, or a treadmill. And since you work with just your left or right side in isolation, Tree Pose also helps you to notice any imbalances between the two sides of your body and adjust your cross-training accordingly.

PROTECT

Keep knees healthy. Utkatasana (Chair Pose) strengthens the muscles that support healthy knees and ankles. Practice Chair Pose often to keep your legs strong—and injury-free.

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