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Yoga for Runners

Applying Yoga to Running

When Hillary Gibson applied the lessons she'd learned in yoga to her daily runs, she realized she could run further and ease her pain.

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by Hillary Gibson

I’ve been running several miles a day since my early teenage years, always pushing myself to go further and faster. When an injury, side-stitch, or burning desire to just stop already arose during a run, I responded by turning my music up louder to get my adrenaline pumping. Instead of digging to the root of the problem, I pushed through the pain only to apply ice and balms after the damage was done. But when I badly strained my Achilles tendon over a year ago from over-exertion, I realized my “burn calories now, deal with it later” attitude wasn’t working. I knew I needed to find a different way to replenish my body. At the urging of my mom, a seasoned yogi, I decided to give yoga a try. She had taken me to classes when I was younger, but I always found the words and poses so funny that I had trouble containing my girlish giggles. Older and just slightly wiser, I decided to give yoga a second chance and immediately became hooked. Not only has my yoga practice kept my Achilles tendon free from strain, but my entire perspective on running has also changed.

I realized that instead of acknowledging what my body was telling me and adapting, I was trying to cover up the pain and fatigue. Yoga gave me an entirely new perspective rooted in simply listening to my body. My first move was to ditch the iPod. How could I listen to my body’s natural rhythm with Top 40’s blaring in my ears? I stopped telling myself “just one more song,” and conforming to a beat my body wasn’t feeling, even if my pumped-up mindset was. As a result, I now feel present in my runs, no longer dreading what’s coming next.

In every yoga class I’ve taken, I’ve been invited to check in with my body and ask myself– How am I feeling today? What is my energy level? My mental state? If I take the time to evaluate my body and my mental space when I’m on the mat, I thought, why not extend that awareness to my runs? My mind free from noise, I began to infuse my runs with elements of my yoga practice.

My shoes are tied, and I’m out the door. I start by scanning my body from the feet up, first becoming aware of the sensation of my shoes against the ground. Then I begin to ask myself the same sort of questions I hear in yoga class – Am I distributing my weight evenly throughout my feet, or am I relying too much on the outside edges? I listen to my breath, taking deep Ujjayi inhales and exhales to create heat and rhythm. I then slowly work up the body, focusing on one aspect at a time until I feel grounded in my posture. As I run I focus on aligning my torso by slighting tucking my tail and engaging my abs. I feel strong and rely less on my legs to propel me forward when scaling a steep hill. I reach the top of the climb and let out three big lion’s breath exhales by opening my mouth wide, sticking out my tongue, and exhaling with a big “haaa!” With it, I acknowledge conquering the slope and reset my breath.

Then it’s on to my shoulders and arms. I envision the quietness of a Tadasana (Mountain Pose) posture with my shoulders rolled down my back. I allow my elbows to rest at my hips with my arms bent at a slightly obtuse angle instead of bringing them up toward my chest. I keep my hands only slightly furled to avoid creating tension from clenched fists.

The result of my yoga-inspired runs? I now feel sustainable, grounded, and I’ve doubled my distances. While I used to start fading after two or three miles, I now log at least five just about every day. I’m entirely absorbed by the sensations in my body and am able to turn inward, tapping into an almost meditative state. Incorporating techniques I’ve learned from yoga into my runs allows me to take care of my body without compromising my love of running.

Hillary Gibson is the Web Editorial Intern at Yoga Journal and studies English at University of California Berkeley.

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