Yoga for runners: Stretch your way to a faster 5K

Discover how yoga could help your running, and why nursery rhymes are actually very scientific...

Alexandra Rees is a qualified sport and exercise scientist, ex-club runner and Bikram yoga devotee of six years, who can now touch her toes with sickening ease.

Like Kerry McCarthy, who in our first blog admitted that he thought yoga was solely for hippies, I too had preconceived notions about yoga: I thought it was a chance for lazy people to put on some Lycra and lie on the floor breathing whilst convincing themselves they'd done some "exercise".

One Bikram yoga class six years ago changed all of that. As a club runner, I used to feel that a workout wasn't worth it unless I was pushed to puking point. Puke I nearly did during my first Bikram class; and I was instantly converted.

I also felt sick because I realised that whilst my 5K PB was safely under the 20 minute mark, I couldn't touch my toes, my ITB (iliotibial band, the muscle that runs from your hip to your knee on the outside of your leg) seemed to be made out of concrete and my balance was similar to that of a career alcoholic.

To be a good runner, you need a strong core. A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that after six weeks' core strength training, runners were found to have a significantly faster 5K time - but why is the core so important?

Remember that song about the skeletons, 'the leg bone's connected to the knee bone; the knee bone's connected to the thigh bone...'? As silly as it seems, this nursery rhyme is actually referring to the kinetic chain: you damage one part of the body, and something, somewhere will compensate, and that's when you get that niggling ankle/ knee/ back pain. The kinetic chain starts at your core. A strong core means peripheral muscles won't have to take up the slack, and you'll have more energy, strength and decrease the risk of that niggling pain.

The core muscle group consists of the large muscle groups around your trunk (AKA torso). Amongst others, this includes: abdominal group (rectus and transverse abdominus; internal and external obliques); erector spinae group (three muscles which run from the nape of the neck to the base of the spine); hip flexors and gluteus group (the three muscles which make up your bum). Whilst not around your trunk, the hamstring group (back of your thighs), quadriceps group (front of thighs), hip adductors (inner thighs) and ITB are also considered 'core' muscles.

This lot need to be strong but flexible; running may make you strong, but definitely not flexible. Running is the 'ying' to yoga's 'yang'; complementary opposites, and Bikram in particular has the added benefit of providing both an anaerobic and aerobic element, due to the dynamic nature of the postures combined with the fact it's as hot as hell in there.

Each group of core muscles has a function during running. The glutes steady your pelvis; your hamstrings and quads allow for controlled extension and contraction of the legs and the ITB stabilises your hip and knee joints. Your abs group can be seen as the mothership of your core - when contracted, they stabilise the trunk and start a (kinetic) chain reaction of efficiency and strength throughout the rest of the core group and more peripheral muscles. 

Bikram's 26 postures work all these muscle groups (and more) with each posture. For example, a squat (known in Bikram as 'awkward pose') requires your thighs to be parallel to the floor (hamstrings and quads being worked), your stomach to be sucked in (abdominals working) and your glutes to fire up as you go in and out of the posture slowly. The spine twisting pose completed at the end of the class again requires full contraction of the abdominals and stretches the ITB in a way you never knew was possible.

You don't need to be one of those annoyingly smug, flexible people to benefit from yoga. Even if touching your toes seems like a distant dream, the process of setting up the posture and holding it in the heat for a total of 90 seconds (each posture is done twice, with the first set 60 seconds and second set 30 seconds) will lengthen and strengthen your muscles far more than a basic hammy stretch and a few sit-ups ever would.

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Welcome to our new Yoga for Runners blog

5K, core, Yoga for Runners, yoga, bikram, Alexandra Rees, stretching, avoiding injury

Discuss this story

The first blog said: -"Over the next 12 months, we will post a fortnightly blog which will describe, using text and images, each of the 26 poses, explain which parts of the body they benefit and show you how to do them properly in the comfort of your own home."

 I was delighted to hear this and was eagerly looking forward to the second blog - but there is no sign of  a description or instructions on a pose with this blog. Am I looking in the wrong place?


Posted: 08/05/2011 at 23:35

Its a little quirk with RW ... promise lots and deliver sometime in the next millenium  
Posted: 08/05/2011 at 23:54

sounds great to me. I have started a Yoga programme I did years ago. It sure helped me then.
Posted: 09/05/2011 at 14:22

Think I'll need to be able to stick my ankle behind my head to get my 5k time down.
Posted: 09/05/2011 at 15:38

I have done yoga for a few years, even before i started running. I stopped it for a few months and noticed a difference within weeks. So I started yoga again soon after. Look forward to reading the other posts
Posted: 19/05/2011 at 14:32

My favourite yoga pose is no. 26-'The Leg-Over'. It's going to be a long wait.
Posted: 26/01/2012 at 14:48

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