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Five Ways That Yoga Made Me a Happier and Healthier Runner
by Karen Costa
Thank you for welcoming me to the G-Vegas Striders Blog to talk about the connections between yoga and running. I’m excited to share how my yoga practice has changed my running practice. My hope is that after reading this post, you’ll give yoga a try if you haven’t already. Not only has yoga made me a stronger runner, but it has truly transformed every aspect of my life for the better.
I’ll begin by giving you a little background on my running history. The first time I remember running for sport was as part of my high school track team. I wasn’t very fast but I held my own. It was a lot of fun to run with my friends and I could immediately feel the impact that running had on my body, physically and emotionally. I felt stronger in body and spirit. But even at that young age, I was plagued with injuries including a stress fracture to my ilium and the worst shin splints in the history of the world.
Years later, I returned to running as I noticed that my metabolism was slowing down while my appetite moved in the opposite direction. In my late 20s I completed my first four-mile run and felt on top of the world. About six months after my son was born, I ran a 5k that filled me with a sense of pride and accomplishment. But truth be told, my running practice was sporadic, and injuries, pains, and cramping sidelined me on a regular basis.
Today, I am a happy twice-weekly jogger. I run a couple of miles at a nice, easy pace, and I am confident that my jogs are strengthening and protecting my body, not causing me injuries or weakening my joints. It is in large part due to my yoga practice that I finally feel settled and at peace with running. Here are some of the running lessons that I’ve learned through yoga:
I used to do all kinds of crazy things to my body in order to “get my run in” that now make me cringe, as if my body was just a piece of meat that was meant to serve my will. I would run through severe pain, not give my body time to heal, not invest in quality gear, and push myself past my natural limits. Through yoga, I’ve come to see my body in a completely different light. I no longer believe in the mantra, “No pain, no gain.” My run serves my body, not the other way around. One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned is how to recognize the messages conveyed by the sensations in my body. Pain is different than challenge. Pain is different than work. When I run, I often feel my body at work as it faces the challenge of the last mile. That is a healthy sensation. I know that it’s safe to keep running. But if I feel pain, I stop and rest. Pain is a different kind of message. By developing body awareness I am a stronger runner because I’m less likely to cause an injury that will only delay my running progress in the future.
Have you tried the tennis ball on the sole of the foot trick to help heal plantar fasciitis? If you’ve experienced PF, you are wincing in sympathy as you read this. I struggled with PF on and off for years. As soon as I began to practice yoga on a daily basis, my PF vanished. Here’s what I’ve learned as a yoga student and now as a yoga teacher-in-training. Everything is connected. What was presenting as a pain in the bottom of my foot could very well have come from imbalances in my upper body. While calf and hamstring stretches are definitely part of most yoga classes, I believe that keeping my entire body flexible and open is what finally healed my PF.
For several years, about 50% of my runs would end with a painful stitch in my side. I tried everything to avoid this: changing my meal times, changing my run times, and adding in more pre-run stretching and warm-ups. Still, half the time my run would end earlier than planned to stop that awful pain.
Since I’ve been practicing yoga, 99% of my runs are now stitch-free, because yoga has taught me how to breathe. I can remember one of my first real yoga classes where the teacher mentioned that we were going to learn to breathe. Learn to breathe? I’ve been breathing for three decades. And then, as she taught us some of the deep breathing practices called pranayama, I got it. I hadn’t really been breathing at all. My breath had allowed me to survive, not to thrive.
Many of us are chest breathers. We take small, shallow breaths. I’ve learned to practice full, deep, yogic breathing that feels like every inch of my lungs are filling up with oxygen and nutrients to feed by body. This breathwork has travelled with me off the mat and into my runs. I can now “read” my breath, so that if it becomes jagged I know to slow down. When it’s steady, I can stay at that pace or maybe challenge myself a bit more. I feel my breath supporting me throughout the run and I’m able to finish my run without pain thanks to the teachings of yoga.
One of the greatest gifts of yoga is to learn how to distance yourself from your thoughts. In the past, I used to believe that every thought I had was true and that I had no choice but to react to it. Through meditation, physical poses, and self-study, all important aspects of yoga, I’ve learned to notice my thoughts, to pause, and to decide when or if I will react to them.
I can remember one particular yoga class where the teacher led us into happy baby pose, a posture where you lay on your back with bent knees and reach for the soles of your feet. I felt content at first, but then the teacher said we’d be staying there for several breaths in order to explore the pose more fully.
“Get out!” my thoughts screamed in my head. “You can’t stay here. This is dangerous. You’ll get hurt.” I paused and took a breath. I scanned my body. There was absolutely no pain to be found. I felt areas of stretching and other sensations, but I was certain that I wasn’t in any pain. So I talked back to my thoughts. “Thank you but I’m okay here.” I stayed in the pose and learned a valuable lesson about thoughts.
That voice comes into my head when I run. “This is too hard. This sucks. Why don’t you just walk instead? Quit. Quit. Quit.” But now that I’ve learned to breathe and scan my body for pain, I can make a choice as to what serves me best in that moment. I can smile at those thoughts, thank them for their time, and then let them go.
There is a saying in the yoga world that reminds students to, “Keep your eyes on your own mat.” In other words, yoga is a practice of self-realization, not realization of what your neighbor is or isn’t doing on her mat. We learn to make our yoga practice our own. As I mentioned, I jog at a mild pace for a couple of miles, a couple of times each week. It’s not a very impressive mile count is it? But it’s mine. It’s what works for my body and me at this moment in my life.
There was a time when I would’ve felt like that wasn’t good enough, or fast enough, or far enough. I would’ve turned my run into yet another thing to worry or fuss about instead of something to help me feel better about myself. Yoga helped me release all of those feelings and to make my run my own.
Starting a Yoga Practice
If you are interested in starting a yoga practice, consider attending a class at a local studio or gym. Begin with a gentle or beginner’s yoga class and if it serves your body, you can progress into more advanced classes from there. Tell your teacher that you are a runner so that they can help personalize the poses to your unique needs. For example, runners often have a lot of strength in their hips and legs but might lack flexibility. Finding a balance between the two might be the goal of your yoga practice and a great teacher can help you to explore that. I expect that you’ll soon find that not only does yoga make you a happier and healthier runner, but that it will change other areas of your life for the better as well.
Karen Costa is a yoga teacher-in-training at Frog Pond Yoga Centre in Princeton. She is currently teaching a Karma Community yoga class at The Yoga Tree in Gardner. You can learn more about Karen's yoga teaching and find the schedule for her class at www.theyogatreegardner.com. Follow and engage with Karen on Twitter @KarenRayCosta or visit her website, www.thecoreofyourcore.com.