Runners need yoga: it’s a fact, plain and simple. You beat your body up for a couple hours, compressing the vertebrae, loading the joints and breaking down the muscle and you need yoga to lengthen the body, bring energy back to the joints and bend-y areas of the body, and to do some restorative stretching. Yoga builds up your core, from the upper and lower abs in the front to the obliques and lower back and butt; you need all of that to maintain good running form, to be able to pick up your feet and your knees, to keep your hips aligned and posture upright. Ever feel your non-leg body parts get really fatigued? You’re weak, son!
There are plenty of books, videos and articles about yoga for runners (a dozen on Runner’s World alone) and the physical musculoskeletal reasons are obvious. But for me, the biggest intersection has been with two specific areas of yoga practice: mudras, or hand gestures, and pranayama, or yogic breathing. We often open and close our yoga practice with a spiritual intention and its acknowledgement; we are seated in lotus position and our hands are resting on our lower bodies. The tip of the thumb finds the tip of the index finger, or perhaps the middle finger. It’s an open hand full of energy and yet the touching of the fingers encircles and captures the energy back. There is no hard pressure but just mere contact that calms the mind and while you may just be feeling blood running through the fingertips, you also feel energy. Close your eyes and try this right now, even seated at your desk. Just rest your hands in your lap (palm side up if possible) and touch the tips of your thumbs to any of the other finger tips and breathe through your nose at a slow, consistent pace; take just as long for each exhale as for each inhale and do this for 30-seconds, or even a minute.
Feels good, right? Now imagine doing this while running. After having done yoga for a few years now, I find my hands end up in guyan or shuni mudra all the time when I’m running. It’s the perfect balance that prevents clenching or muscle tensing but also gives some structure so your hands aren’t flopping around like an octopus on a stick. Even running down trails, I tend to look like an airplane as I use my arms to counterbalance my weight but the tips of my index finger and thumb will still be joined.
In terms of breathing, I picked up two techniques. One was from my first yoga teacher: in order to really control the breath, there is a way to tamp your tongue to the roof of your mouth during inhalation that prevents air from coming in through the mouth and only allows your nose to inhale; when you exhale your tongue drops and you can exhale out of your throat. I found myself doing this a lot in order to calm myself; there are nerves at the roof of your mouth that get stimulated by the tongue and holding it there has a calming effect as well as regulating airflow; I would breathe like this for the majority of the race and at the end when I picked up the pace or broke out into serious effort, then I could abandon technique and do some serious air gulping (yep, saliva all over the face, as my biology professor pointed out during lecture while knocking marathoners; she’s a hater but she’s also awesome). Keeping the tip of the tongue in contact with the roof of the mouth allowed me to maintain composure until I had to break it, “saving” that style of exertion until the end. There are plenty of references to this technique, some referring to accupressure and the meridiens of the body (one of the main ones ends at the tip of the tongue); others refer to a closed loop of energy, similar to what I do with the fingers. I found myself doing this all the time but in particular, during races and long runs when I needed to pace myself out.
Another technique that is integral to my running now is to do forceful, full exhales. This is a combination of things learned from another yoga teacher as well as my biology professor, since we are learning about circulation and gas exchange. In terms of yoga practice, there is something called bellows breathing which is a technique of not only taking deep breaths but exhaling deep breaths: you push out all of the stale air until there is nothing left in your lungs and when you finally inhale, they flood with fresh air. It sounds simple and obvious but when folks are running, they often make the mistake of trying to gulp in air, actively. That’s where you hear the panters and heavy breathers struggling as hard as they can to bring oxygen into their bodies. What you do with bellows breathing is to simply create a vacuum in the lungs (negative pressure) with the full exhales that automatically brings in fresh air; your body has no choice, really. It is a lot easier to exhale fully than to inhale fully because physiologically, you exhale by relaxing your diaphragm since that actually moves the muscle up, decreasing the volume in the thoracic cavity and expelling air. You have to clench your diaphragm in order to inhale since the contraction lowers the diaphragm, creating a bigger volume to allow air to come in to the lungs. As a runner, you don’t want to work any harder than you have to so why work hard to breathe in air, when you can just let the air come in naturally, by virtue of physics? So these days, I keep nice steady breathing with the tip of the tongue in contact with the roof of my mouth and when I’m really exerting myself and I really need to oxygenate my body to provide energy to my muscles, I exhale forcefully and yes, that leads to more saliva on the face but makes my life a lot easier. Next time you’re in a full sprint or dying for some oxygen, try this technique; it’s guaranteed to work.