Sure, you’re time-crunched and, okay, maybe a little intimidated about being the only person who can’t touch his toes in a room full of Gumbys. But winter is the perfect opportunity to put excuses aside (if you follow these Top Winter Training Tips), when your mileage is likely to take a dip, making it easier to carve out cross-training time. And if you’re starting the New Year with the goal of nabbing an elusive PR or wrestling a nagging injury to the ground, yoga could be a critical piece of your get-faster or get-healthy plan. Yoga has the potential to do so much good—improving strength, flexibility, and mental focus—that it’s surprising that so many runners don’t know a downward dog from an upward dog. In fact, 73 percent of respondents to a recent runnersworld.com poll said they don’t hit the mat.
Why strike a pose? Studies have shown that yoga squashes stress, aids weight loss, eases pain, helps people stick to an exercise routine, and even improves running times. The strength and flexibility you develop on the mat—namely in the core, quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors—can help you run more efficiently and stay injury-free, says Adam St. Pierre, a coach, biomechanist (search: What is a biomechanist?), and exercise physiologist for the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine.
Additionally, holding challenging poses builds tenacity that’ll pay off on the road. Lauren Fleshman, a two-time national outdoor 5000-meter champion, started practicing yoga after breaking her foot in 2008. But the poses gave her more than just foot strength: “Yoga helps me control my emotions while I’m in discomfort on the road,” she says. “Enduring an intense pose is a lot like enduring a long run or tempo run.”
For all the perks yoga offers, it still requires a cautious approach. Get too ambitious, and you could end up hurt and frustrated. This guide will make easing in easy. (How fit are you? Find out with these 10 Total-Body Fitness Tests.)
From yin yoga to vinyasa, there is a dizzying array of classes to choose from (see A Runner’s Guide to Yoga Classes for the details on each). There’s no single style that’s best for every runner, and “the consistency of your practice is far more important than the type of yoga you practice,” says Johnny Gillespie, owner of Empowered Yoga, with centers in Pennsylvania and Delaware. If you’re turned off by the instructor, the vibe, or the pace of the class, move on. “Find a place with teachers you can connect with who understand your needs as a runner.”
Time it Right
Your yoga practice should have a converse relationship with your training: When you’re ramping up mileage and churning out hard workouts, stick with relaxing sessions. When your training eases up, you can increase the intensity and frequency of your yoga workouts, says Sage Rountree, yoga instructor, triathlon coach, and author of The Runner’s Guide to Yoga. If you take on a rigorous practice in the midst of a monster training month, “you’ll interfere with your body’s recovery and risk hurting yourself,” Rountree says. Fleshman rolls out her mat most often during the winter in advance of her spring track season. “The strength yoga builds in my feet, lower legs, and core will hopefully support me when my running gets tough,” she says.