July 17, 2010 12:29 am

Yoga: why it pays runners to stretch themselves

 
Sam Murphy

Sam Murphy gets in position under the guidance of yoga instructor Laura Denham-Jones

We inhale deeply, sweeping our arms up overhead. As we exhale, we fold forward, reaching our fingertips towards the floor. Although I am stretching with every fibre of my being, my hands dangle around mid-shin height. Yoga teacher Laura Denham-Jones, meanwhile, has her palms resting flat on the floor. “Now that,” she says – giving me an upside-down sideways glance – “is the classic runner’s hamstring tightness.”

Denham-Jones, who ran the London Marathon for the seventh time this year, specialises in teaching yoga to runners. “Yoga postures can correct the muscle imbalances that result from high-impact training,” she explains. “They help to realign the joints and stretch and strengthen the muscles to prevent pain and injury.” I’m relieved to find the solution, as far as the forward bend is concerned, is simply to bend my knees until I can reach the floor with my hands.

Denham-Jones takes classic yoga poses and alters them to take my limited flexibility into account. This lets us play to my strengths (cardiovascular fitness, balance, thigh strength) while addressing my weaknesses (everything else). She says: “Yoga for runners is about being flexible enough, so we’re not running with the brakes on, not increasing our likelihood of injury. We don’t need extreme flexibility like, say, a gymnast does.”

A yoga pose

There’s no danger of that as I ease myself into “downward dog” (picture an inverted V, with hips reaching upwards, heels and hands pressing downwards). With nearly all my workouts focused below the belt, it’s a real challenge for my shoulders and upper back muscles to maintain the position. Denham-Jones has to remind me to focus on my breathing. “Yoga is a great tool for helping you learn to breathe through discomfort,” she says. Under the strain, I feel as if I’m taking tiny sips of air rather than big lungfuls. “Turn your exhalation into a sigh – make the breath louder than your thoughts.”

As great an activity as running is, I’m learning, it isn’t an all-rounder. So while, like Denham-Jones, I can run 26 miles pretty comfortably, I can’t touch my toes or bend over backwards. She suspects she knows why. “In running, we work mostly in one plane of motion – forward. Yoga takes the body in all directions – sideways, backwards, forwards and into rotation – so it brings balance to a running regime, strengthening the muscles underused in running, such as the back extensors and abs, and stretching those that get tight and overused, like the calves and hamstrings.”

She shows me a modified “chair” pose – lowering the bottom on to an imaginary seat by bending the knees. Normally, the posture is done with the feet flat on the floor but in the runner’s version we’re up on our toes, to strengthen the quads while challenging balance and working the stabilising muscles in the lower leg. “Body upright – make sure the ankles don’t splay,” instructs Denham-Jones.

Laura Denham-Jones and Sam Murphy

Most runners I know who practise yoga prefer the more energetic and demanding versions, such as ashtanga (a continuous sequence of postures) and bikram (performed in a very hot room). Denham-Jones believes that yoga practice should be inverse to a runner’s training. “The harder the regime, the slower and more gentle the approach to yoga should be,” she says. “It should be the yin to running’s yang.”

Denham-Jones attributes her own lack of running injuries to regular yoga practice. “I have had a few minor niggles, but any time I’ve had a hint of an injury I’ve backed right off. I’ve seen many runners continue to run with an injury for too long, or rush back into running before their body is ready. It’s one of the biggest mistakes you can make.”

The greatest benefit yoga has brought to her running, she says, has been learning to stay focused on the present. “Not thinking about what’s done, or what’s to come, or where I ‘should’ be, has really helped in my last couple of marathons.”

We finish the session with the posture called savasana, or the “corpse” pose. Lying flat on our backs, with arms and legs relaxed, we focus on our breathing. It may look like collapsing on the floor but one study (in the Indian Journal of Physiological Pharmacology) found that the rate of recovery from a tough treadmill run was significantly faster after practising savasana, compared with simply lying down. And anyway, after 90 minutes of uncommon exertion, I’m more than ready to play dead.

Sam Murphy looks at the pros and cons of ‘core stability’ exercises. Physios, trainers and sports scientists give their verdict. www.ft.com/corestability

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The details

Laura Denham-Jones runs one-to-one sessions, courses and workshops, www.yogaforrunners.co.uk

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