For years now, yoga is a popular workout amongst runners. It comes with some tantalizing promises, as some runners swear yoga is what led to their marathon PR or injury-free streak. Can yoga make you faster? What about prevent injury? Let’s delve into the possible benefits of yoga for runners and if (and how) you should make yoga a part of your supplemental training for running.
Should Runners Do Yoga?
If you like it – yes! But if yoga is the least appealing thing to you or your schedule is packed, do not fret. You do not have to do yoga. No research-based evidence suggests yoga has a significant positive impact on performance or injury rates. However, no evidence indicates that yoga is dangerous or detrimental for runners. There simply is no conclusive evidence on running and yoga.
Yoga itself will not make you a faster runner. Unlike lifting, it does not correlate to an improved running economy. Consistent training, speedwork, and (to a lesser extent) strength training make you a faster runner.
Despite what some many claim, yoga does not guarantee protection from injuries. Overuse injuries can occur in runners who practice yoga. Some runners may actually increase their injury risk with yoga if they are overzealous in the poses. For some runners, though, they may notice that yoga plays a role in their holistic approach to reducing their injury risk.
As a running coach, I have observed various responses to yoga. For some athletes, yoga is an essential part of their routine for staying mobile. (Here’s why mobility is important for runners.)
Ultimately, my theory is that the benefits of yoga for runners are highly individual. Runners who are high responders to yoga will cultivate a practice. Runners who are low responders will skip it in favor of other forms of mobility work and motivational exercises. Simply put: if you enjoy yoga, do it; if not, do not worry about incorporating it into your routine.
Potential Benefits of Yoga For Runners
For those who enjoy yoga, a regular practice may offer benefits such as pain reduction, balance, and improved mental game.
A 2017 systematic review found that yoga may provide small to moderate relief in chronic back pain over a three- to six-month period. For runners coping with chronic pain (migraines, arthritis, back pain, etc), yoga may provide relief that then allows them to run with lower levels of discomfort. Runners prone to muscle soreness or joint stiffness may find that yoga feels good. (As a note: you can receive similar benefits from a regular Pilates practice.)
Yoga may improve your balance. For runners, balance is essential; running is essentially a series of single-leg forward hops. If you feel like your balance is poor, you may find that yoga’s emphasis on balance benefits you. (Do know that balance training is not exclusive to yoga. Strength training can improve your balance also. )
Some research does point to yoga improving the mental aspect of the sport. A 2006 controlled trial published in British Journal of Sports Medicine examined the relative effects of 20-minute yoga practice before a one-mile time trial. The participants were all high school track athletes. While a comparison group of athletes who practiced motivational exercises (actively repeating a mantra) performed better, the yoga group did outperform the control group. The study did not answer how long-term yoga practice affects distance running performance. However, it did support what some runners report: yoga sharpens their mental game for competition.
Adapting Yoga for Your Running
Remember: when adding yoga to your running practice, your running still remains the priority. Because of this, your practice may look different than a traditional yoga practice – and that’s okay!
Prioritize mobility, not flexibility
Runners will get the most benefit from improving their mobility over flexibility. Mobility is the ability to move through your full range of motion. (Learn more here about why runners do not need flexibility.) During yoga, focus on moving with control and strength through your range of motion. If a pose feels like too much, modify it with a yoga block or other stabilizer.
Once you start, observe how you feel. If you notice you feel less “springy” on runs after consistent yoga practice, adjust your practice accordingly. You may also find that Pilates fits your needs better than yoga.
Short practices can be beneficial
Fitting yoga into your training – in addition to running and lifting – may seem like a lot. You do not need to do hours of yoga per day (or even hours per week) as a runner! Of course, you can engage in longer practices if you enjoy them. However, do not discount short practices; when done consistently, short efforts can yield significant benefits to the mind and body. Even a 10 minute post-run routine (such as this popular routine from Yoga with Adriene) can yield benefits if you complete it a few times per week. (Read more on how to fit in everything here!)
Avoid poses with potential injury risk
Unless you enjoy them, there is no need to do gravity-defying yoga poses such as headstands. (If you do want to attempt these, do so under the guidance of a certified yoga instructor and not on your own at home). Yoga should support running, not leave you injured and unable to participate in running. Everyone has their own range of motion and ability in yoga; be respectful of yours.
A 2022 epidemiological study in Sports found that back and spine injuries were the most common injuries in yoga. For runners with a history of back problems, this finding may mean that they approach with caution and modify movements appropriately.
Hot yoga may pose a heightened risk of muscle strains. The higher temperature allows you to stretch through a greater range of motion – and possibly beyond your endpoint range of motion. Too much stretching can be damaging to muscles such as the hamstring for some runners.
How Yoga Can Fit into Your Running Schedule
Running is already a time-demanding sport. The addition of yoga to a run schedule can feel overwhelming.
- Incorporate dynamic yoga as part of your warm-up before some easy runs
- Cool down after a run with 10-20 minutes of yoga
- Do a yoga “double” most days, where you run in the morning and do yoga in the evening (or vice versa
- Run to/from yoga class on your easy days
- Do yoga on your rest days (since it is relatively non-strenuous)
In conclusion? If you like yoga, do it! If you have no desire to, there is no need to add yoga to your routine. You can still run your best without yoga.