How Yoga For Runners Helps You Find Balance and Run Better

A woman wearing a sports bra does a yoga pose

Let’s be honest: Running more isn’t always the best thing we can do for our bodies. As we build mileage, our hamstrings and calf muscles can grow taut while we ignore our core and other muscles. We start to believe more is always more, ignoring our body’s subtle (and not-so-subtle) complaints.

Lucky for us, yoga is a perfect complement to running. Everything that running tightens, yoga stretches. But yoga offers much more than just stretching.

“It’s about balance,” yoga instructor Sage Rountree says in a phone interview from her home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Rountree, an ultramarathoner, triathlete, and coach, as well as a yoga instructor, literally wrote the book on how yoga can help runners. In The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga (Velo Press, 2008), Rountree writes about how yoga can help you improve your form, power and strength.

“If done well, yoga lets you see where the imbalances are in your body, and balance is key to preventing injuries,” she says.

Alison Heilig knows knows first-hand about imbalances and getting hurt. The triathlete and ultramarathoner was running longer and longer distances in her 20s and 30s and suffering classic overuse injuries such as plantar fasciitis, IT band troubles and piriformis pain. Finally a stress fracture in her hip served as her wake-up call.

“Running had changed the dynamic in my hip joints,” Heilig says in an interview from her Clarksburg, Maryland, home. “And my surrounding muscles were under-utilized.”

Heilig stepped up her yoga practice, eventually completing teacher training and devoting her teaching to helping athletes get stronger and avoid injuries. A protege of Rountree’s, Heilig recently published The Durable Athlete (Toplight Books, 2019).

Rountree and Heilig offer these pointers for runners interested in trying yoga.

A woman does a yoga pose while modeling a sports bra

1. It’s Not About Mastering Crow or Headstands

“Most runners come to me looking for a yoga practice that allows them to continue to run without injury,” Heilig says. “I see that as success. It’s not about mastering certain poses. You can improve your functional range of motion, but you actually need some of that inflexibility for running.”

Rountree agrees. Runners may never be able to do a beautiful forward fold or split, and that’s OK.

“There’s a reason your hamstrings are tight, otherwise you’d lose speed,” she says.

2. Find a Teacher Who Understands Athletes

The ancient Hindus might be pleased to find yoga classes at nearly any gym these days. But you should choose your class carefully, Rountree warns.

“Sometimes you pick a class because the time that works for your schedule. But you might find yourself in a hot flow class for starters, and that might not be your best match,” she says. “Introductory, Level 1 classes are good for bringing you up to speed not just on what to do it and how to do it, but also why.”

You can follow along with yoga classes online, but Rountree recommends taking a class in person at least every once in awhile to keep your practice fresh, when you can do so safely. In-person classes also allow a teacher to help you make adjustments. Most importantly, do your due diligence with who the teacher is and how they teach, she says. “Not every yoga teacher will understand an athlete’s body.”

3. Practice Regularly

It’s better to spend a little bit of time, 15 minutes or so nearly every day, practicing yoga than “bingeing on one 90-minute class once a week,” Rountree says.

4. Learn to Tune In and Zoom Out

The more you practice yoga, the more awareness you gain of your body and your breathing.

“There’s a constant checking-in during practice: ‘How am I supporting myself?’ ‘How could I do it better?’” Heiling says.

By focusing on your breathing in each posture, “You learn to focus on something other than the discomfort you are feeling in the moment. That’s the point. You’re supposed to be in discomfort. I’ve never PR’d in a race where I felt comfortable. But yoga helps you zoom out mentally, to focus on your breath rather than on your discomfort.”

5. Enjoy Learning to Be Comfortable

There’s also a time to let it all go. Overachieving Type A athletes who are accustomed to pushing themselves may have the most to gain from yoga. You learn to lie still on your back at the end of practice and just breathe.

“As runners, we’re experienced with feeling discomfort, but it takes skill to be still,” says Rountree.

Adds Heilig: “If you’re doing high-intensity training, you have to have a shut-off valve. You need all those chemicals to leave your system so your body can do some repair work.”

Is it worth all that time on your mat? No question, says Heilig. She has run 17 marathons and six ultramarathons, and, at age 39, she says, “I’ve never been this healthy or this strong. I love the sport, and I don’t feel burnout. Yoga is such a small investment to keep you in it for the long run.”

[This article was updated on August 24, 2020]

By Lisa Watts. Lisa started running nearly 40 years ago in college to clear her head. Seven marathons, countless half marathons, and a few two-day relays later, she still swears by early morning runs to sort things out. It’s even better when a few friends come along for the miles.

Keep Reading