My spring experiment as a ‘yogi-runner-guinea-pig’
Over the first few months of 2016 I spent time going to different styles of yoga classes (apologies this blog post recap is a little late). I was curious as to how one form of yoga or another would fit in with life as a runner. I began in January by only practicing Ashtanga yoga, and went on from there: Bikram in February; Core Power in March; and if I’d been extra diligent it would have been Dahn yoga in April (my basic logic likes alphabetical organisation). At the end of the three months my conclusion was that yoga is still a wonderful complement to running and I found, what I called a ‘yogi-runner-guinea-pig’ experiment, a very insightful experience. Read on for the details.
Having never before completely zoomed in on one particular style of yoga before (I usually have a very mis-match yoga practice), each month gave me some time to learn more about the three yoga styles I had selected. Aside from sticking to a consistent yoga practice my second main goal for the spring (but real priority in all honesty) was to follow my Hapalua half marathon training plan. It was definitely tough some days to fit yoga in around key workouts such as demanding tempo or lactate threshold runs, but with a little organisation I managed.
January – Ashtanga Yoga. Ashtanga yoga is a very athletic type of yoga. It was first taught in the United States in 1975 when the yoga teacher Sri K. Pattabhi Jois arrived for a visit from Mysore, India. Ashtanga has two main sequences, or series, that you may be familiar with: Sun Salutation A & B (or Surya Namaskar A & B). Interestingly, Sun Salutations work mostly in the same plane of motion as running, forward and back, with some side-to-side movement and twisting as you move further through the set of poses. But this allows the Sun Salutations to be effective means of dynamic stretching for athletes whilst also building some strength by resisting body weight, e.g. the pose ‘chaturanga dandasana’. With no ashtanga studios in close proximity to my house I decided to use the online yoga teaching service provided by yogaglo.com and took a wide range of ashtanga focused classes from the following teachers: Richard Freeman, Jodi Blumstein, and Mary Taylor. Overall I found that ashtanga’s movements worked so well for my body that by the end of the month I found my range of motion and flexibility exceeding what I had accepted as ‘normal’. The breathing practices and spiritual aspects of the ashtanga yoga classes I took were also very relaxing and left me with a feeling of calmness. I had been afraid that Ashtanga might leave me feeling tired – a preconception that I’m happy to report was soon dismissed. The flow of Ashtanga’s Sun Salutations I think suited this runners’ body type, and I found that even in my own home, taking streamed classes, I was able to finish each yoga session feeling that I had reached an adequate balance between mind, body and breath.
February – Bikram Yoga. Bikram Choudhury created the ‘Bikram Yoga’ practice in the 1970’s. It involves a very particular set sequence of 26 poses (with no Downward Facing Dogs or Warriors!) practiced in a heated room (up to 105F degrees and 40% humidity). Bikram Yoga is not the same as all ‘Hot Yoga’ classes, because of the routine that each class follows, but the benefits of all heated classes are the same: improved flexibility (especially good for runners). Interestingly a 2013 study of healthy adults who took a Bikram Yoga class three times per week for eight weeks showed significant increases in flexibility and strength (Tracy & Hart, 2013). I signed up at my nearest Bikram yoga studio in Kailua, and chatted to the teacher about the benefits of yoga for athletes before starting my first class. It was difficult to schedule the classes into my weekly work timetable and around my training, and I didn’t manage to go to as many classes as I would have preferred – in the end I only went to 3x 90min classes in February. The main caution, which I had to remind myself, is to ensure you are hydrated before starting any Bikram or heated yoga – so that you can sweat your way safely through a full 90 minute class. I took a bottle of nuun in to each class with me, which was a life saver!! By the end of the month I felt that Bikram yoga was helping specifically to relieve tightness in my hips and piriformis, which often develops when I increase my mileage – as was happening at the time. Additionally the two main breathing exercises of a Bikram class, the opening ‘Standing Deep Breathing Pose’ and the closing ‘Blowing In Firm Pose’, were great reminders of how to use the full capacity of our lungs and how the abdomen plays a role in that!! I did find that Bikram classes left me feeling slightly drained, mostly because of the intense standing poses – yes my legs could do them (because runners have naturally strong legs), but I’m still on the fence about whether I actually needed that extra leg strength work. The Bikram poses that I felt were most beneficial, aside from the breathing exercises were the hip openers, twists and back bends. Any yoga poses that work and stretch the hip flexors and psoas are ‘go-to’ exercises for me.
March – Core Power Yoga. Many readers will be familiar with Core Power Yoga thanks to its recognisable logo and branding. On Oahu we are lucky to have three handy locations in Kahala Mall, the Ward Center, and in Kailua. Unfortunately by the time March rolled around I was deep in ‘runner mode’ – in the midst of my Hapalua half marathon training. I took 3 or 4 Core Power classes (level 1) on the easy days of my training plan that month, and found them definitely beneficial as core stability and strength builders, but lacking on the flexibility front that my body needed at the time. What I did enjoy about Core Power Yoga classes were the choreographed music, lighting effects and the temperature changes, which were aligned to each stage of the class: the beginning in childs pose was calmly guided with some ‘ambient chill’, was dimly lit and not heated – just natural (Hawaii) room temperature; the main part of the class, when we were moving through warrior series and core exercises was energised by some dance music, with brighter lights and the heat was turned up; and then for the relaxation/ cool down in savasana, the music moved to classical tones, the lighting darkened and the temperature cooled. I would really like to go back and try more classes from the Core Power Yoga suite, especially level 2 and the yoga sculpt class (that uses hand-held weights), which I think would meet a personal need for flexibility and improve my lack of upper body strength!
Pros & Cons from this ‘experiment’
Pros: 1. It was a great way to include more yoga in my week (outside the classes that I prepare for and teach at the YMCA). 2. I felt my flexibility improved and the extra yoga helped my body to balance out the training I was doing at the time. 3. It was a great excuse to check out some of yoga studios that I might not normally attend. 4. I really enjoyed the flexibility of taking online yoga classes and being able to choose from a wide range of teachers.
Cons: 1. Taking online yoga classes in your home needs some caution – always err on the side of ‘less is more’ to avoid over-stretching when there is no teacher to guide you in person. 2. Doing this experiment solo – I think another runners’ opinions and experience of yoga would help with researching this topic more. 3. It was difficult to find times when certain yoga classes wouldn’t clash with the demands of my harder running workouts.
Overall I found that Ashtanga was my preferred type of yoga class this spring. But that doesn’t mean it will be the same for every runner out there – and it won’t necessarily be the same for me in the future. In this world of ever-increasing options that are so many styles and types of yoga class that one can choose from. Your best option is to try a range of classes, and teachers, and find something that works for you. And I would attend each one for at least a month – from my experience it took a couple of weeks just to get over that initial ‘beginners curve’ and settle into each yoga style, acclimatizing to the language and other yoga idiosyncrasies.
If I were to repeat this mini, and very unscientific experiment again I would maybe not have a major race lined up, and would choose to include a wider range of studios, teachers and classes and styles, including Iyengar and Kundalini. The question of which yoga class is better for runners is really impossible to answer. There are so many variables – an individual’s background with running and/or flexibility work, body type, work/ life schedule etc. In reality there is no such thing as a ‘better’ yoga class, and for all runners some aspect of yoga can be applied at any stage of a training cycle to help you improve at your sport. The world is your giant, yoga-mat-lined-oyster!
Happy Yoga Trails!