Yoga for Runners

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Yoga is great for relaxation and balance.

There are many potential befits from Yoga for runners, and it's a relatively safe form of exercise. The most common form of Yoga practiced in the west is Hatha Yoga which includes stretching exercises and physical postures (Asanas), breath control (Pranayama) and concentration and thinking techniques (Meditation) intended to promote physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health[1].

  • Relaxation. The ability to relax and reduce stress is important for your long term health. For runners, the risk of Overtraining is related to the lack of recovery and respite from stress, not excessive training loads. There is some evidence that Overtraining Syndrome is actually a natural defensive measure to try to reduce stress. The use of Yoga to relax makes it a useful form of cross-training on recovery days.
  • Balance. Yoga can improve balance, which in turn can reduce the risk of ankle injury. I suspect it might improve Running Form and Running Economy, but I've found nothing to support that idea[2]. There is some evidence that balance improves sprint running[3][4], and even college varsity track runners have scope for improving their balance[5]. Improved balance may also help prevent injuries through falls in everyday life, as well as making you a little more graceful.
  • Concentration. Learning to concentrate and focus attention can help you to deal with stress and to prepare for races.
  • Self-awareness. Becoming aware of where your body is in space can improve posture when running and at other times. It can also help you become aware of your Running Form.
  • Strength. Building strength in the non-running muscles can help prevent you becoming overly specialized. Runners can become injured more easily than they expect when performing a non-running activity because they lack generalized strength.
  • Range of Motion. Scientific research into Stretching indicates a Goldilocks zone for flexibility; too little flexibility and you can become injured, but too much flexibility reduces your Running Economy. A good Yoga program will help maintain a good Range of Motion across the entire body, without creating excessive flexibility.

1 Yoga Safety

When compared with pharmacological interventions for serious conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes or cardiovascular disease is often considered safe[1][6]. However, like any physical activity there remains a risk of injury from performing Yoga, something that has been received popular attention[7][8]. My interpretation of the current research (summarized below) is that Yoga is not risk-free, but that's true of most forms of exercise. Continuing to perform any exercise past the point of pain creates a high risk of injury and that applies to Yoga. If you have Glaucoma (or a family history of it) then get medical advice before performing any inversion poses such as shoulder stand, or downward dog. Beginners should avoid advanced poses, and don't do Yoga while intoxicated, both of which should be obvious.

  • The primary injuries are likely to be muscular injuries, most commonly the hamstring, knee, and low back[9].
  • A survey of 110 practitioners of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga (sometimes called "Power Yoga"[10]) found that 62% had one or more musculoskeletal injuries lasting a month or more [9].
  • A survey in Australia of 3,892 Yoga practitioners found that 2.4% had sustained a Yoga related injury[11].
  • A review of the 2007 National Health Interview Survey by the CDC found that of the 2230 adults that had ever tried Yoga, only 13 (~1%) had discontinued due to a Yoga Injury, and only 4 sought medical attention [12].
  • A review of 76 case reports of Yoga related injuries found 27 were musculoskeletal, 14 were the nervous system, and 9 (11.8%) the eyes[13]. Case reports are details of a specific patient and a novel or unusual situation, so they are not a general overview of the risks or injuries, but they can provide some insight. The review concluded that beginners should avoid headstand, lotus position and forceful breathing due to their risk. It also recommended avoiding practicing Yoga in combination with alcohol or recreational drugs, and to be cautions if you have existing medical conditions, especially glaucoma. (I've heard from accomplished Yoga practitioners that some people will never be able to accomplish advanced poses like Omkarasana and that such poses can be risky even for advanced practitioners.)

It also seems important that runners don't overestimate their abilities in Yoga (or any other form of non-running exercise.) Just because you're an accomplished runner doesn't mean you can jump into an advanced Yoga class. A cautious approach is important for avoiding injury, starting at a level below your expectations and working up.

2 Yoga and Health

While there is a great deal of research into Yoga, much of it is of poor quality[14][1][15][16][17][6][18][19] and it generally does not look at long term effects[20]. However, I believe that there is a preponderance of evidence that Yoga has a number of health benefits.

  • There have been few studies on Yoga and all-cause mortality. One study of 22,598 adults found there was a 63% reduced risk of premature all-cause mortality, but when adjusted for age differences the risk reduction shrank and became non-significant[21]. I would like to see more studies in this area, but it will be hard to know if any reduction in mortality is directly due to Yoga practice or simply a result of those performing Yoga being more likely to look after other aspects of their health.
  • Yoga may reduce stress[22][23][24], including Posttraumatic Stress (PTSD)[25][26][27][28][29][30][31]. The reduction may be similar to other interventions such as African dance[22] or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy[32], but might be better than simple physical exercises[31].
  • Yoga may help with blood glucose control (reduced hyperglycemia)[33][34][35][36][37][38][39]. There are limited comparisons between Yoga and aerobic exercise, but one study found Yoga might be better than brisk walking[37] and another found they were similar[39]. There are some studies that support the use of Yoga as a safe and cost effective intervention for Type 2 Diabetes[6]. (Improved blood glucose control may also help with body weight reduction.)
  • Yoga improves balance[40][41][42], which can reduce the risk of ankle injury[43][44][45][46][47]. Yoga can also reduce the fear of falling in the elderly[40].
  • Yoga might help reduce markers of inflammation[48][24]. This evidence is rather more limited, and I wonder if it could be a consequence of reduced stress levels.
  • Yoga may be able to reduce blood pressure[49][50][51][52][53][54], probably by 3-4 mmHg[15], which is similar to the reduction seen with diet or exercise[50]. It's not clear to me if this reduction is due to the exercise effects or the stress reduction. Either way, it's a good thing for most people.
  • While the supporting research is limited, Yoga appears to be cost effective as a primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease and is generally free of side effects[1][17]. This conclusion seems reasonable to me, based on the improved blood glucose control, reduced blood pressure, reduced inflammation, and reduced stress levels.

3 References

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