Most runners will be familiar with the experience of running-related aches and pains, at least sometimes. That tight hamstring that leads to referred pain in the opposite knee after a long run; the weak hip flexor that can affect our gait or position and lead to occasional backache; the random foot and ankle pains that come and go, especially on rough terrain.
I was a happy-go-lucky runner up until the point that I trained for a marathon. I was lucky, and I didn’t often get many niggles, but if I did I tended to ignore them and run through them because there was no reason not to. I was quite relaxed about it. At most, I might take a day or two off running and go cycling instead.
When I began training for the London marathon, though, I had to change my approach. I won my place in a competition and it was secured only 3 months before the race happened, so I was already gambling on my ability to go the distance. I really couldn’t risk any injury at that time, but I was also putting a lot of stress on my body by rapidly increasing my weekly mileage, and I didn’t always have as much recovery time after a long run as I’d have liked.
Back then, I was a relatively new convert to yoga. In my first class, I had been shocked by how inflexible running had made me (even sitting cross-legged was not comfortable!). I soon realized that regular running-focused yoga stretches, in conjunction with occasional sports massages, would be a useful part of the training. In time, I found them essential.
I still do, especially since lockdown and working from home on an uncomfortable chair reminded me I’m not young anymore.
These three, then, are the stretches that I found most beneficial and that I still practice at least once a week as part of other routines (remember to always warm up first!):
1. Low Pigeon
This pose is great for both hips and hamstrings. It’s a challenge to hold it, but you feel wonderfully loose afterward.
I usually go into Pigeon from a Downward Dog. Bring one knee forward, bending it so that it’s folded in front of you while the other remains flat on the floor behind. Lean forward as far as you can — preferably right down onto the floor, and feel the deep stretch through your hip and hamstring. Repeat on the other side.
This stretch can feel slightly uncomfortable, particularly the first few times. If you’re a regular runner you will almost inevitably have tight hips, which makes the discomfort far worse. Breathe through it and you’ll feel amazing when you stand up again! (But always stop if it actually hurts).
This also pulls deep into the hips, but from the opposite side. A combination of lizard and pigeon is, I think, a regular essential for runners wishing to stay flexible.
Again, start in a comfortable downward dog. Lift one leg high in the air, twisting to open your hip right up. Then bring that foot forward, planting it alongside (not between) your hands, while your other leg sits in a low lunge position. Push forward through your pelvis and hips, trying to give equal weight to both sides.
The stretch feels delicious along the very top of your hamstring on the lower leg, and into the hip flexor of the bent leg. Again, stop if any part of this stretch hurts.
3. Bow pose
I found this one hard for ages, and it’s still quite a stretch to reach both feet — often I’ll stretch one side at a time. It’s great for the front of the hamstrings and also works your core, which is sadly neglected by most runners including me.
Begin by lying on your front and reaching back to grasp one or both of your ankles. Pull your feet towards you. You won’t look like the picture on the right of the diagram straight away (I am fairly sure I’ll never get that far!) but you’ll still feel a lovely stretch down the front of your thighs, which really loosens the legs.
If it’s comfortable, and only if it’s comfortable, you can rock slightly in this pose to extend the stretch.
There are, of course, myriad other poses for stretching specific parts of the body depending on where running tends to tighten you up. I tend to get hip and pelvis issues, whereas many friends complain more about their knees. Any complaining area will benefit from yoga attention.
Both Adriene and Kassandra on YouTube have various specifically tailored videos for runners and for lower body stretches, and most of these very helpful videos are (astonishingly) available for free. I highly recommend doing a longer workout with one of those expert videos, especially since real-life classes are thin on the ground this year.
But the three stretches above are the ones which, I believe, kept me free of injury during marathon training and through the race.
(NB. No yoga pose should ever hurt, and every runner should be guided by their body as to what is comfortable or suitable for them).
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