OM YOUR MARKS
We inhale deeply, sweeping our arms up overhead. As we exhale, we fold forward, reaching our fingertips towards the floor. Although I am stretching with every fibre of my being, my hands dangle around mid-shin height. Yoga teacher Laura Denham-Jones, meanwhile, has her palms resting flat on the floor. ‘Now that,’ she says - giving me an upside down sideways glance - ‘is the classic runner’s hamstring tightness.’
This is one occasion when I am not going to get away with blaming my poor flexibility and stiff joints on the 30-50 miles I run each week. Not only does Denham-Jones specialise in teaching yoga to runners (through courses, workshops and one-to-one sessions), she is herself a long-standing runner. And did I mention that she completed the London Marathon (her 7th) just three days before our rendezvous?
‘Yoga postures can correct the muscle imbalances that result from high-impact training,’ she explains. ‘They help to re-align the joints and stretch and strengthen the muscles to prevent pain and injury - particularly in trouble zones such as the hips, hamstrings, knees, Achilles tendons and iliotibial bands.’
I’m relieved to find the solution, as far as the forward bend is concerned, is not to strain yet further, nor to introduce a block or strap to enable me to achieve the desired posture, but simply to bend my knees until I can reach the floor with my hands.
It’s one of many classic yoga postures that Denham-Jones tweaks - or alters altogether - to take my limited flexibility into account – allowing us to play to my strengths (cardiovascular fitness, balance, thigh strength) whilst addressing my weaknesses (er, everything else). It’s a refreshing change from some of my previous encounters with yoga, in which it has been me that is tweaked, rather than the posture. ‘Yoga for runners is about being flexible enough, so we’re not running with the brakes on, not increasing our likelihood of injury. We don’t need extreme flexibility like, say, a gymnast does.’
There’s no danger of that as I ease myself into Downward Dog (picture an inverted V, with hips reaching upwards, heels and hands pressing downwards). With nearly all my workouts focused below the belt, it’s a real challenge for my shoulders and upper back muscles to maintain the position – and my hamstrings are singing like overtight guitar strings. Denham-Jones has to remind me to focus on my breathing. ‘Yoga is a great tool for helping you learn to breathe through discomfort,’ she says. Under the strain, I feel as if I’m taking tiny sips of air rather than big lungfuls. ‘Turn your exhalation into a sigh – make the breath louder than your thoughts,’ she advises. But it’s not until Denham-Jones puts a belt around my thighs and gently pulls me backwards that - despite my breathing now sounding like a dirty phone call - the pressure eases. This is what it’s meant to feel like…
While you might assume that the major plus yoga offers to runners relates to improving suppleness, Denham-Jones thinks differently.
‘For me, the biggest benefit yoga has brought to my running has been learning to stay focused on the present,’ she says. ‘Not thinking about what’s done, or what’s to come, or where I ‘should’ be, has really helped in my last couple of marathons.’
Denham-Jones also believes that yogic breathing has helped her running – and there’s evidence to back her up. A study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research found that athletes who practised yogic breathing (pranayama) for a year were able to exercise at a higher work rate without increased energy demand or lactic acid production – their lung capacity also improved.
Even as far as the physical side of things is concerned, yoga for runners is not all about stretching. ‘As well as flexibility, runners need to build strength – particularly in the muscles that stabilise the pelvis and those that support correct foot-knee-hip alignment,’ says Denham-Jones.
As great an activity as running is, I’m learning, it isn’t an all-rounder. So while, like Denham-Jones, I can run 26 miles pretty comfortably, I can’t touch my toes or bend over backwards. She suspects she knows why. ‘In running, we work mostly in one plane of motion – forward. Yoga takes the body in all directions – sideways, backwards, forwards and into rotation - so it brings balance to a running regime, strengthening the muscles underused in running, such as the back extensors and abs, and stretching those that get tight and overused, like the calves and hamstrings. Standing postures in particular encourage good alignment of the pelvis, knee and foot, and strengthen your ankles, arches and the muscles around the knee.’
She shows me a modified ‘chair’ pose – lowering the bottom onto an imaginary seat by bending the knees. Normally, the posture is done with the feet flat on the floor but in the runner’s version, we’re up on our toes, to strengthen the quads whilst challenging balance and working the stabilising muscles in the lower leg. ‘Body upright – make sure the ankles don’t splay,’ instructs Denham-Jones. My balance earns me some praise, but when we lower ourselves down onto our haunches – still with heels lifted - to stretch our plantar fascias, it’s an ideal opportunity for me to practise my ‘breathing through discomfort’.
Most runners I know who have made it as far as the yoga studio door have tended to gravitate towards the more energetic and demanding types, such as ashtanga and Bikram – but Denham-Jones believes that yoga practice should be inverse to a runner’s training. ‘The harder the regime, the slower and more gentle the approach to yoga should be,’ she says. ‘It should be the yin to running’s yang.’
That’s a tough call for goal-orientated runners who don’t feel like they’ve worked out unless they are spitting blood. ‘Runners always ask What is this posture for? How will it help me?’ says Denham-Jones with a smile. ‘I’ve also noticed that they often get irritated if they can’t do something well, or achieve it straight away.’
Despite being very runner-like in many aspects of my personality I am not feeling this need to excel as we work our way through the sequence of postures, nor any sense of failure about my shortcomings in stretchiness. Perhaps I secretly view people who can get their chests flat on the floor with their legs astride as a different breed. But perhaps it’s simply down to Denham-Jones’s down-to-earth approach and engaging manner. Often, when people begin to talk about the non-physical, more spiritual side of yoga, I feel uncomfortable, but when she talks about the yoga values of "ahimsa" (non-harming) and "aparigraha" (not being covetous or greedy), it makes a great deal of sense. ‘Yoga teaches you to practice all things with a degree of moderation and patience rather than to the extreme,’ she explains. ‘My aim is to teach runners the difference between productive discomfort (leading to change and improvement) and unproductive discomfort (leading to injury).’
Denham-Jones attributes her own lack of running injuries to regular yoga practice. ‘I have had a few minor niggles, but any time I've had a hint of an injury I've backed right off. I've seen many runners continue to run with an injury for too long, or rush back into running before their body is ready. It's one of the biggest mistakes you can make.’
We finish the session with the posture called savasana, or ‘corpse’ pose. Lying flat on our backs, with arms and legs relaxed, we focus on our breathing. It may look like collapsing on the floor but one study found that the rate of recovery from a tough treadmill run was significantly faster after practising savasana, compared to simply lying down. And anyway, after 90 minutes of uncommon exertion, I’m more than ready to play dead.