Zen and the Art of Running
How lessons from yoga can make you a better runner.
I started running 20 years ago in order to quit smoking. As I wrote about in an earlier post, I’ve since realized that I merely replaced an unhealthy addiction with a healthy one. There is still little that compares to that mysterious runner’s high, but I’ve also tried to incorporate other forms of exercise into my routine.
As part of that effort, I have been dabbling in yoga for a couple of decades. It all started after I accepted a friend’s invitation to try a class. The introductory rate was a bargain—10 classes for $10 (yes, really! This was circa 2005). “After that, you’ll be hooked,” she said.
The studio was on the first floor of a turn-of-the century building, with warm wood floors and a high ceiling. After taking my running shoes off in the hallway, I timidly entered the softly lit room. Recognizing my apprehension, the instructor greeted me warmly and asked me if it was my first time trying yoga. I told her it was.
“I’m a runner,” I said, “so this will be really different.”
“Kind of different, but also the same,” she replied.
My friend was right. After 10 classes I was hooked, and a few months later I began to understand what the teacher had said to me that first night.
“Stay With the Breath”
At first, I thought of yoga as a counterbalance to running—a yin to running’s yang. During a particularly hard run on a chilly Thanksgiving day in Dallas, I began to realize how much the two disciplines have in common.
I entered the 8-mile Turkey Trot because it sounded like fun, even though I had not trained for this distance, working instead on running a faster 5K. For the most part, it was fun. The weather was perfect, and at mile six, I was feeling great—euphoric, in fact. As we turned the corner and headed uphill, I picked up the pace, but when I reached the top, I suddenly felt bad—very bad. In addition to feeling slightly queasy, it was as if all the energy had suddenly been drained from my limbs.
After walking a few paces, I started jogging again, wondering how I would ever make it two miles to the finish line. Then I thought about my yoga class. Whenever the poses were particularly hard, the teacher would remind us to “stay with the breath.” Without many options, I decided to give it a try. I concentrated on my breathing, pulling up my ribcage and really feeling each inhale and exhale. It worked. Whether by sending more oxygen to the brain or simply redirecting my attention from the discomfort, the breathing exercise gave me the stamina to finish the race.
How Yoga Can Help With Running
Since then I’ve found other ways to apply yoga’s lessons to running. Here are a few.
Move toward the sensation. Without a doubt, pain is sometimes the body’s way of preventing injury and should be heeded. But often what we feel during running is really just discomfort or resistance that must be overcome in order to grow stronger. In yoga, the instructor would tell us to move toward the sensation of tension and resistance, to fully feel it. This goes against our natural inclination, but surprisingly, by acknowledging the discomfort, we often find it’s really not that bad.
Find areas where you can relax. Each yoga pose targets specific areas of the body. In pigeon pose, for example, your hips and a whole cadre of leg muscles are in use, but your arms and shoulders don’t have to be doing a whole lot. So while embracing the sensation of the muscles being worked, you can also find areas where you can relax and make the pose a little easier. In running, while you certainly will need every bit of strength in your legs and even the core of your body, there are other areas that can relax. Your hands don’t need to do much, so let them be lose. Let your shoulders relax. Let go of the tension in your jaw and face. All of these things free up energy for the areas that you really need it.
Let go of the negative. This one is a little more metaphysical, but it can make a huge difference. Often at the beginning of a yoga practice, we are urged to let go of all the baggage we’ve brought with us—stress from work, anxiety about things that need to be done, even worries about the practice ahead. This also applies to running. Maybe you don’t have a lot of energy when you set out. Acknowledge and release it. Obsessing over your performance will only create negativity and frustration. By letting go of all the negative thoughts, we make room for the positive and allow ourselves to enjoy the moment—maybe to notice the brisk chill of the air or the way the leaves seem to dance around you feet.
I’ve moved about a half a dozen times since I tried that first class and have left that cozy little studio far behind, but I still practice yoga from time to time. During the height (or should I say the depths) of the pandemic, I discovered 5 Parks Yoga with Erin Sampson, and it’s still my favorite online practice. I’ve also found that the lessons I’ve learned acceptance and stress tolerance apply not just to running, but to life as well.
A Quick Practically Fit Podcast Update
Alex and I have been hard at work on our new podcast, and we’re recording three episodes this week. Our plan is to release them in the next week or so, so stay tuned!
We hope that over time, you’ll engage with us beyond just reading or listening to our content. If you have ideas for topics you’d like us to cover in the newsletter or on our podcast, send Alex an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.