Stretch Yourself – Explore Yoga

All runners should know by now that stretching is important. The best time for a runner to stretch is when their muscles are warmed up, preferably after running. I’ve seen runners doing all kinds of crazy stretches before running, such as rapidly swinging their legs. I’m not sure how that helps them and I’m afraid it might hurt them (or anyone who happens to be behind them).

After a run, I stretch my calves, my quads and hamstrings and my hips. But for me, those post-run stretches aren’t enough. I suffered with a string of running injuries the first few years I ran, including a pelvic stress fracture (which is, basically, breaking your crotch – not fun, to say the least), bursitis, and IT band issues. It wasn’t until I got smarter about my running and started a regular yoga practice that I stopped getting injured.

Yoga is also a great counterbalance to running. If I have a bad run, mastering a challenging yoga pose can be just the thing to build up my confidence. It’s also great for building the core stability that is crucial for good running form.

The challenge for me is letting go of my competitive running nature in my yoga practice. I probably don’t come off as the super competitive type and if I’m doing a training run, I’m not. But if there’s a starting line and a clock, I’m going to give it my best shot. For me, that means passing as many other runners as possible. It gives me an extra boost if they’re younger or more fit than I am (and an even bigger boost if they’re younger, fitter men).

But yoga is more about exploring your own practice and challenging your own body, including your fears. In many ways, yoga comes more naturally to me than running. I have long arms and legs, so it takes no effort to wrap them around each other in a variety of poses. But there are poses, like the wheel, that other people do easily and I still haven’t mastered. And some of the poses, such as arm balances or head stands, can be scary.

It took me a year of regular yoga practice before I mastered the crow. And I haven’t had the courage to try it since my surgeries. I know my strength isn’t where it needs to be yet, and I’m afraid of falling out of the pose and hurting myself. And even though I finally learned to do a headstand (with the help of a wall), I never got comfortable and was always counting down until I could drop out of the pose.

Just like running, there’s a lot of variety in yoga, from gentle stretches to intense workouts, and everything in between. Experiment with different types of yoga to see which one suits you best. Also try different instructors and classes. Each class has it’s own vibe and you need to find one you’re comfortable with.

Recently, Richard and I re-joined the Y. The Margaret Maddox Y in East Nashville has expanded since the last time I was a member and now has a dedicated yoga studio so they are offering more yoga options. I experimented with a few classes until I found one that works for me. I got a friendly vibe from the other students and the instructor (who reminds me of Gwyneth Paltrow) keeps my form in check while finding new ways to stretch my tight hamstrings and hips. I’m finally able to do chaturangas again and am hopeful that I’ll be back up in crow before too long.

If you want to explore yoga but don’t feel confident enough to take a class, there are a wide variety of yoga DVDs. Richard and I have done some yoga DVDs at home and had a lot of fun together.

Another great thing thing about yoga is that you don’t need to invest in a lot of expensive gear. All you need is a mat and a lot of studios have loaner mats. If you buy your own mat, make sure to clean it pretty regularly. Some people use straps and blocks to help them accomplish poses without sacrificing form. But you can use a towel or blanket instead.

Yoga clothes don’t have to be fancy. You can get by with tights and a t-shirt. Just be aware that your torso might be upside down so a loose t-shirt might expose more than you planned. For me, it usually works well to layer a tank under a t-shirt. The tank stays put and I can take off the t-shirt if I get hot. Yoga clothes are super cute and I’ve found some really great pieces at Old Navy, Marshall’s and Target. If you decide to practice yoga on a regular basis, check out Lululemon and Athleta, who carry some of the hottest trends in yoga wear.

So, if you’re a runner (and even if you aren’t), check out a yoga class. You might just find another form of exercise to love (and become a better runner in the process).

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