Inhale. It’s 105 degrees Fahrenheit and I’m standing half naked next to total strangers under bright lights in front of a mirror. The trainer starts her 90-minute dialogue and I clumsily begin in a Bikram yoga ‘torture chamber’ – two years on and I haven’t looked back. I certainly didn’t expect it to improve my running.
Bikram yoga consists of 26 postures (asanas) and two breathing exercises that are designed to work every muscle in the body in a hot environment. The claimed benefits include stress reduction, increased stamina, enhanced physical performance, increased flexibility, toned muscles, better sleep, strengthening of heart and lungs and an improved immune system. Of course, each individual’s experience is unique and the benefits can vary widely. But for everyone, the bodily changes will happen.
I thought I was relatively fit, strong physically and mentally, and that of all the workouts out there, yoga wouldn’t ever push my limits. Pass over the humble pie. No marathon pushed me like Bikram yoga did. I had found an activity that combined cardio, strength training and meditation, and I wanted to find out more.
And so, I began to go three times a week. If I had the choice to go for a run, or go to yoga, I chose the latter. I began to run less, but the less I ran, the better I seemed to get. I’ve never been one to obsess about PBs – I was consistent with my two-hour half marathon times, and resigned to the fact that running under that was for the ‘elite’ bunch. But changes were starting to happen.
I could actually feel (and see) muscles on my torso, and I felt my posture had improved. My breathing was more efficient and I survived running up hills – hills I would normally avoid as my lungs screamed at me. I wasn’t getting muscle fatigue as quickly, so I was enjoying running more because I felt stronger, and, metaphorically speaking, lighter. But it wasn’t until I entered a few half marathons that I really saw the effects. In 2011 I ran the Brighton half marathon in 2:05; last year I ran it in 1:45. Then I ran the Edinburgh half marathon in 1:39. I had shaved 26 minutes off my half-marathon time as a result of less running and more yoga. Nothing else about my lifestyle had changed. So what had happened?
The core of the story
Obviously having a strong core is integral, as well as strong quads, hamstrings and hip abductors. But they also need to be flexible. Running may make you strong, but it definitely won’t make you flexible. And I was beginning to learn, good posture makes a real difference. Each core muscle has a function during running. The glutes steady your pelvis, hamstrings and quads allow for controlled extension and contraction of the legs, and the iliotibial bands stabilise your hip and knee joints. Then there’s the abs group, the core’s grand central station. When contracted, they stabilise the trunk and start a chain reaction of efficiency and strength throughout the rest of the core group and peripheral muscles. This was clearly helping my balance and posture, and also helping to prevent injury.
‘Contracting your muscles at end range, as in yoga, causes structural changes to muscle tissue, thus changing the structure of muscle,’ says clinical specialist physiotherapist Kevin Hall.
‘There has been a recent increase in research looking at injury-prevention strategies and researchers have looked at screening individuals for risk of injury,’ adds Hall. ‘These authors have looked at postures believed to be the ‘building blocks’ of sporting performance. If individuals cannot hold these postures they are believed by some to be at high risk of injury. Interestingly, these postures, or variations of them, can be found in the yoga forms.’
Bikram’s 26 postures work all the muscle groups needed to improve core strength and reduce the risk of injury. It’s clear there are specific postures that have helped revolutionise my running.
One is pranayama breathing. The inhaling and exhaling to a count of six helps stabilise your breath, one of the most important components of yoga – and running. ‘It calms the nervous system, improves the elasticity of the lung tissue and expands lung capacity,’ says Bridgett Ane Goddard, who runs Bikram in the Lanes, in Brighton, alongside her husband, Simon, where I’ve been practising for the last two years. ‘Most people only use 35 per cent of their lung capacity so when this breathing is practiced regularly, you’ll notice easier breathing regardless of the intensity a situation or activity – such as running – brings.”
Utkatasana, or ‘awkward pose’, is a three-stage warm-up posture that works core strength and balance. The aim, as with all postures, is to remain calmly active and actively calm. ‘This posture creates incredible strength and support around the hip, knee and ankle joints,’ says Goddard. This is perfect for joints that take up to one-and-a-half times your body weight when you they hit the ground.
Another is trikanasana, or triangle pose. You’ve climbed the mountain when you reach this dynamic posture. ‘It takes a lot of work but is well worth it, strengthening stamina, endurance and cardiovascular health,’ says Goddard. This one is particularly hard because it works the hips, groin and hamstrings, which are invariably tight in runners.
Stick to it
If there was ever a pose to focus the mind of a runner, balancing-stick pose is it. With four ten-second bursts of pulse-racing intensity, this requires a strong core and an extraordinary amount of focus. Balancing stick is like sprinting the last 400m of a 5K race – you’ve got to dig deep, stay calm and breathe. In staying calm and committing to the posture you’ll develop a strength of mind that you can use to improve your running.
Supta Vajrasana, or fixed firm pose, is the fantastic healer of the knees and if, like me, you shouldn’t really be running the distances you do, this will help keep everything in check. It also opens up those tight ankles and hips and it’s a lot easier said that done. It may take months, or years, to get into the full expression of the posture. It doesn’t matter. As long as you are doing the pose with the correct alignment, you will be getting the benefits. ‘Fixed firm pose is extremely important for runners, although it may be challenging as it returns natural range of motion, which most likely has been compromised by the impact runners endure,’ says Goddard.
I feel fortunate to have such an excellent teacher in Bridgett Ane Goddard and the rest of the team in Brighton. The studio space is welcoming, light and has a strong community. I will never forget my first class (you never do) but to see the progress in my running and in so many other areas of my life is more than I ever could have expected. And exhale.