Yin Yoga and the Endurance Athlete

Something I’ve struggled with over the past two years is my yoga practice. When I began this blog, it was supposed to be a platform for me to chronicle not only my running, but my Ashtanga yoga practice. There was a time when Ashtanga was my primary focus, and running was just a thing I did on the side. I used to practice Ashtanga yoga six days per week, and sometimes my practice could take upwards of three hours. In 2013, trying to be an Ashtangi and a runner nearly broke me. I was practicing the third series, also known as Advanced A, and could do some seriously crazy (but cool) shit. I could put my leg behind my head and do things that most people would think are seemingly impossible. I have some really cool videos of it, but I still can’t figure out how to get them on here unless I put them on YouTube. Sometimes I watch them and can’t believe I’m watching the same person.

Three days before running the tragic 2013 Boston Marathon, I was practicing yoga with my teacher, David Garrigues, at his shala – the Ashtanga Yoga School of Philadelphia (aka AYS). I had a weird ache in my groin area, but I went ahead to run and finish Boston (before the bombs) anyway. My leg hurt the whole time, and I was limping badly for days after. Fast forward to a doctor’s appointment a week later…I ran Boston on a fractured femur. It was the femoral shaft, not the neck so it actually wasn’t the worst recovery ever – I was back to running in four short weeks. I was training for a marathon in Alaska at the time, so I needed to keep my endurance up. I’d booked the whole vacation around this marathon and going to Alaska is NOT cheap, so not running was not an option. With the whole 50 state goal thing, it would mean I would have to go back to Alaska if I didn’t run it. This was about the time my yoga practice took a backseat to my running.

Around this time, I began increasing my cross training and started having less and less time for yoga. I struggled to keep up my intense practice, and by summer had abandoned my third series practice and just stuck with primary and second series. By fall, I was lucky if I got on my mat once per week. In 2014, I almost boycotted yoga altogether because suddenly I went from a 3:30-40 marathoner to a 3:06 marathoner with the goal of breaking three hours. After some research and discussions with medical professionals, I was certain my yoga practice was what was holding me back from getting faster. But halfway through 2014 and after months of zero yoga, I started with  muscular/soft tissue injuries that were never a problem when I was on my yoga mat regularly. A hamstring strain, plantar fasciitis, a calf strain, and Achilles tendonitis. It was clear that my body was rebelling, and I was pretty sure it had a lot to do with my lack of stretching and yoga.

So I returned to my mat, and tried to pick up my Ashtanga practice again. Just primary series, nothing crazy. But ashtanga is an extremely intense workout. A devoted ashtangi could practice regularly and use it as their sole form of exercise. If you are really into it and embrace the lifestyle, you’ll be extremely fit just from this practice alone. I can attest to this – I actually was my thinnest when I was a devoted ashtangi – close to being just around 100lbs – and every single person who took it just as seriously was very similar. You need to be very light to be able to put yourself in a lot of those postures, and my teacher was not afraid to come over when you were struggling with a posture and grab onto part of your body and say “You can’t do that because you need to lose this”. As awful as that sounds, he was usually right. Once you are really in the ashtanga mindset, it truly is enough.

So here I was, trying once again to do it all. And once again, I stopped practicing because it was just too much. I was too tired from running. I didn’t have enough time. I was too tight to get into postures that used to come easily to me. The reasons and excuses were endless. As the summer began, I really didn’t want to struggle with my Achilles anymore so in a moment of desperation, I Googled “Yoga for Runners”. A bunch of Yin Yoga videos came up. Yin…I forgot about that. When I was in the height of my practice, one of my fellow ashtangis used to take and teach yin classes because they would enhance her practice and help athletes. I even went to a few of them because I remember how good it felt. I changed my search terms to “Yin Yoga for Runners” and found a whole host of videos. I’m proud to say that I’ve been practicing 5-6 times per week again. But this time around, my practice doesn’t make me break a sweat. Not one drop. Sometimes it’s 20 minutes, other times its 90 minutes. I look forward to my practice every single day.

So what’s yin yoga? It’s a practice that focuses on holding postures for an extended period of time. It’s focus is to release muscles and connective tissue during the practice. An article on Competitor.com that I came across while researching the topic says it best:

For endurance athletes, Chung advocates yin yoga — the feminine, calming counterpart to more masculine, on-the-go, high intensity yang movements like running. Yin yoga focuses on the lower body, with a lot of work in the hips, Chung said, and because of the mellow, slow and focused approach, can be surprisingly intense and restorative. Maintaining poses for five minutes or longer has a dramatic effect on the tight, sore and often inflamed muscles, tissues, fascia and joints that runners have.

Holding a pose for more than 72 seconds has an amazing ability to restore and rebuild connective tissue and the skeleton as well,” Chung explained. “Runners, cyclists and triathletes use their bodies in precise ways; they use the same muscles to do the same things. Yoga can bring awareness to the actions you’re placing on the body and, aside from the biceps, we hit just about every muscle.”

Yes, yes, and yes. This is exactly what I need in my life! I even have a book that I bought years ago by Sage Roundtree about running and athletes and using restorative yoga as a tool. As a certified RYT (Registered Yoga Teacher), I already have some great ideas for some sequences based on my own needs that I want to try to post. Until then, I’ve had some luck with some videos that are already out there and I want to share. I keep my mat in my living room and end up watching TV while I practice because it can be quite boring if you are fidgety and impatient like me. I’m hoping over time I can train myself to sit in postures for minutes at a time without a distraction, but it helps with the intensity and to take my mind off of the stretch. Here are some that I’ve done and enjoyed:

I have a few more on my list to try, so I’ll keep posting classes that I try and like for anyone who is interested! Will I ever take up an intense Ashtanga practice again? I can say pretty confidently that I will, but it won’t be while I’m trying to break three hours in a marathon. I can still pull out a few Ashtanga tricks on a good day…like when I was at the lake last week:

imageSomeday, when I need a break from running I will turn to it again…but for now, I think I’ll stick with the Yin.

Ever try Yin Yoga? How about Ashtanga? Do you include yoga in your training?


47 Replies to “Yin Yoga and the Endurance Athlete”

  1. Never tried Yin. Always been a vinyasa girl. Three hour yoga sessions!! I can’t focus past an hour. This is amazing. I’m going to look into this. I really do think yoga can make a huge impact on running when done properly. Great post!

    1. Thank you!! Ashtanga is a form of vinyasa. Very powerful and challenging. I really think yin complements endurance sports nicely if you go into it knowing that it isn’t necessarily about a work out, it’s about stretching!

  2. This was incredibly helpful. Yoga for runners is something I have been seriously thinking about. Thanks so much for the list. I will definitely check them out. I think I need to do it for my hips. They seem to grind/pop occasionally since I started increasing my running time.

    1. Yes! I have been feeling a lot better since I’ve been incorporating this! Sometimes some of the instructors voices are a little bit annoying but if I do it while I’m watching TV I don’t mind and the postures feel really good! Let me know if you try any and if you like any of them!

  3. Oh my goodness – I cannot tell you how USEFUL this post is for me! Thank you so much for sharing your (clearly very extensive) experiences and wisdom here 🙂 It’s interesting you say that the best stretching for athletes is the type that you hold for ages, because that is what I have found to be best for me through trial and error for my own post-run stretching rituals. I’m looking forward to trying your videos above to have a go at turning that into a more focussed practice. What was the book that you mentioned about athletes and restorative yoga? I need to buy that!

    1. I am so glad you found this helpful! I love yoga and it has almost been a little bit of a sadness for me since it doesn’t quite fit in so well with my running goals but this has really helped me in so many ways this summer! And I know you have some pretty speedy running goals as well so I really think you’ll find a lot of benefit from some of these videos! The book that I have is this one: http://www.amazon.com/The-Athletes-Guide-Yoga-Flexibility/dp/193403004X

      Some of the people horses in the videos are a little bit annoying but if you’re doing something else but watching TV while practicing it really does help! Let me know what you think! I have a one hour practice on my schedule today that I’m excited to try so if it’s good I will pass it on!

      1. Ah amazing! Thank you so much! I’m definitely going to get that book (I’m a bit of a nerd and just love to read about it all hehe) and most certainly will let you know what I think about it all. From what you’ve said, I really think it’s going to help with my goals. 😊 Enjoy your practice today!

  4. Holy moly thank you for this post! I don’t practice yoga regularly, but whenever I do it I LOVE how I feel after. I have such a hard time finding videos online that I actually like and would return to. So THANK YOU. Bookmarking this and I’m going to give them a shot.

    That handstand is amazing.

  5. I haven’t tried yin yoga yet – it kind of scares me, ha ha. I’ve done Hatha and Vinyasa and enjoy those. I was trying to incorporate it more in my training but my injured hamstring left me in pain after yoga so I had to stop. However!!!!!!!!!!, I am just getting back to it. Thanks for sharing – will be using your suggestions for sure!

  6. Ah yes! I need some good yoga videos to try and this info on Yin Yoga is just what I need to push me to try it! I have only really done vinyasa (which I do love!) but my groupon is expiring soon and I need something a little more peaceful to do at home too. THANKS ALLISON!!

  7. Thank you for this post! I need to incorporate more yin yoga into my routine. The harder I push in marathon training, the more yoga needs to be about restoration, both mentally and physically. I need to buy that Sage Roundtree book. I heard her speak on a running podcast a while ago (I think Another Mother Runner?) and she changed my perspective on how yoga and running should go together.

    1. You are welcome!! Enjoy, and let me know if you try any. That book is great – I completely forgot about it until I started messing around with Yin! I will have to check out that podcast. Thanks for reading, and have a great weekend!

  8. wow, i realllly enjoyed this post and it came at such a good time for me — i took my first yoga class in a long time last night (Vinyasa — never done Ashtanga). i was really glad i took it, as it solidified the fact for me that my legs neeeeed so much more stretching and that yoga classes like that one really should be incorporated into my schedule more often. so much to consider!

  9. I’ve done yin yoga a few times and really liked it. I’ve found from talking to people that they either love it or hate it, but a lot of runners and people whose primary exercise is something other than yoga seem to love it more. I can understand that, because if someone wants a yoga class to be their workout, another type of yoga like ashtanga or a hot yoga class would fit the bill better than yin yoga.

    I take a restorative yoga class each week and it’s been great for me- it’s just a good way to start my day and I’ve been injury-free. It clears my mind too! I go once a week, but so many runners NEVER go. It is tough to balance running with cross training and recovery activities to figure out what is best for YOU. Some people thrive off higher miles and less cross training, some cross train more and run less, etc. Plus there are only so many hours in the day to get everything in without making a workout your #1 priority!

    1. It’s been such a struggle for me because I know what I used to do, and what I should do now. I am loving yin because I feel like whatever yoga I did in the past doesn’t really matter – I can go as deep or as easy as I want!

  10. Yin! What a great idea. I can’t do a lot of yoga poses, as I have rods in my spine from my t9-L3 (no twisting, not a lot of bending, etc allowed), but yin I could do!

  11. Thanks for this. I started going to yoga classes when I was pregnant with my first child, but I went to “proper” classes, rather than “pregnancy” classes (although I obviously modified various poses at various stages), just because I thought the pregnancy stuff looked a bit… “airy fairy”?? I loved it, and continued it through second pregnancy. But then I just didn’t have time to carry it on (2 kids under 3 and pregnant with third!). So I’ve also been using various videos on youtube. I’ve no idea what “type” I do, but tend to do a set of simple sun salutations/ down dogs and standing poses when I get back from a run. But my hamstring is STILL tight, so I think I need to do more of something. Time is always the thing that gets in the way for me (3 kids, busy job etc) but I do enough faffing about on the internet. So I think I just need to make the time!…

  12. Just bookmarked this post. 🙂 Does a Jillian Michaels dvd count as yoga? Otherwise I’ve done little to no yoga. I really need to but wasn’t sure where to start. I will definitely be checking out those links soon. Being able to do the poses while watching tv wins points in my book. 🙂

  13. I did a little bit of yoga many years ago, but just couldn’t get into it at the time. I think Yin Yoga could be good for me though and I need to give it another shot.

  14. Great post! And right up my alley. I am by no means a yogi, but love it as cross training. I tend to do the standard kind of stuff and recently found the Yoga with Adrienne videos on YouTube. I love her personality. But I’m interested in trying this Yin yoga you speak of. I’ll try them out this week and let you know.

    1. They are much, much slower and more like a long stretching session – but so relaxing. I ran a half marathon yesterday and did a 45 minute session after and I actually feel decent today! I really think it helps!

  15. I used to incorporate more yoga into my week, but these days I just do a simple 10 min flow daily to get my body loose. I would love to start doing more though, the strength aspect is so great.

  16. I’ve done yoga a few times and really like how I feel after – I hate stretching, so yoga basically forces me to do it. Someone actually just recommended Ashtanga yoga to help open up and stretch the hips, but it sounds really intimidating! Yin Yoga also sounds like something to try – thank you for sharing those videos!

    1. Ashtanga is so awesome! There are definitely hip openers, but it also really stretches out your hamstrings! When you get to the seated poses, the first 10 postures you do are all forward folds. There are a few hip openers that come after that. The problem (for me) with the practice is it’s really intense. Tons of vineyasas. When practiced correctly, I used to say a whole practice was just as hard as running a marathon. It’s super fun, but for right now I needed something that’s more low intensity, and Yin is definitely that! Check it out and let me know what you think!

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