How Yoga Can Improve Long Distance Running Performance
Does Yoga improve your running?
Somewhat recently, I was bemoaning the fact I was only finding time to hit my yoga mat about once a week, maybe twice, in the midst of marathon training. My friend responded, “actually, they say that too much flexibility can be bad for running.” I had a few initial reactions to this. I was a little taken aback, as this sounded counterintuitive. As a yoga practitioner, I knew and understood that yoga is about far more than flexibility. Yoga builds strength—especially much needed strength in the core and hip flexor muscles that are essential to running—and improves balance.
That’s not to mention the myriad mental benefits that yoga provides. But this friend of mine is not totally ignorant when it comes to running. She has run probably close to 10 marathons, qualified for the Boston Marathon (the gold standard in running), and has miraculously seemed to put many miles on her body year round while staying injury free.
So I decided to do some digging to see if there was any truth to what she was saying.
There is a hot debate in the running community
As it turns out, there is a hot debate in the running community about whether or not too much flexibility is bad for runners, particularly long distance runners. Some argue that the muscles in the back of your leg naturally become stiffened from prolonged running, and why would a genetic adaptation that results from more running actually be bad for the thing it is building endurance for?
Range motion for submaximal VO2 measures
One study of nineteen male competitive distance runners found that standing external hip rotation and dorsiflexion (flexing the foot towards the shin) flexibility measures were positively and significantly associated with submaximal VO2 measures (i.e. less flexible runners on those two measures showed a reduced aerobic demand during running, in other words, they were able to use less oxygen to maintain the same pace). It should be noted that some of the so-called measures of “flexibility,” however, employed by the study, were not so much measures of flexibility (i.e. in terms of muscle tension, which may be improved by increased stretching), but rather of range of motion, which has far more to do with anatomy of the skeleton.
For example, one measure of flexibility was of external hip rotation, which has far more to do with anatomy than flexibility. To a point, practicing yoga will not yield any improvement in hip rotation, so it would be wrong to conclude that doing more yoga or activities that stretch the hip will result in reduced running economy vis a vis the hip. And as will be discussed later, yoga may have stabilizing benefits on hip rotation that can greatly help runners to run more efficiently and avoid injury.
It all depends on what muscles are being discussed
The debate about whether flexibility is good or bad for running may depend largely on what muscles are being discussed, and what direction those muscles are moving. Another study of 7 young adult males found that after performing static stretches that increased measures of their hip extension and flexion, the subjects could run with greater efficiency. It hypothesizes that this is because these stretches created a more stable pelvis and reduced compensating for imbalances by putting more stress on regions around the hip, such as the knee or lumbar spine.
Regardless of what one believes about flexibility, however, there must be a reason that numerous long distance runners and ultra-endurance athletes have touted the importance of a regular yoga practice as a counterbalance to endurance training. Indeed, running can offer numerous other benefits to the long distance runner.
As explored further below, these benefits include improved efficiency, recovery, and mental control, as well as a reduction in injury. All together, these reasons create a powerful case for why distance runners should regularly practice yoga that far outweighs any conflicting doubt that “flexibility is bad for runners.”
The body has two basic energy-burning systems—the aerobic and the anaerobic system. The aerobic system utilizes oxygen and fat for fuel and is used to fuel activity up to a certain intensity. At a certain intensity level (the aerobic threshold) the body must switch to the anaerobic system, which uses glycogen (sugar) for energy.
Distance runner should aim to increase their aerobic threshold
The anaerobic system can only store a certain amount of energy, enough for about 90 minutes of activity, after which it is depleted.  Thus, it is crucial for an endurance runner to learn to be able to utilize the aerobic system, which taps into fat stores to fuel effort (even the world’s fastest marathon runners average about 125-145 minutes to complete a race). Said differently, a distance runner should aim to increase their aerobic threshold—the maximum level of intensity at which they continue to use oxygen and fat instead of glycogen for fuel.
Think of the body like a car engine
Other important indicators of efficiency in distance runners include Vo2 Max and running economy. Technically speaking, Vo2 Max is a measure of the greatest amount of oxygen that can be used by the entire body. In Layman’s terms, it’s a “measure of aerobic fitness related to a person’s ability to sustain long periods of moderate to high intensity physical activity with large muscle groups.”
Running economy, a related concept, is typically defined as the energy demand for a given velocity of submaximal running, and is determined by measuring the steady-state consumption of oxygen (VO2) and the respiratory exchange ratio. Think of the body like a car engine—you want not only an engine that is powerful, but also one that uses fuel efficiently.
Yoga training has been shown to improve aerobic endurance
Yoga training (incorporating both asanas and pranayama practice) has been shown to improve aerobic endurance. A study of 17 men and women that had never before done yoga found that an hour of yoga training each day for six weeks (consisting of asanas, bundas, and pranayama) improved the VO2 max of the subjects, indicating improved respiratory efficiency and greater aerobic power.
Similar findings have been found in numerous other studies as well. One study in which participants were asked to start practicing hatha yoga for 12 weeks corroborated the finding of improved VO2 Max among subjects. Another found that regular yoga practice lead to decreased oxygen consumption and postponement of fatigue (i.e. a higher aerobic threshold) of participants during exercise.
A third study similarly found that subjects introduced to yoga training including pranayama, asanas and bundas had higher cardiovascular endurance indicating greater aerobic power and VO2 max, as measured by a step test.
Pranyama alone improves endurance
It may be that practice of pranayama alone can improve endurance. One study tested athletes on the same training regimen. For half of the subjects, daily pranayama practice was also introduced. The study concluded that “the changes seen in the present study due to the practice of Pranayama are comparable to those with physical training.”
Specifically, the study found that those who practiced pranayama had lower oxygen consumption per unit work and lower resting lactate levels. Lactate is released into the blood when there is insufficient oxygen and is released when the body must switch to the anaerobic system, the less efficient system for energy production. In short, this study suggests that oxygen was delivered or utilized more efficiently in those subjects that had practiced pranayama, and that those subjects may have had a higher aerobic threshold (as indicated by the lower levels of lactate in the blood).
Core strength improves running performance
In addition to these measures of aerobic endurance, running efficiency may also be improved through the mechanism of stronger core strength that yoga can provide. One study found that the addition of a core exercise regiment to running training resulted in greater running performance and running economy among subjects.
The exercises performed by these subjects included postures commonly found in yoga classes, such as bridge and plank. The authors explain that this is likely the result that stronger core muscles create a more stable core with less torso rotation during running, allowing for greater efficiency. Other studies similarly find that yoga training increases core strength.
The importance of core strength—and how it may be enhanced by yoga—when running was already discussed with respect to running efficiency. A strong core can help stabilize the torso to prevent it from over-rotating, resulting in useless and inefficient expenditure of energy. This same core strength is also crucial to preventing injury when running.
One author and licensed physical therapist who specializes in running injuries estimates that about 75% of his patients’ injuries stem from insufficient core strength.
A lot of muscles must work in coordination when running
Much could be said about the importance of the core to running, but think about it this way: a lot of muscles must work in coordination when running. One stride talks about half a second to three quarters of a second, and during that entire time the arms, legs,, core, and extremities are all at work. And when running, a great deal of pressure falls onto the leg that is landing, which impact can create excess stress on the ankle or knee joints if there is misalignment in the gait pattern. The core is the center from which these other links emanate.
Many common running injuries occur in the core area
Many common running injuries that occur in the core area—such as low back pain, spine problems, hip impingement, and bursitis (inflammation of the sacs on the outside of the hips), tendonitis/tendinopathy of the glutes, iliopsoas, or hamstrings—relate directly to gait and poor running mechanics.
Additionally, many injuries that actually originate in the core may show up elsewhere in the body as those parts of the body are forced to compensate for weakness in the core. When the core is poorly positioned, it may render the glutes and hips less active, which extends down the chain to the knees, ankles, and all the way down to the feet, creating misalignment that can wear on the body over time through the repetitive motions of running.
Common injuries seen among runners in areas of the body outside the core, but which may frequently result from weaknesses in the core, include runner’s knee (Patellofemoral syndrome), stress fractures in the feet or shins, IT band syndrome, shin splints, Achilles tendonitis.
After running my first marathon, I ended up at a physical therapist’s office being treated for bursitis of the hips
I can speak to this first hand: after running my first marathon, I ended up at a physical therapist’s office being treated for bursitis of the hips. The PT attributed this to weakness in my core (I sheepishly had to admit that I had altogether stopped any core conditioning and instead just focused on running miles). A few years later, in training for a third marathon, I again found myself back in an orthopedic surgeon’s office complaining of pain in my foot and ankle from running. Again, he suggested that this problem stemmed from weakness in my hips and core that my foot and ankle were likely compensating for.
And just four months after that, I was again back in PT in the midst of marathon training, this time with pain in my IT band near the knee joint—and yet again, was prescribed a regiment of core and hip strengtheners. (Anecdotally, I will also relate that I have managed to stay injury-free in the two marathons in which I kept up a regular yoga practice as part of my routine, even while simultaneously increasing the intensity and mileage of my training).
Yoga may provide just the vehicle for increasing strength, flexibility, mobility, and stability
Without the proper foundations of strength, flexibility, mobility, and stability, particularly in the core, a runner may set themselves up for injury. And yoga may provide just the vehicle for increasing strength, flexibility, mobility, and stability. A study of college athletes found that introducing a biweekly yoga practice to training improved flexibility and balance among participants.
Summarizing the multitudinous benefits of yoga, that study explained:
Yoga is an activity that can simultaneously enhance several specific components of fitness. For instance, following weeks of practice, joints comprising movement in their kinetic chains may be optimized through increased alignment, increased range of motion, and a greater muscle fibers recruitment.
This more optimal performance occurs as flexibility increases and muscle tension reduces thereby producing a greater stretching effect on the surrounding connective tissue to ultimately “loosen” it, thus, reducing the load placed on the ligaments and joints. In this way, new movement options become possible as connective tissues become laxer, muscles become more active, and joints move more freely.
Because of its multifaceted emphasis, yoga is a highly structured activity that mimics critical aspects of athletic performance including balance, flexibly, muscular strength, muscle endurance, and movement efficiency (coordination). As such, practicing yoga may have a uniquely positive and varied impact on athletic performance.
Success lies in a regular yoga practise
It’s no wonder that many elite runners and endurance athletes tout the benefits that a regular yoga practice can have to their running. Former professional Ironman athlete Rich Roll (also famous for crediting a vegan lifestyle with his success in endurance sports) writes that practicing yoga “enhanced core body stability and significantly impeded overuse injury by strengthening the supportive but otherwise under-developed muscles surrounding the more utilized muscles, creating a more balanced and optimally functional overall strength.”
A regular yoga practice may also improve one’s ability to recovery from strenuous exercise such as running. One study found that levels of two particular proteins (cytokines) which are indicators of inflammation did not increase significantly for subjects that had been regular yoga practitioners when they began to exercise, but did show such an increase (indicating greater inflammation) among non-yogis. This same effect of a depressed inflammatory response was observed when yoga practitioners exercised both at moderate and at strenuous levels.
I’d be remiss if I wrote an entire paper on yoga’s benefits for running without at least bearing mention to the benefits of yoga on the mind. While perhaps unstudied yet in science, every endurance runner knows that much of completing a marathon or other long distance run is a mental game. One sports psychologist touts mental training as an essential component to a training regiment. One particular recommendation that he provides, which should ring particularly true to the yoga, is to “be present”: to “Do what I can in this moment.” Yoga is all about being present in the moment: focusing on the alignment of the mind, body, and breath in the moment in order to achieve inner peace.
Even if the scientific evidence on whether more flexibility is good for running is mixed (although the evidence often cited by champions of this premise can easily be questioned), yoga provides a multitude of other benefits that should make it an essential component of training for long distance runners.
1.Yoga can lead to increased efficiency when running
First, yoga can lead to increased efficiency when running. Regular yoga practice—particularly asanas and breathing—have been shown in studies to increase the aerobic capacity among participants and help practitioners utilize oxygen more efficiently.
Aerobic fitness and efficient energy use are crucial to long distance runners as a they must sustain effort over a long period of time. Yoga practice is also extremely beneficial to preventing injury among runners by enhancing core strength and improving stability and balance necessary to fend off running injuries, which frequently result from a weak core or misalignment.
2. During periods of intense training, yoga may also improve recovery
During periods of intense training, yoga may also improve recovery, as it has been shown that regular yoga practice can lead to a reduced inflammatory response from exercise.
3. The mind is a powerful organ both in running and in yoga
And finally, the mind is a powerful organ both in running and in yoga. Yoga teaches the practitioner to be present in the moment, an ideal that is also key for the distance runner whether out on a long training run or forcing their way through the final miles of a marathon.
This resourceful and fantastic article was written by my friend Shannon from Colorado. Shannon is a yoga teacher and an experienced long distance runner. I don’t need to mention that she is intelligent and witty, but I was still amazed by the insightful research she did on yoga’s effects on long distance running and truly hope this article will enlighten you. I loved it and can’t thank you enough, Shannon! You’re awesome!!!
I love to hear your thoughts on yoga and long distance running. Please leave a comment below to let us know on which side of the running community you are. Or maybe you want to start running? Le tus know and we’d love to support and give you some useful tips on where to start. Good habits can always start today!
Namaste and with so much love,
 Want to Improve your Running Economy? Stop Stretching, Matt Fitzgerald, July 3, 2014, https://www.podiumrunner.com/training/want-to-improve-your-economy-stop-stretching/#:~:text=First%20of%20all%2C%20flexibility%20is,the%20hips%20than%20slower%20runners.
 The association between flexibility and running economy in sub-elite male distance runners CRAIB, MITCHELL W.; MITCHELL, VICKI A.; FIELDS, KARL B.; COOPER, THERESA R.; HOPEWELL, REGINA; MORGAN, DON W. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: June 1996 – Volume 28 – Issue 6 – p 737-743. This study also acknowledged, “At present, inflexibility in the legs and trunk is assumed by clinicians to be associated with a higher risk running injuries.”
 The Effects of Two Stretching Procedures on Hip Range of Motion and Gait Economy, Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, March 1, 1989, Volume10 Issue 9, pp 350-357.
 Finding Ultra.
 What is VO2 Max and How do you improve it? Nick Harris-Fry, https://www.coachmag.co.uk/fitness/6987/what-is-vo2-max-and-how-do-you-improve-it.
 Factors Affecting Running Economy in Trained Distance Runners, Philo U Saunders 1, David B Pyne, Richard D Telford, John A Hawley, Sports Med, 2004.
 Effect of yoga on aerobic and anaerobic power of muscles, Badrinarayan Balasubramanian, M S Pansare, Indian Journal of Psychology and Pharmacology, 1991.
 Effects of a 12-Week Hatha Yoga Intervention on Cardiorespiratory Endurance, Muscular Strength and Endurance, and Flexibility in Hong Kong Chinese Adults: A Controlled Clinical Trial, Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, Caren Lau, Ruby Yu, and Jean Woo, June 8, 2015 (“Effects of a 12-Week Hatha Yoga Intervention”).
 Effect of yoga on exercise tolerance in normal healthy volunteers. Raju PS, Kumar KA, Reddy SS, Madhavi S, Gnanakumari K, Bhaskaracharyulu C, Reddy MV, Annapurna N, Reddy ME, Girijakumari D, Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology, March 31 1986.
 Body composition, cardiovascular endurance and anaerobic power of yogic practitioner, Bera TK, Rajapurkar MV. Indian J Physiol Pharmacol, 1993, 37:225-8
 Comparison of Effect of Yoga and Physical Exercise in Athletes, PS Raju, S Madhavi, KVV Prasad, M Venkanta Reddy, M Eswara Reddy, BK Sahay, & KJR Murthy, Govt. Vemana Yoga Research Institute, May 17, 1994.
 “Functional” Inspiratory and Core Muscle Training Enhances Running Performance and Economy. Tong, TK, McConnell, AK, Lin, H, Nie, J, Zhang, H, and Wang, J. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Volume 30, Number 10, October 2016, pp. 2942-2951(10).
 See e.g. “Effects of a 12 Week Hatha Yoga Intervention” (hatha yoga intervention improved subjects’ core strength as measured by situp tests), Effects of Hatha Yoga Training on the Health-Related Physical Fitness, Vishaw Gaurav, International Journal of Sports Sciences and Engineering, Vol. 05 (2011) No. 03, pp. 169-173 (also finding core strength improvement from hatha yoga training).
 The Runner’s Guide to a Healthy Core, Daniel J. Frey, 2016 (Skyhouse Publishing) (Kindle version).
 Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes M Jay Polsgrove, Brandon M Eggleston, Roch J Lockyer, International J. Yoga, 9:27-34.
 How 5 Elite Runners Use Yoga to Improve Their Performance, Cindy Kuzma, March 1, 2018, https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20848943/how-5-elite-runners-use-yoga-to-improve-their-performance/.
 Why Every Athlete Should do Yoga, Rich Roll, May 22 2012, https://www.richroll.com/blog/why-every-athlete-should-do-yoga/.
 Effect of Yoga Practice on Levels of Inflammatory Markers After Moderate and Strenuous Exercise Ambarish Vijayaraghava, Venkatesh Doreswamy, Omkar Subbaramajois Narasipur, Radhika Kunnavil, and Nandagudi Srinivasamurthy, Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 2015 Jun; 9(6): CC08–CC12.
 9 Ways to Boost your Mental Strength, Jim Afremow, March 8, 2015, https://www.runnersworld.com/uk/training/a773966/9-ways-to-boost-your-mental-strength/.