Marathoners, ultra-race trainers, and yoga instructors agree to a T — regular practice of Hatha yoga breathing exercises and asanas, or poses, should be an integral part of any endurance race training regimen. Why? Well, the benefits are mental, physical, emotional—and undeniable to those who have tried it. So whether you’re training for the Leadville 100 or the Marathon des Sables in north Africa (a six-day, 156-mile ultramarathon, equivalent to six regular marathons!), the message is clear: start stretching now. Here are 10 reasons why.
Breathing practice is essential to Hatha yoga, some would say even defined by it. Practitioners use a back-of-throat nose breathing called ujayi pranayam, or “breath of the victorious warrior,” which lengthens inhalations and increases lung capacity. This, in turn, delivers more oxygen to the body and helps with overall performance and efficiency. (See numbers 4, 5, and 6 for other benefits.)
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To cover more ground with fewer steps, you need loose hip flexors, lubricated joints, greater hip flexion, and properly stretched hamstrings — all of which are common results from regular Hatha yoga practice. Many asanas cover these areas, which help develop a longer natural stride and smoother, steadier pace.
“At the end of a marathon, the body is totally spent and depleted of fuel," says Jai Sugrim, Certified Jivamukti Yoga teacher and host of Yoga Sutra Now. "It is the mind that brings you home to the finish line,” Endurance requires equal parts physical and mental strength, and yoga (in addition to fitness) helps with concentration. During the final stretch of a race, you can use meditative techniques to push negative thoughts aside and focus on getting your butt across the finish line.
Abdominal strengthening, says Boston-based yoga teacher, Karen Fabian, founder of Bare Bones Yoga, “is one of the most important things to keeping a body strong, centered, and powerful.” Most Hatha yoga series include such core strengthening poses, which do more than just hone your six-pack. A strong core supports the body from the inside out, improving running posture and protecting your back and hips.
5. Mental toughness
Holding a yoga pose for a long time — especially a core-trembling, quad-shaking position like “warrior” or “chair” pose — not only strengthens muscles, but it also builds confidence, quiets the mind, and translates directly to race day, says Scott Rodwin, founder of Radiance Yoga in Boulder, Colorado. "Over time,” he says, “the practice of simply holding the pose teaches you that you are stronger than you think. The asana asks you to overcome self-limiting thoughts and the fear of pain. It requires discipline and commitment."
Athletes who are out there on long, solo training runs already know about developing an inward, mindful state of being, a.k.a. “the zone.” Staying mindful of your breath helps achieve this, says personal trainer Carrie Jesse, allowing athletes to stay in the moment and “even match the rhythmic breathing to their footfalls.”
Tight hamstrings, calves, glutes, and lower back muscles are all common side effects of many endurance race regimens. “Hatha Yoga helps immensely in releasing tight muscles and restoring full mobility to the body’s joints,” says Alexander Cortes, a strength and conditioning coach at a UFC gym in California. “Often times endurance racers will unknowingly develop bad movement patterns due to tight muscles. Mobilizing and realigning the body [with yoga practice] can restore proper patterns and prevent avoidable injuries.”
The restorative power of yoga counters the constant pounding on your legs and spine, while also helping develop and maintain a sense of space in the hips and lower back. In addition, the increased oxygen coursing through a yoga-enhanced athlete’s body means less soreness and quicker tissue repair after you push it.
9. Injury prevention
Yoga promotes a constant awareness of what is going on in your body and mind. Many classes begin with a reminder to honor your body’s particular needs and limits on that particular day. “Yoga helps with your ability to discern between discomfort and pain,” says Sage Rountree, author of The Runner's Guide to Yoga. “This is an important distinction as the hours and miles wear on your body.”
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Yoga uses your own bodyweight as resistance to build strength. “People don't realize yoga is work, it’s a physical practice,” says Taj Harris, endurance runner, yoga teacher, and Crunch Group Fitness Coordinator. Poses require strength as well as balance, she says. “Honestly I'm rarely on the weight floor in the gym. I use yoga to strengthen.