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Yoga for Runners

By JOE DALY

I was such a snot.

A good two years before I took my first hot yoga class, my best friend had become a full-blown hot yoga junkie and as we sat outside eating breakfast in La Jolla one morning, he peppered me with wild tales of heat, strengthening poses and all of his cool new yoga friends.

I poked at my pancakes, stared off somewhere over his shoulder and waited for the inevitable entreaty, which soon arrived.

“Dude, you should try it. Hot yoga, that is.”

My retort was already locked and loaded.

“I would dude, but I just can’t afford to pass up a workout to do yoga.”

Again, I realize what a snot I was. Even then, I understood just how snotty I sounded, and obviously, I have eaten those words time and again in the years since. For the record, they are neither tasty nor filling and we know how the story ends (or at least where it now stands): I am now a full-on hot yoga enthusiast.

But my old mindset—that yoga was little more than a series of breezy floor stretching—was not unique to me. Loads of runners who have never tried hot yoga continue to view it as a lesser workout when measured against their running regimen; like anything else, these runners will have no reason to reconsider their prejudice unless they give hot yoga a shot. Even several months after I began my hot yoga practice, I still held on to the notion that one activity canceled out the other; that when I ran, I did so at the expense of improving my yoga practice, and by doing yoga instead of running, I lost valuable cardio-building time.

I experienced a mind-blowing epiphany in January, 2011 however, that shined a big, bright, car-dealership-sized spotlight on the true connection between yoga and running.

(Cue uptempo rock and keyboards montage music)

In 2009, a couple of years before my first hot yoga class, I ran four days a week, generally split into three five-mile runs and a ten miler every Sunday morning. While the weekly mileage varied, I rarely missed my Sunday tenner.

Unsurprisingly, over the course of that year, my Sunday runs grew progressively smoother; I improved from a pace of 9:30 minutes per mile to just over seven minutes per mile. It was a simple matter of developing greater muscular and cardiovascular fitness through repetition.

One aspect of those runs that never changed was the recovery. Immediately after each run, fatigue, achey joints and overall soreness would descend on me like a dark cloud of pure pain and I would spend the rest of my Sundays lying on the couch with my feet elevated, cursing my dogs for not being like the dogs on TV who could fetch food and drinks from the kitchen.

As a longtime marathoner, pain was nothing new. In fact, I actually savored the fatigue because I had conditioned myself into believing that the greater my post-race agony, the harder I must have worked and thus, the richer the benefits. No pain, no gain, I would tell myself as I hobbled around the house like George Burns.

That January I ran the Carlsbad half-marathon, turning in my best half-marathon time ever, finishing the race in just over ninety minutes. It occurred to me that the weekly mileage was not enough to account for my performance; it had to have been the consistent pattern of weekly ten milers.

Soon thereafter, I found myself burnt out on running, and after moving to North County and taking up hot yoga, running all but fell to the wayside. It wasn’t a clean break at first. I was initially concerned that eliminating mileage from my workout routine would lead to weight gain, but this idea was promptly smashed by the inexplicable loss of five pounds within the first couple months of attending Yoga Tropics. Mind you, I wasn’t trying to lose weight so much as I was trying to avoid weight gain. The fact that I quickly lost five pounds by switching from running to yoga offered an unexpected data point.

I took almost two years off from running before deciding to dive back in. I registered for the 2011 Carlsbad Half-marathon again, hoping that registering for the race would instill a renewed commitment to running, because I wasn’t all that excited about giving up yoga classes to go beat up my joints on the pavement. I figured the fact that I plunked down a good chunk of change for that race would inspire me to train hard, but I soon found that registration or not, I much preferred a hot yoga class to a long run. In fact, to my surprise, running felt like a chore instead of the endorphin-pumping release that it once was.

While I certainly wasn’t going to pull out of the race, though, I was loathe to cut out any yoga classes either. Consequently, my training program for this race consisted of one or two five mile runs per week. The week before the half-marathon, I maxed out at eight miles. The industry term for this type of training is called “half-assing it.”

During this training period, I also took hot yoga classes five to six days a week.

Needless to say, when I approached the starting line of the race that year, I was worried about finishing for the first time in my life. I looked around the starting line at all the perky runners with their jaunty shirts from all the races they had run in the past year. I felt like an outsider, which was strange territory for a veteran marathoner as I was. Fear seeped in as I stressed over my appallingly lax training program. No longer was I thinking about competitive times and personal bests, I was freaking out that I might not even finish, not without walking at least.

What happened was startling.

I finished the race well off of my personal best: 1:47. However, what surprised me was that this translated into a pace of 8:12 min/mile. Not only did I finish, but given my low weekly mileage, I felt that this was a respectable result and it provided me with the first new information: yoga builds cardio.

With scattershot running at comfortable training paces, I might have built some additional cardio capacity, but not much. The one sustained activity during that period was hot yoga. Looking at my exercise schedule in the two months prior to that race, it is clear that it was my regular yoga practice and not the ten or so miles a week I ran that gave me the cardio to power me through a half-marathon at a decent pace.

Secondly, I experienced zero soreness after the race. Nothing. No aching back, creaky knees or burnt-out quads. The dark cloud of joint pain has passed right over me. In fact, the day after the race, I felt the exact same as I had felt before the race.

This was the second realization—yoga promotes muscle recovery far beyond what I had expected. I’ve run long enough to know that stretching helps runners get into the zone faster during a run and that some post-race stretching alleviates soreness, but I never stretch before or after a run. Ever. Indisputably, I learned that my yoga practice had given me recovery benefits exponentially greater than a few minutes of pre or post-run stretching that I used to do back in my marathon running days.

Certainly my pace slowed quite a bit from improper race training, and if I ever want to hit a new PR, I know I need to get a healthy amount of miles in during the week. But I encourage all runners—especially those training for a race—to consider upping their weekly yoga regimen to see what happens. I think you’ll find the results to be quite tasty indeed.

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Image from Zen Girl in the City

JOE DALY is a freelance music journalist who contributes regular features to a number of magazines, including Metal Hammer, Classic Rock , Bass Guitar Magazine and Outburn. He founded the music section of L.A. culture site, The Nervous Breakdown and he is the music and culture commentator for Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk’sLitReactor. Also, from time to time, he writes angry emails to his HOA. Joe has been writing about music for over twenty years and he has held an astonishing variety of positions in the music business including guitarist, singer, manager and PR slug. When he is not drafting wild-eyed manifestos, Joe enjoys life in San Diego’s groovy North County, doing yoga, running, playing guitar and spending tireless hours in deep and meaningful conversations with his beloved dogs, Cabo and Lola. You can check out some of his most popular essays here and follow him on Twitter: @JoeD_SanDiego

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