I’m conflicted as to whether yoga is of benefit to ultra runners. My personal experience based on almost two-years of regular yoga (both Hatha and Bikram) is mixed. When I recently heard an interview with William J. Broad on NPR about his new book, The Science of Yoga; The Risks and Rewards I was intrigued. Might this book provide me with some insight as to my personal observations and experiences?
I first started practicing yoga on a regular basis about two years ago. At the time I had started to take running more seriously and felt that I needed an activity that would help with flexibility, balance and core strength. Yoga seemed to be the perfect answer. I found the first month or so to be very challenging; learning the poses, not having the flexibility to perform many of the poses, and realizing that my core strength was clearly lacking. I suspect I provided great amusement for my classmates as I tried to touch my toes, fell out of poses, and always seemed to be a move or two behind the class. Yes, I was “that guy!”
But, I got better at yoga. And, at the same time my running was improving. While I don’t think there is a strong or direct correlation between yoga and running faster, I do think the yoga was a contributor to my improvement through increasing my flexibility and core strength.
This past December I tried Bikram yoga. Several friends gave Bikram rave reviews and I felt I needed to check it out. I liked the heat and found the poses to be challenging, but with the flexibility and strength I have developed over the past year – doable. I loved the feeling at the end of the practice of being spent, cleansed, and invigorated. Yet, after every practice my hamstrings felt weak and irritated for several days, and I would have various aches and pains in my knees, lower legs and feet. I found running the next day to consistently be a chore – heavy legs, miscellaneous shakes and rattles, and a feeling of being tired. It was during this time of practicing Bikram yoga two to three times per week that my hamstrings became completely fried and I was unable to run for about a month. “Was Bikram yoga hurting my running?” I asked myself. Was Choudhury Bikram’s claim that his yoga “provides optimum health and maximum function” and “you’ll become a superman” false? Was there a role for yoga in my ambitions to become a faster runner?
The Science of Yoga; The Risks and the Rewards answered many of my questions. The book provides an impartial evaluation of yoga through a survey of research conducted over the past 100 years to illustrate what are the potential benefits, as well as identify how yoga can be hurtful.
A key learning for me was that injuries from yoga are much more widespread than probably most people realize. A 2008 study conducted n Europe showed that 62% of regular practitioners of Ashtanga had suffered at least one injury from yoga that had lasted more than a month. Another study indicated that the heat experienced during Bikram increased the risk of overstretching, muscle damage and torn cartilage. It also suggested that ligaments failed to regain their shape once stretched and that loose joints could promote injury. This exactly described how I felt several days after Bikram; loose joints, lack of spring in my legs, and heavy legs potentially as a result of micro-tearing of muscle.
Other learnings were that yoga provides little cardiovascular benefit. Don’t look to yoga to increase your VO2. In fact, a brisk walk probably provides more benefit. And, regular yoga can result in lowering one’s metabolism. In one study regular yoga cut the basal metabolic rate of subjects by an average of 13%. Don’t look to yoga for weight loss!
A large body of research indicates that yoga improves self-esteem, provides a sense of well-being, lifts moods, and can help manage depression. The benefits for our minds and spirits are significant. And, a number of studies suggest yoga is good for sex! There seems to be a correlation between yoga and increased testosterone levels in both men and women – with increases as high as 55%. Evidence also suggests that the hyperventilation achieved during fast breathing (Kapalbhati & Bhastrika) promotes arousal. Hmmm!
Each of us is different. And, what works for each of us varies widely. But for me, I’m going to look to yoga to help me with flexibility and core strength – and some serenity along the way. My plan for the summer is to attend a 1-hour restorative yoga class Wednesday and Friday mornings at my gym. It’s low key, relaxed, and doesn’t have that “push yourself hard” environment found at Bikram. As for Bikram, while I love the intensity of the practice, the hot ladies, and how I feel at the end of the practice – I do believe it is detrimental to my running and has contributed to some of the injuries I have experienced over the past 6 months. No more Bikram for me.
As I continue to evaluate the role of yoga in my life and in my running, I’d be curious as to what other runners have experienced as the risks and rewards of yoga….