Despite what many online articles may say, the benefits of yoga for runners and other endurance athletes are not as straightforward as you may have been led to believe. Studies have yet to indicate obvious performance benefits of yoga or flexibility for endurance athletes.
However, if you're a beginner endurance athlete, you may have a serious lack of flexibility from years of sitting. Elite runners also tend to lack mobility due to the linear and repetitive nature of endurance sports.
Many athletes who do not include any mobility training, talk about feeling stiff and wanting to do more yoga, while runners who take up a regular yoga practice almost always talk about how much better they feel.
Whether you're a runner, triathlete, or cyclist, a beginner runner training for your first 5k or 10k, or an advanced triathlete training to qualify for the IRONMAN World Championship, yoga can help you feel, function, and live better. It's a practice that can support you in both mind and body.
We will delve into the many benefits of yoga for all endurance athletes, using runners, cyclists, and triathletes interchangeably as examples.
In this article, you will learn:
- When to do yoga with running, cycling, and triathlon workouts
- Best yoga poses for runners, cyclists, and triathletes
- How does yoga help your running and endurance performance
- Should you do pre-run yoga or post-run yoga stretches
- What type of yoga is best for runners
- How to avoid mistakes endurance athletes make with yoga
- How many times a week you should do yoga as an endurance athlete
4 Key Benefits of Yoga for Runners, Cyclists, and Triathletes
The connection between yoga and endurance sports performance is loose at best. Science has yet to prove that yoga or increased flexibility improves performance. Some studies have even found that additional flexibility may reduce running economy and cause athletes to use more energy during training.
However, studies loosely related to the benefits for runners and endurance athletes, and the anecdotal evidence of our experience working with athletes strongly supports including yoga in your training plan. The benefits of yoga are not just limited to physical performance but also to overall well-being.
- Benefit #1: Subjective ease of training. Seasoned athletes often report feeling very tight and having to perform longer and longer warm-ups to feel good as they get older. Yoga keeps the body looser and more mobile, making all endurance training activities feel easier.
- Benefit #2: Fewer injuries and additional comfort. If you've ever heard about "niggles” when running, you know about the tiny little injuries that tend to creep in while training for endurance races. A general yoga practice that increases day-to-day mobility has been found to decrease the likelihood of injury. In our coaching experience, athletes who perform yoga tend to feel fewer niggles during their training.
- Benefit #3: Improved recovery. The nervous system fluctuates between sympathetic (stressed out) and parasympathetic (relaxed and restful). The more parasympathetic you can be, the more time you'll spend in recovery mode adapting to the training you perform. A yoga practice has been found to increase heart-rate variability (HRV) and conceivably, improve your ability to withstand endurance training.
- Benefit #4: Improved endurance. Studies have found that increased mindfulness can improve endurance performance. While western "power yoga" isn't a calming meditative practice, calming Hatha and Yin Yoga are very mindful practices that will calm your mind and body after hard training.
The Best Type of Yoga For Runners
The most commonly practiced types of yoga in North America are not helpful for endurance athletes because they add stress instead of reducing it. I believe this is why many runners feel like adding yoga into their training plan is "just too much" and tires them out instead of making them feel better.
However, not all types of yoga are created equal. We'll compare the different types of yoga below to explain why we feel Hatha and Yin yoga are the best for runners.
- Vinyasa Flow: Vinyasa flow (also known as power yoga or Ashtanga yoga) is the most popular type in North America, with 57% of yoga practitioners saying it is their primary yoga style. This fast-paced, challenging form of yoga is intense and can feel like a workout.
While this might sound appealing to runners, we tend to steer clear of the Vinyasa yoga flow for endurance athletes because it adds a significant additional training load that can lead to fatigue and even overtraining.
- Hatha Yoga: Hatha yoga, on the other hand, is a much slower and more controlled practice. This is the second most common yoga practice in North America, with 42% of people who regularly do yoga saying Hatha is their primary practice. Hatha focuses on slow, controlled yoga postures and stretches that are more nourishing and relaxing, as opposed to challenging.
We recommend Hatha yoga for triathletes because it complements their intense endurance training with a calming practice that leaves them feeling rejuvenated.
- Yin Yoga: Yin yoga, also known as restorative yoga, is becoming increasingly popular. Roughly a fifth of yogis say it is their primary form of yoga. This extremely relaxing practice focuses on deep stretches held for several minutes to create a full release. We use Yin yoga in our training plans during rest weeks and during the race season when training volume and intensity increases.
Yin yoga helps to calm down the nervous system, which is a great runner's yoga because it puts the body in recovery mode, allowing it to rebuild itself from the hard endurance training.
- Hot Yoga: Hot yoga can be any of the yoga methods listed above performed in a hot room, usually around 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius). While heat training can create an additional cardiovascular benefit, we suggest hot yoga should only be done during the off-season for endurance athletes because it adds an additional training stress.
The Best Yoga Poses for Runners
When we were creating the 24 hours of guided yoga workout videos for our app, we didn't want them to be just any yoga. We wanted it to be yoga specifically designed for runners, cyclists, triathletes, duathletes, swimmers, and swimrunners.
The most common imbalances endurance athletes experience are:
- Tight hip flexors
- Weak glutes
- Poor t-spine rotation
- Tight chests and torsos (particularly the lower back)
- A lack of lateral mobility from side to side
Endurance athletes also come to the yoga mat with a lot of built-up training stress, so the workouts we created for our app had to be gentle and able to calm down the body.
With these parameters in mind, we worked with Helen Faliveno of My Mindful Movement to create gentle Hatha and Yin yoga workouts that complement the needs of endurance athletes as opposed to competing with them.
Following are Helen's recommendations on the best yoga poses for runners:
Best Yoga Equipment for Runners
Yoga equipment, also known as "yoga props," is an excellent addition to any yoga practice, especially for beginners who need a little help getting into some positions. As a runner starting a yoga practice, we recommend three pieces of equipment to help enhance your practice and make it more comfortable.
- Yoga mat: A yoga mat is essential regardless of whether you're practicing at home or in a studio. Yoga studios sometimes provide mats, but since the pandemic, many studios are asking students to always bring their own for sanitary purposes. A yoga mat serves multiple purposes, including providing a non-slip surface for your practice, cushioning for your joints, and a barrier between you and any germs on the floor. We recommend looking for a yoga mat with a coating specifically designed to maintain its grip when it's wet, so you can also use it for hot yoga.
- Yoga block: A yoga block can be particularly helpful for runners and beginners because you may lack the flexibility to get into certain poses. A block can help with this by reducing the range of motion required to get into some poses, allowing you to deepen your stretch, building flexibility and strength.
- Yoga strap: A yoga strap is another tool to help stiff endurance athletes get into some poses that they don't have the natural flexibility to achieve. If you've purchased large stretchy bands for strength training, you can use these as your yoga strap.
How to Incorporate a Yoga Routine into a Run Training Plan
Yoga vs. Strength Training
We consider a yoga and mobility workout a "nice to have" and not a "need to have." Our training plans don't include a regular weekly guided workout unless athletes have time for a lot of weekly training hours. Time-crunched athletes or athletes just looking for an intermediate balanced training plan probably shouldn't worry about making time for yoga.
Below are sample training schedules from our app; the first is for a half-IRONMAN triathlete, and the second is for a half-marathon runner. Only once these athletes increase their weekly training hours to this point do we add a weekly yoga workout into their plan.
This doesn't mean you should ignore mobility if you're tight on time. You can incorporate "mobility-strength exercises" into your strength workouts, loading your muscles at the end of your range of motion to build mobility. These are some of the mobility-strength exercises we use in the strength workouts in our app.
How many times per week should runners do yoga?
If you're performing gentle yoga, you can do yoga sessions as often as you want throughout the week. However, the more yoga you do, the less intense it should be, and the more carefully you'll have to monitor your signs of overtraining. Our training plans include yoga once per week, which is enough for the goals of most endurance athletes: to feel good and not lose mobility as they age.
How long should yoga sessions be for runners?
Yoga workouts can range from five minutes to three hours. However, our guided workouts are just 30 minutes because we find that's enough to hit many areas of the body without taking up more time than necessary. Also, workouts longer than 60 minutes tend to increase stress levels which is not what we want to accomplish with yoga for endurance athletes.
When in the week should yoga workouts be scheduled?
If the yoga you're doing is power yoga and very intense, like a lot of videos you'll find on YouTube or most yoga studios in North America offer, you have to be very conscious of when you schedule yoga during your week.
In this scenario, yoga is another challenging workout. It should be paired with an otherwise key training day, like an interval running workout or after a long run. But if you're doing restorative yoga as we recommend, you can perform yoga on any day of your training cycle; you can pair it with a key workout day or use it as your rest day.
Below are two recommended training weeks in our half-IRONMAN triathlon training plans. One where yoga is paired on the same day as an intense run, another where the yoga workout is on Friday to recover from the three previous tough days and to prepare for the big training weekend. Both are acceptable when your yoga is gentle.
Should you do yoga before or after running?
The evidence on static stretching before exercise indicates that we should not be doing static stretches before exercise as it reduces your power and strength afterward, possibly decreasing performance and increasing the likelihood of injury.
You should not be doing yoga and then heading out for a run, but you can certainly do yoga in the morning and a run at lunchtime or in the evening. Most athletes find it easier and much more restorative to perform their yoga workout after their other workouts, later in the day, or on another standalone day.
Should you do it before or after strength?
When it comes to doing yoga before or after a strength workout, just like you shouldn't do yoga then go for a run, you shouldn't do yoga then perform strength training. You should always perform your key workouts first. Then yoga can come immediately after, later in the day, or on a separate day.
Wrap-Up on When and How Runners Do Yoga
Every runner, triathlete, or cyclist should pay attention to their mobility. Due to the nature of endurance sports training being the same motion over and over and over, if you don't include some form of mobility training into your program, you'll almost certainly tighten up and lose range of motion, making life a lot less enjoyable as you age.
Hopefully, this article has cleared up some of the confusion for you about how to include mobility into your training plan. Whether it's through a simple yoga routine like we recommend, or a strength training routine that features a lot of mobility training; you need to keep that body moving fluidly.
If you want a training plan for any running race from 5k and 10k, all the way up to half-marathons, marathons, and ultramarathons, or maybe you're looking for your first triathlon training plan, take a look at our app that incorporates all the methods we write about. The training plans are all done for you, you just need to show up willing to do the work.