Running on Insight: Yin Yoga for the Athlete

Nothing compares to fall running in Maine.  The crisp, cool air is a welcome change from the hazy summer heat, runs feel markedly easier, the body is strong and prepared for those greatly anticipated fall races, and of course, the scenery is simply breathtaking.  There’s a good reason why these few months of the year are considered prime race season, and many of us may find we are gearing up for a peak event, or are basking in the post-race glow.

Honoring the rhythm of the seasons as it relates to training is vital for sustainability.  By varying training in phases throughout the year so that volume and intensity is controlled, performance or fitness plateau will be less likely.  Periodization is important to observe as the body adapts to specific stress during a training phase, and has adequate recovery time so you are rested and refreshed when it’s time to ramp it up.  With your big race behind you, this can mean running less, easing off the speed workouts, or inviting other elements into your training, such as yoga.

Yin Yoga, specifically, is an ideal practice for athletes, as it targets the denser connective tissue, particularly within the joints, which other styles of yoga or exercise can’t adequately address.  More active forms of yoga such as vinyasa, Ashtanga, Bikram, flow and core style classes may attract runners as they are great for building strength and balance, enhancing range of motion and creating greater body awareness.  However, these methods can further stoke the inner competitive fire of an athlete, and yoga poses can end up becoming goal-oriented and not provide the necessary complement as intended.

Yin Yoga invites an entirely different approach.  To do the practice is to completely let go of striving and to allow the body to relax.  By coming into poses that keep the muscles relatively inactive, gravity and time are skillfully used to place stress upon the plastic-like tissue within the joint capsules, the dense connective tissue, ligaments, tendons, and bones.  Working the body in this way greatly benefits the health of the joints by reducing fixation, maintaining functional mobility, preventing degeneration, and increasing hydration.  This is a deceptively challenging practice as remaining still is not easy – particularly for runners, who might argue it’s simply not in their DNA.  This, however, is exactly what we need to balance a fiery, driven mindset, not so that it is quelled, but to develop the capacity of becoming more finely attuned to our thoughts and develop a clear understanding of our inner world.

A naturally meditative practice, by spending time in stillness, Yin Yoga creates the opportunity to pay attention to what arises.  We are able to closely examine the nuanced sensation of the tissue as it receives the benefits from the long holds, as well as observe the natural tendencies of the mind.  This time of inward focus directly parallels all that takes place on a challenging run and is a valuable component of athletic training.  It allows us to become more receptive to any adversity whether it’s mild discomfort in the body or agitation in the mind.  By learning to be with these sweeping states, we can become more tolerant of that discomfort, and may notice that a certain level of calm arises.  Within a more peaceful and grounded state, we have a greater capacity to examine our goals and appreciate our accomplishments.  It’s truly the ultimate recharge.