It was Saturday afternoon, Thanksgiving weekend, when an e-mail landed with a joyless clunk, rousing me from my post-run stupor. A friend wrote that he had just attended a presentation at the Victoria Marathon expo entitled “Running Sport Science: 35 Years of Progress – The New and the Tried and True.” In his message, my friend reported that the seminar’s guest speaker responded to a question from the audience with “Why would any runner want to do yoga?” The speaker explained his position by citing the need for “stiffness” in a runner’s muscles and claiming that yoga made the muscles “loosey-goosey.” Yes, he actually said “loosey-goosey.” This is progress?
Sigh. Just when I thought we’d seen the last of these nitwits, another yoga basher rises from the muck, this one conjuring the insightful “loosey-goosey” to describe the hellish reckoning that awaits runners who do yoga. As a bonus, the condescending snark of “why would any runner want to do yoga?” saves us rubes from getting conned into buying a worthless yoga membership by some smooth talkin’ hustler. We should all be grateful.
If you follow this type of thing, and it seems that in my role as a teacher of yoga to runners I have to, then you know it’s fashionable in certain circles to trash yoga. Some strength and conditioning experts, running coaches, and other athletic types believe that yoga for runners/athletes (I will toggle between the two throughout this piece) is stupid, for want of a better word, mainly because it ruins “athleticism”, a word whose meaning has evolved well beyond the quaint “displaying the attributes of an athlete” found in musty dictionaries.
Nowadays, “athleticism” is that quality of being a superbly trained, finely-tuned athletic machine, possessing the exquisite neuromuscular skills needed to nail a triple axel or curve a penalty shot past a human wall into the last six inches of net. Athleticism is also the capacity to generate the explosive biomechanical force needed for rocket-sled starts from blocks or the blue line, as well as the enormous oppositional forces for hit-the-brakes decelerations and full stops and turn-on-a-dime changes in direction.
Yoga, some contend, is decidedly un- or even anti-athletic, because the stretching part “deadens the muscle” and reduces “peak strength and power” (the words of a different expert), thereby impairing the body’s ability to perform these astoundingly complex neuromuscular actions.
Adding to the shaming of yoga, those who have swallowed the Crossfit Kool-Aid know that Crossfit’s fundamentalist faction, the group that hews to the strictest interpretation of its doctrine, ranks yoga one notch below pedophilia in their hierarchy of reprehensible activities (a list that also includes long, slow running). So before I go on, a bit of advice: if you join Crossfit, best not to mention your love of downward dog and leisurely two-hour runs or you’ll be frog marched onto the next bus to Camp Dumbbell, their “re-education” centre. There, with your eyes clamped open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, you’ll be forced to watch box-jumping videos until you’re a weeping puddle of flesh.
Nooo! Not another box jumping video!
When they’re done with you, your heretical thoughts expunged and your body cleaned and jerked to a buff gladiatorial splendor, they’ll guide the dazzling new you to a sea of microphones and cameras, where you’ll giddily denounce yoga as a playground for Satan, and confess with stunning eagerness that long, slow running is a crime against athleticism and your embrace of it the direct result of an unhappy childhood.
Sorry, getting back . . . that was exhausting . . . where were we? Oh yes, the “why would any runner want to do yoga?” nonsense. The thing is, part of the speaker’s comment is correct: stiffness is an essential ingredient for the optimal functioning of the muscle and tendon. If we think of muscles and tendons as springs, which is certainly one role they play, then we can see how an overly “compliant” muscle-tendon unit (MTU), like a played-out spring, would absorb, but not return, energy. This is what was meant by the earlier quote that yoga “deadens the muscle.” So yoga stretching/static stretching (I’ll also treat these as interchangeable; it’s possible, however, to argue there are differences) can reduce this stiffness, thereby affecting the ability of the MTU to generate force. Obviously, this is important to runners.
But the idea that runners who do yoga will become human Nerf balls is absurd. Here’s some science: in our running muscles, the “tone” is created by nerve stimuli, and it’s this tone that creates the resistance to stretching. The words “tone” and “length” are interchangeable “because muscle length is usually a physical representation of muscle tone.” Muscles can be hypotonic, meaning reduced muscle tone resulting in long or weak muscles, or they can be hypertonic, meaning increased muscle tone, creating overly stiff, tight muscles. Just to be clear, even though we typically think of runners as having tight muscles, they can also have long, weak muscles.
Recapping: hyper- and hypotonic muscles are both problems for runners; yoga can be an effective remedy for restoring normal tone, particularly in hypertonic muscles. But to deplete the stiffness of the MTU substantially and render the runner unto Gumbyhood (a.k.a. loosey-gooseyness) requires a considerable effort far beyond taking a few yoga classes each week (before you begin stretching your hamstrings just be sure you know what’s causing the tightness – YMFR hamstring article link).
What critics and skeptics don’t get is that runners who do yoga aren’t aspiring to be contortionists, any more than runners who lift weights want to be bodybuilders. Yoga is a supplement that when judiciously and skillfully applied helps all runners, from recreational to world class, reduce their injury risk, build strength and stability, enhance mobility and flexibility, and learn to breathe fully and deeply. And it does all this without compromising any of the vital biomechanical requirements needed for healthy, productive running. But the naysayers’ obsession with the damnable “stretching” part of yoga seems to render them incapable of registering the many benefits it offers athletes.
From a coach’s perspective it’s easy to see why yoga gets a bad rap. Show any coach photos of yoga practitioners contorting themselves and their next words might be “how does that help my athlete get better?” It’s a valid question. I’ll answer it by saying that the extreme flexibility needed for crazy postures won’t help an athlete unless they happen to be gymnasts (more on that in a second). This is because flexibility, while important, is overrated, and the need for extreme, yoga contortion-type flexibility in most athletes, runners included, is unnecessary and probably counterproductive.
But as the doubters wail on about flexibility being an impediment to athleticism, how do they explain gymnastics (or any sport that requires pliability, strength, and power)? Gymnasts are a perfect mixture of astonishing flexibility, incredible mobility, and jaw-dropping strength, with large doses of stability and balance mixed in. But with their ample pliancy, how do gymnasts create the force that’s required for their astonishing feats? Haven’t we been told that static stretching “reduces peak strength and power” and “deadens the muscle”? I don’t know much about gymnastics but I know what I see, and I can tell you that gymnasts are as flexible as hell but don’t seem to lack strength and power, and they’re not even slightly “loosey-goosey.” In fact, they’re about as “locked-in” as it’s possible to be: anything less would be disastrous for their bodies and their competitive ambitions.
Flexible? Very. Power and strength? In abundance.
So what’s the problem?
Running aside, yoga helps us cope with the cumulative physical and emotional traumas of our life, which, whether we’re aware of them or not, profoundly affect our running. Put simply, the source of running injuries isn’t always running, but can just as easily be found in the 23 hours of our day when we’re not running. The day-to-day wear and tear of living is systemic, and yoga has repeatedly proved to be an anodyne in helping mitigate this damage.
Yoga is an effective way for runners to address and overcome many of the physical challenges they face. What’s glorious about the toughs putting the beat down to yoga is the swagger of their certainty; they speak with such conviction about the floppy mess athletes will become with yoga that you could almost believe them. They may be right or they may be wrong, who knows? But the conceit that they somehow possess a fully realized and immutable knowledge of yoga, running, yoga’s effect on athleticism, or just about anything else, is laughable.