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That great Yoga Class you attended today during lunch – it was probably a bad idea. Everybody knows that stretching is great for runners…right?
Yes! Annnnnnnnd No.
Chances are, since you are reading this, you are a runner and maybe even a triathlete. Somewhere along the line you’ve been told that you should be stretching diligently, before and after every run. You may have also noticed that the more you run, the stiffer your legs become.
Given much of what people hear about the importance of flexibility, they often charge off in search the closest yoga studio to help solve the problem.
Think back with me to when you walked into your first class: you saw the guy in the corner with his leg behind his head and the girl in the front row that was somehow managing to look at her own butt without the use of a mirror. You were in awe of these uber-bendy people and probably figured that this was clearly the ticket to achieving the flexibility you once had.
Here’s the problem…most of the people that are extremely flexible and appear to be REALLY good at yoga probably don’t need yoga. I’ve found that a lot of naturally hypermobile people love yoga because:
- It’s one of the only ways they can get a really deep stretch (because their joints have so much ligamentous laxity in them).
- They are often naturally good at it (for the same reason), and look like a rock-star when they are sitting in full splits, or hanging out with their palms flat on the floor in front of them during forward fold.
Pretty much every week, in at least one of my clinics, I need to have the discussion with a patient about scaling back her (and I use “her” here because that applies to about 90% of the conversations around this topic) yoga practice because it is inhibiting her ability to meet her running goals. I explain it this way: flexibility and stability are like opposite ends of a teeter-totter and if you are really flexible you need to spend a much larger portion of your time on stability than on flexibility (think pilates versus yoga) if you want to be a stronger runner and balance out your body. People that are great on the strength side and have limited rage of motion (especially in the hips) would benefit from hip-opening yoga poses, but these are often the people that, if you do actually see them in class, are the brunt of all the quiet chuckles and whispers from the regulars.
Naturally flexible people are often referred to as “double-jointed” but this is a misnomer. They don’t have an extra joint, they have extra laxity in their ligaments. This can either happen genetically or it can develop over time by forcing the tissues past normal end-range consistently. The joints then become loosy-goosy [one of my favorite medical terms] because they are not being stabilized by the overly-flexible ligaments that surround them. This can cause the muscles (which connect to tendons that move and also help stabilize the joints) to work especially hard to try and shore up this excessive joint motion. You can imagine the load this would put on muscles simply with daily activity, let alone running. People with hypermobile joints are also at risk for joint dislocations and abnormal wear patterns between bones, which can lead to osteoarthritis and an increased risk of injury.
This is not to say that mobility isn’t important, it is! It is extremely important to have normal range-of-motion in the joints of the hip, knee, ankle, and foot, but having excessive flexibility in these areas has been shown to be detrimental to running performance in many studies. Many of the researchers that show an inverse relationship between flexibility and performance speculate that the reason may be due to improved economy as a result of the increased energy-efficiency of muscles and tendons during concentric and isometric contractions when they are able to act as a stiffer spring. Without the added energy necessary to stabilize an overly flexible joint, it is possible that the body is better able to capture ground energy in order to re-use it for propelling the body forward.
HERE IS YOUR TAKE HOME MESSAGE:
You don’t need to actually stop going to yoga…
The right class can be a great tool, and it isn’t that stretching or yoga are inherently bad (there are a TON of different types of yoga available, some with a lot more focus on the strength component than on increasing flexibility at end-range). If you have short, tight hip flexors from sitting at a desk all day but your hamstrings are super-flexible and then you spend a ton of time in a yoga class where most of the poses center around Downward Dog (which stretches the hamstrings like crazy) it’s probably not helping you create the balance and stability you need in your body to be a stronger runner.
*Fun Fact: a lot of people have no idea what their range-of-motion actually is. I hear about “tight hamstrings” every day in the clinic from people who actually turn out to have great hamstring flexibility
My two pieces of advice :
- Buy a foam roller and a lacrosse ball and learn how to use them. Almost everyone can benefit from getting the knots and adhesions out of the muscle so they function properly. Yet, not everyone needs to add length to their muscles or stress out already hypermobile joints with yoga and deep stretching.
- If you are injured or have questions about whether you need strengthening, stretching, or both…send me an email. I have a great network of people (including yoga teachers) in our rolodex who understand runners and their unique needs as athletes.