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5 answers to runners’ questions about yoga

Jenny Maier restarted running on a “whim” years after an ACL injury halted her high school running career. A half marathon, followed by a transition to longer races and trails soon followed.

In the summer of 2014, Maier met her fiancé, Chris DeNucci, and they started dating the following January. “The trail community is definitely what brought us together and running is a shared interest and so I’m eternally grateful for that,” she says.

Her recent finish at Javelina Jundred ranks as her proudest accomplishment.

“It was my slowest 100-miler yet and I never felt that spark under my feet the whole day or night,” she recalls. “My legs felt tired from mile 10 and it was basically a huge uneventful grind in which I was just putting one foot in front of the other for over 29 hours in order to get a qualifying ticket for the Western States lottery. I'm most proud of that accomplishment because there was absolutely nothing glamorous about my race or my performance but I got it done and did what I needed to do, no frills. And sometimes those are the hardest days. The ones where you aren't working for any flashy goal or have any huge motivation, but the races where you are just working really hard for something that won't be celebrated with a trophy or a podium. To me, that really represents the spirit of ultra running, to be out there and getting the job done no matter what. When a fire isn't being lit underneath you, to still dig deep and find that underlying motivation to do the best you can that day.”

A runner, a yogi

In her own running journey, yoga has benefitted Maier, even though there was a time when she hated it. She has been doing yoga on and off for about 11 years, and started a regular practice in 2016. Right now she does yoga three times a week, twice at home and once at a public class.

“I am also currently attending a regular meditation practice five times a week, which is something I find incredibly challenging for my personality which is always full of energy and has trouble being still,” she admits.

As a runner and yogi, Maier not only understands the value of yoga, she wants to help others.

“I was inspired to become a yogi to help others like me, runners and athletes who struggle to find balance in their training and their lives,” she says. ‘I have seen firsthand how yoga can be misunderstood and misused and have also seen and experienced firsthand how it can be so useful to both the mind and the body of a runner or athlete. My only goal in becoming a yogi was to help my body, and my main goal in teaching it now is to help others see the value in it as well.”

During our interview, Maier answered some questions aimed at runners who are interested in incorporating yoga into their training.

Question: Let's get into yoga. Why is it important for runners to do regular yoga?

Answer: I'll take a step back and say that the word “yoga” is really vague these days. With many styles and intensities, not all “yoga” is the same. Not all “yoga” is important for runners to do. What I do as “yoga for runners” is more like working on range of motion and functional movement and strength. Some of those translate into yoga postures and some do not. Some might not even call what I teach “yoga,” but that's beside the point.

I think it's important for runners to do “yoga” or "functional movement" because we as athletes have very capable bodies, but they have adapted to our sport. So over time, we overuse or underuse certain muscle groups. Certain parts of the body become weak, some become tight, and yoga balances that dynamic. Not to mention, combined with the postural demands of the modern lifestyle (head forward positions caused by cell phones and technology use, shortened hip flexors due to sitting in a chair all day, chronic stress in shoulders due to working with a mouse/keypad, etc.), running tends not to be the primary cause of these stresses but can easily exacerbate these weaknesses that our bodies are prone to. Yoga in all forms, is great for both strength as well as flexibility.

Question: What about for those who say, “I stretch, that's enough for me” or “I'm a runner, not a yogi.” Explain how yoga can benefit their running.

Answer: Runners who have a regular regime of foam rolling and stretching are in better shape than those who have none or are resistant to it. However, a lot of times, those who are doing these on their own without instruction or knowledge of what to do for their bodies (and when), might be doing more damage than good, or wasting time on things that don't need to be done and not spending enough time on things that are needed to achieve balance in the body. There are lots of times when deep stretches can be dangerous or unproductive to tighter bodies.

Most times, runners who are resistant to yoga don't understand the value of strength that yoga provides. Flexibility is only one aspect of the yoga practice, but strength is one of the biggest benefits to runners. Additionally, proprioception and body awareness are key to understanding how to use your body while you're running. Yoga not only aids in injury prevention, but also in better performance for athletes wishing to use yoga to get stronger and more resilient.

Question: Do you have examples of one-time skeptics who have seen the value of yoga?

Answer: I am a running coach as well as a yoga instructor and personal trainer, so I have seen many examples of how yoga can help athletes of all abilities and experience levels. Though I have to say the best example of skeptic turned believer is me. I used to love yoga because I was flexible. I'm hypermobile in many of my joints and used to dance, so my body type lends itself to very bendy movements with very little natural stability.

I got into yoga to add into my run-training in 2013 (little did I know, I needed more of the strength building yoga as opposed to the flexibility-focused yoga), and ended up tearing my hamstring at a Bikram class. For about two years, I swore off yoga as being dangerous and only stepped foot in yoga studios when friends I knew were teaching.

When I finally decided I was ready to repair my relationship with my yoga practice, I did so with great caution and with an eye toward wanting to learn more about how to do (and teach) yoga in a safe way for athletes. I ended up taking a teacher training and never looked back. Since then, I have both my 200- and 500-hour certifications, as well as numerous other hours of study and training dedicated to the specific focus of helping athletes.

As of now, I have close to 2,000 teaching hours and have worked with numerous runners and running organizations as well as taught workshops, retreats, clinics and special classes for runners all over the country. To think I hated yoga at one point blows my mind. I can't imagine my life without it now.

Question: If runners are looking for, say three to five poses, to do regularly which ones would you recommend?

Answer: For runners, I think some of the most valuable poses are the simplest.

  1. Downward facing dog is a great, active stretch for runners. I usually like doing this one in the morning. To modify for tighter bodies, you can do this pose with bent knees, or with your hands against a wall instead of on the ground.

  1. Low lunge or high lunge. These mimic the action of running and help give a gentle lengthening to the front of the hip and quad. Runners should try to keep these an active stretch and recruit some strength in the posture if they can by not passively sinking into the front of the hip. Staying more upright and keeping the pelvis neutral will allow the stretch to be felt in the quad as well.

  2. Any single leg balance posture. Really the simplest would be just standing on one leg with the other knee bent at 90 degrees in front of you. Running is a single leg sport so spending time on one leg really trains your body to strengthen itself in a very specific way. Those who feel ready for a challenge can start moving from a single leg knee to chest to Warrior 3 and back, adding other postures like high lunge to practice the movements in and out of single leg standing. These transitions are super valuable to building strength and proprioception which will help in both stability and performance while running (especially those running on trails).

  3. Supported bridge. Place a block or a sturdy pillow under your sacrum and lay on your back with the soles of your feet on the ground. It's just like bridge pose, but supported. This allows the body to really rest and reset and gives a gentle opening to the front of the body. For runners who have trouble being still, restorative postures like these are super valuable for the nervous system. I love this immediately following a run or at the end of the day.

  4. Supine figure 4. This pose helps release the hips, specifically the piriformis. It’s a very simple alternative to pigeon. We often think that we need the deepest stretches or fanciest poses to utilize yoga to our benefit, but part of my mission in teaching runners how to use yoga specifically for their bodies is also to show them that the simplest alternatives are just as effective and provide low risk of injury and misalignment. This is a great one that can feel like a big stretch. For those of us who are a little more flexible, it can also feel quite relaxing after a long run.

Question: Anything else you want to mention that we did not cover?

Answer: The hardest part about all of this is starting a routine. Don't let the fact that you don't have a lot of time to devote to it stop you from doing just a few minutes, or whatever you can. Don't let the fact that your body can't do ALL the things stop you from doing SOME of the things. Yoga won't fix all your problems or make you into a world class athlete. But it might help you enjoy running a little bit more, and in the end, that's going to be worth it.

Speed drill

Name: Jenny Maier

Hometown: Montgomery Village, Md.

Number of years running: 23 (with 10 years off)

How many miles a week do you typically run: 20-40 unless I'm training for something long.

Point of pride: I've never DNF’d a race (well, just one, but that was planned).

Favorite race distance: 100K trail

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pop Tart (strawberry with frosting)

Favorite piece of gear: Freedom top from rabbit

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don't run to music often but one time I had Miley Cyrus' Wrecking Ball stuck in my head for an entire race, unfortunately. I will listen to podcasts on occasion when I run and regularly listen to Ginger Runner, UltraRunner Podcast and YogaLand. They can be pretty inspirational.

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Don't let what you can't do prevent you from doing what you can.

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

• Follow me on Instagram at both @jennymaier and @jennymaieryoga.

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