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5 Fabulous Stretches for Runners!

As NJ and NYC-based yoga teachers, we meet a lot of pavement-pounding runners looking for relief from a wide range of symptoms from overall tightness and pain due to shortened muscles and strained tendons.
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Woman running alone on beautiful sunset in the beach. Summer sport and freedom concept. Athlete training  on dusk.
Woman running alone on beautiful sunset in the beach. Summer sport and freedom concept. Athlete training on dusk.

By Yanoula Athanassakis and Lara Heimann

It's fall in New York City, and that means almost everybody is training for -- or knows somebody who is training for -- the NYC Marathon on Nov. 1. As NJ and NYC-based yoga teachers, we meet a lot of pavement-pounding runners looking for relief from a wide range of symptoms from overall tightness and pain due to shortened muscles and strained tendons. Runners often shy away from yoga with statements like: "I'm not flexible," and "I can't touch my toes," and "I'm a runner, I can't do yoga." Here's the deal: None of those statements matter or are even true. Yoga and running make a great combination, keeping you healthy and injury free! To prove this, we asked one of the most extraordinary runners we know to come to Sacred Sounds Yoga (owned by an impressive runner herself, Stephanie Tang) in order to try out some stretches with us.

Keila Merino looks like an unassuming and "regular" person (school teacher, cupcake lover, etc.) but she's a superhero. Teacher by day, superhero by night (or early morning and in sneakers -- to be exact). Keila has accomplished so many insane feats that we can't list them all here but you can read about them in this great New York Times article by Jonathan Schienberg. Keila is raising awareness and "fundracing" for people experiencing homelessness by running across the U.S. That's right. Need we say more? She has partnered with Back on My Feet NYC (recently profiled by the HuffPo) and is planning her Summer 2016 race across the U.S. We would love to see Keila stay injury-free. Below are some suggestions for anybody that runs.

Running places imbalanced demands on the body. The upper body gets little strengthening while great demand is placed on the lower body. The hips and knees repeatedly flex/shorten with each stride causing the front body to tighten up. Further imbalance can occur in the "pushoff" muscles, resulting in tight calves and hamstrings. A weaker upper body and core combined with shortened lower body muscles can be remedied with these exercises, aimed to balance the body and keep it "running" well!

Side lunges
Lateral movement is an excellent antidote for the repetitive forward movement of runners who are moving entirely in the sagittal plane (straight line forward). This exercise energizes the outer hip and stretches the inner groin. It also improves your breathing and upper arm mobility.

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Twisted lunge with toe presses
The same set up as left low lunge except the right knee is off the ground. Keep right hand on the ground and twist through the ribcage as you lift the left arm up toward the ceiling. Add more of a hamstring stretch, IT band stretch (IT = iliotibal band) and calf activity by pressing your left foot into floor and straightening the left knee and then bend the left knee and push the right toes into the floor, lifting the right heel off. Repeat the action 8-10x with the same goal of keeping the spine long.

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Dolphin pose with optional glute pulse
This inversion strengthens the shoulder girdle and core muscles. It also stretches the hamstrings. Weight-bearing is one of the most effective ways for runners to create strength in the upper body -- it helps smoothen the running motion and aids optimal posture.

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Begin by kneeling on all fours, then bring your forearms to the floor: Interlace the fingers and make a fist. Now straighten the legs as much as possible by lifting the knees off the floor. The goal is to have the head off the floor. Lift in the lower belly, press into the forearms, and relax the neck.

Hold for 10-15 breaths. Optional: lift your left leg up to the same height as your hip, bend your left knee at 90 degrees, and pulse your heel and foot up toward the ceiling a few inches: up and down. Do this 20 times and then switch sides. Strengthening the gluteus maximus is crucial for runners who tend to overutilize the hamstrings instead.

Squat
This is a standing hip opener that feels great for the outer hips and inner thighs. This position allows you to externally rotate your hips and is therefore an effective counterpose to the running form. It can also help to lengthen the low back when the core is engaged.

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Bring your feet wider than hip width (about shoulder width) apart, then slightly turn the feet out (think of a ballerina) without forcing the knees open. Feel solid in the feet and bend your knees, making sure that the knees stay in line with the middle of the foot. Do not allow the knees to drop inwards. The pelvis will end up being a little higher than the knees. Stay in this position and feel the low belly pull in, the tailbone reach down, and the outer thighs wrap down and under to help open the hips. You can, if you wish, pulse to create more heat. To amp it up more, you can add plyo jumps to improve ballistic strength in the hips and legs.

Down Dog with one leg lifted
Down Dog is one of the most wonderful, if not ubiquitous, poses in yoga classes. While weight-bearing through the upper extremities builds strength and fosters good bone health, the core is also strengthened by supporting the torso against the pull of gravity. PLUS, it commands both strength and length in the legs. You get a huge bang for your buck!

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Begin on your hands and knees and lift the knees off the ground as you let the hips rise into the peak of this pose. Feel equal weight between hands and feet and lift the lower belly toward the back body for support of the spine and ribs. Lift the left leg off the floor to hip height, keeping the toes facing the floor. Move the left leg out to the left and then to the right, crossing over the midline so the left leg goes past the right thigh. Make sure that you keep your arms straight, neck relaxed, and legs active. Moving the left leg to the left strengthens the gluteus medius and bringing across to the right stretches the IT band while lengthening the hamstrings of the bottom leg. Perform 5-10 repetitions slowly, pausing at the end range, and then repeat on the other leg.

For many runners, yoga becomes both a humbling and inspiring part of their training. The more yoga you do, the more you might see your running form and times improve. Best of all, you'll decrease your recovery time. With a more balanced and limber body there is less chance of injury and more of a chance that you'll be running alongside Keila next summer, helping her as she helps others!

A huge thank you to Sacred Sounds Yoga and to Keila Merino for being such good sports about the photo shoot!

& my amazing co-author:

Drawing from her background as a physical therapist, Lara Heimann has combined her love of anatomy, creative movement and functional training to help people move better and do better. Lara owns YogaStream studio in Princeton, NJ and directs its YA-certified teacher training school.
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