Yogi in the Forest: How Yoga Can Improve Your Trail Running Experience

There are a zillion reasons why yoga is great for runners. Postural yoga teaches practitioners to move with both agility and stability, cultivate deep core strength, and hone flexibility by exploring the movements of the joints. Postures that work the feet, lower legs, hamstrings and glutes are particularly useful for runners, even though those are the ones they often struggle with.

Resources for learning these postures abound. YouTube has numerous yoga classes for runners to try on for size, and there are new yoga studios popping up around town every day. I teach a Yoga for Athletes class at Phys Ed KC. One of my favorite things is working with members of the running community as they practice something that is not easy but so good for them, because I see huge improvements in every class.

I can go on for days about stretches I love and breathwork to explore. But while I have you here, I want to take a slightly different approach and explore why yoga and trail running are totally fitness and mindfulness BFFs, and what we can gain by incorporating both into our training schedule.

Strength is Good, Learning to Control it is Even Better

My husband jokes that Surya Namaskar, sun salutations commonly practiced at the beginning of a yoga class, are like fancy burpees, and he’s right! Both share many movements like hip flexion, shoulder flexion, axial extension, stepping or hopping forward and back. And they both serve a similar purpose: to warm the body by engaging all major muscles through repetitive movement.

Actually, although Surya Namaskar is sometimes thought of as an ancient practice, it was more likely sequenced in the late 1920s as a form of calisthenics and was heavily inspired by gymnastics. Burpees, and many other super-fun strength-building exercises, employ explosive movement, speed, and repetition, while sun salutations slow it way down, with each movement being intentional and purposeful.

Why are these things beneficial? Trails are unpredictable. That’s one of the best things about them—you never know what’s around the bend. This being the case, it’s incredibly helpful to learn how to efficiently and thoughtfully control your body and how you move through space rather than flailing wildly down the path. There are times on the trail when you’re going to harness the dynamic power you’ve learned in your strength training, like when you’re chasing someone down or leaping over a copperhead. But you’ll spend much more time trying to relax into the path to find your rhythm.

Reining in your movements helps you save energy for the entire journey, which is important when your long run lasts for hours on end. Of course, we eventually learn this through trail experience, but one of the beauties of yoga is that it is generally practiced in relatively stable and predictable environments like yoga studios, gyms, or even at home. So, as you work on controlling your body in challenging postures while simultaneously controlling your breath, you don’t have to worry about getting run over by mountain bikers, eaten alive by oak mites, or being chased by bad dogs.

Achtung, Baby!

As trail runners in the rocky, rooty, hilly Midwest, it’s a really good idea to stay focused for the entire run, because if you zone out on singletrack you will fall—a lot… and you’re going to fall anyway, so training your mind on the task at hand is vital. This is yoga! Yoga invites us to experience each moment as it unfolds, to feel the movement of the breath, our constant companion from birth to death, and to stay open and awake even when it’s hard and scary.

There can be so many times throughout the day when we coast through on auto-pilot, but the trails just don’t allow this folly. We must discipline our mind to stay the course, just as faithfully as we train our body. In yoga, postures are often held for minutes at a time, which can be so intense. Fidgeting and distracting ourselves only seems to make it last longer. Plus, if you’re lost in a trance of thought when practicing many poses, you’ll fall out of them. Yoga teaches us the power of concentration, and that can directly translate to better performance on our feet.

It might even keep you from taking a wrong turn and getting hopelessly lost in the woods.

An in-studio portrait of Kelly Cirone. She looks relaxed and is laughing at something out of view.The Only Way Out is Through

Running stirs up the B.S., and yoga helps us process it. I don’t know about you, but my first year of trail running brought up a lot of unresolved issues I had around my sense of strength and powerlessness. For the first several months, I cried my eyes out when I ran further than a 10k. Often, I couldn’t even explain why I was crying—it was just something I had to let out. Reflecting on it now, I think some of it was that as I got stronger, I wept for the part of myself that felt weak and small and scared. As I became my own champion, I grieved the part of myself I outgrew and the limitations I imposed on myself for years. I also cried because running is hard and sometimes it just hurts.

Best of all were the tears of joy and surprise when I tangibly proved to myself that I can do hard things. Of course, more often than that came the lessons in humility that running so cheerfully dishes out. Having practiced yoga for years, it feels natural to express myself through movement, but trail running is an entirely different animal. I’m not fast (or, as my coach will tell you, I’m appropriately paced), I don’t do well in the heat, and I have a real tendency to doubt myself long before I believe I will succeed. These are very helpful things to know about myself. Thank you, trail running, for shining a huge spotlight on those blind spots! Now that I see them, I not only get to know myself better, but I have an opportunity to mindfully work through my fears as they arise. Breathe in, lean in.

You Can’t Fake it

Which leads me to my next point. I’m convinced there is no better, more supportive, kinder, more inspiring community than Midwest trail runners. I think it’s because we all know how difficult this pursuit is and just what it asks of us. People who spend time in nature are attuned to a side of life that others just can’t relate to. We understand that some days we are running away from something and some days we are blazing a trail forward into the heart of the unknown with steadfast determination. We see how choosing to make ourselves stronger and healthier isn’t just for us, but for everyone around us because we lead by example.

No matter what it was that initially drew you to the trail and where you want it to take you, you can’t fake it and it can’t be rushed. You earn every single mile. Your trail sisters and brothers know this because they have lived it, too. It reminds me of a quote on the walls of Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, “Yoga is the practice of dealing with the consequences of being yourself.” Trail running has this beautiful way of coaxing us out of our image-managed shell and into the light of a truer self. With that comes the responsibility of owning who we really are, even when that makes us uncomfortable. After all, trail running and yoga aren’t about staying comfortable, they’re about breaking through.

About the Author

Kelly Cirone is a Colorado School of Yoga-educated yoga teacher, trail runner, horticulturist, entrepreneur, ginger-cat keeper, and super wife who lives in Kansas City with her trail running, metal-loving husband, Michael. She teaches Yoga for Athletes and Phys Ed KC on Tuesday evenings, where each class starts out lounging on pillows, talking about races and life with some of the most amazing athletes in the city, and ends with the sweetest yoga nap in the entire world.