Occasionally, I do impulsive things like run half-marathons without following a formal training plan, which I’ve actually done four times in my life. While I’ve set approximately zero race records, I have, as you can see, lived to tell the tale (though barely).
The thing is, I enjoy running—especially outdoors and with friends. And I love the group energy and post-run endorphin rush of long races. However, I really don’t love training for those long races. I hate the ten-ish weeks of maintaining a running and nutrition diary, tracking and increasing mileage, and doing speed drills in preparation, and so, against my better judgment, there have been times when I just haven’t really prepared.
Although with a sample size of one (me!), I’m not in a position to make a scientifically or medically backed claim, I do believe that my regular yoga practice, as well as some myofascial release techniques, helped my non-trained body cross those half-marathon finish lines.
So, while I wouldn’t ever recommend just “getting up and running” on race day, I certainly would recommend some of my favorite bodywork tools to complement your running routine (along with a few helpful yoga poses and stretches for runners as well!).
You'll need the following props: A large towel or blanket (padding for your knee), a foam roller, two yoga blocks, a tennis ball and/or lacrosse ball.
Feet don’t always get a lot of love, but they should—since their health and alignment affect the way your ankles, knees, and hips function.
Place your tennis or lacrosse ball on the floor/mat in front of you. (Note: A tennis ball will probably feel a bit gentler on your feet, while a lacrosse ball is likely to deliver firmer pressure, so choose the option that feels best for you!) You may also want to stand near a wall for extra support. Shift your weight to your right foot (optionally placing your right hand on a wall for support). Place the center of the arch of your left foot on the ball.
Press down firmly through your left foot as you move it forward and backward over the ball (targeting the length of your foot) for five full breaths. You can adjust the intensity based upon how hard you press (and you can decrease intensity by placing a blanket under the ball). Then, with the ball centered again under your arch, move your foot to the right and left over the ball (targeting the width of your foot) for another five breaths. Notice any areas of tightness or tenderness, and maintain pressure in each of those spots for five full breaths before changing feet.
Yin-Style Toe Squat: If you don’t regularly stretch your feet, this one can be a doozy, but it’s one of my favorite stretches for runners. For regular runners, this pose can help prevent or ease the symptoms of issues like plantar fasciitis. (But please note the plantar fasciitis modification below!)
Begin on your mat on hands and knees, with hips stacked over your knees, and shoulders stacked over your wrists. Actively lengthen your spine from your tailbone all the way to the crown of your head. If kneeling is uncomfortable, you can pad your knees with a blanket. Tuck your toes under as much as possible, ideally bringing the balls of your feet fully into contact with your mat. Slowly walk your hands back until your torso is vertical and you are sitting on your heels with your hands resting on your thighs. You may want to take a moment now to reach back and adjust your pinkie and fourth toes to make sure they’re fully connected with the mat, as they can tend to pop up in kneeling postures. You’ll also want to make sure that your heels are parallel to each other, as they may want to roll out. Then go ahead and relax (that cue might seem hilarious once you get into this posture) for one minute or more.
As I mentioned, this can be very intense if you’re not used to it, or if you have very tight muscles or connective tissue in the feet and ankles. If the intensity becomes severe discomfort, you can lift your hips away from your heels and come into a tall kneeling position (while focusing on keeping the toes as tucked as possible), which will decrease the intensity of the stretch. Be sure to maintain full, deep breaths through the duration of this pose.
To avoid compression of knee joints (which can be helpful if you have meniscus issues), kneel upright as described above or place a thickly rolled towel or rolled blanket right behind your knees as you lower your hips to your heels.
Modification for plantar fasciitis: Place a yoga block under your seat between your heels and sit on the block rather than on your heels. This will minimize the risk of overstretching and/or inflaming your plantar fascia.
The tensor fasciae latae muscle is rarely targeted in post-run stretches. First, it’s in kind of an awkward place (in my opinion, anyway!)—where the hip and thigh meet. It’s also quite small, as far as leg and hip muscles go. But it plays an important role in stabilizing your pelvis when you run, especially on uneven surfaces and hills. If you have weak glutes or psoas muscles, the relatively tiny TFL picks up a lot of slack. This can lead to tightness, inflammation, or concentrated trigger points in them. Commonly, trigger points in the TFL refer pain to the associated iliotibial band, quadratus lumborum, or quadriceps. Runners often just focus on releasing and massaging their quads and IT bands, but if these areas are persistently tight and uncomfortable, it may be time to shift your attention to the TFL.
Myofascial Prep: A tennis ball (or lacrosse ball, for deeper pressure) works well to isolate the small TFL muscle. Begin on your mat in a supported forearm side plank on your left side, with your right knee bent and your right foot flat on the floor more or less in front of your left quad. Lower your left hip onto the ball so the ball nestles just to the outside of your hip point. Depending on the intensity, you may be able to settle all the way down until you are lying on your side, with the ball pressing completely into your hip. Begin to move your hip over the ball so that it moves approximately an inch or two diagonally down the length of your leg. If you find a tender point, stay there for five full breaths before moving on. Focus your attention and energy on those five deep breaths to help you surrender into the discomfort. If this intensity becomes unbearable or painful, you can always gently shift some of your weight back onto your forearms or supporting right leg to decrease the load on your left side. Follow with the TFL-targeted lunge variation below before repeating on the right side.
TFL-Targeted Lunge Variation: This another of my favorite (slightly lesser-known) stretches for runners. From a kneeling position on your mat (with your toes untucked and knees hip-width apart), place your hands on your hips. Lengthen through your spine and keep your gaze and chin slightly lifted. Step your right foot forward into a short lunge. Your left (back) hip should be stacked directly over your left knee, which should be at a right angle. Make sure your knee is directly over your right ankle and that it tracks directly over the middle of your foot (you should be able to see your right big toe). This shorter stance is important for targeting the TFL muscles.
Then, angle your left (back) shin so that your toes are pointing approximately toward the back right corner of your mat. Place your right forearm on your right thigh for support. Engage your left glutes (but without clenching!), and neutralize your pelvis by pointing your tailbone directly down toward your mat. Reach your left arm up alongside your head, finding as much length as you can along the entire left side of your body. Begin to reach your left arm overhead to the right as far as you can as you open your chest toward the ceiling. As you find length through your left arm, settle down into the outer left hip while continuing to keep your left glute engaged. You’ll be stretching the TFL on your left side here, while contracting the TFL on the right side. Hold for five full breaths, then lower your left arm and bring your torso back to vertical. Repeat the TFL myofascial prep exercise above on the right side, followed by the TFL-targeted lunge variation (with your left foot forward in the lunge to lengthen the TFL on your right side).
3. Neck, Shoulders, and Chest
Neck and shoulder mobility is important for developing and maintaining an efficient running gait. Most of us, especially if we spend a lot of time looking at our computers or cell phones, tend to hold a lot of tension in our shoulders, neck, and chest. This can carry over into running form. Tension in your neck and shoulders can affect your arm swing, which plays a role in forward momentum. Tight and immobile shoulders can also sap your energy during longer runs. Additionally, many people tend to inadvertently hike their shoulders up toward their ears while running. Keeping your hands level with or brushing just below your hip points while running can help ease some of this tension. But if you still tend to feel upper body tightness during or after runs, the following practices may help.
Myofascial Prep: Have your foam roller handy. If you’ve never used a foam roller, look for a white foam roller, which has the softest pressure. Green and blue rollers provide medium pressure, while black rollers (which even come with raised, trigger point-focused bumps!) are the firmest. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, as if preparing for setu bandha sarvangasana (bridge pose). Place the foam roller under your occipital ridge (right below the base of your skull, so that the back of your head is centered on the roller). Settle into the pressure and hold for five full breaths.
Turn your head to the right so that the foam roller presses into the muscles along the right side of your neck (the sternocleidomastoid and the top of the levator scapulae), and hold for five full breaths.
Return to center. Turn your head to the left so that the foam roller presses into the muscles along the left side of your neck and hold for five full breaths.
Return to center.
Shift your weight so that the foam roller is under the tops of the trapezius muscles (the meaty part where your neck and shoulders meet—the part that feels great during a massage). Support your head and neck by interlacing your fingers under your occipital ridge and opening your elbows wide. Hold for five full breaths.
Shift your weight again so that the foam roller is under the bottom of your shoulder blades. Allow your mid and upper back to drape over the roller, opening your chest. Experiment with slowly releasing your elbows closer to the floor for a deeper chest opening. Hold for five full breaths.
Then gently rock from side to side and allow the outer edges of your mid and upper back (targeting the lateral edges of the trapezius, the teres major muscles, and the latissimus dorsi muscles) to make full contact with the roller. Match each rocking motion to your breath, and complete ten cycles of breathing. If you find a tender or tense spot, hold in that place for five full breaths.
Gentle Matsyasana (Fish Pose): Lie down on your back with your legs together. Lift your hips slightly and tuck your hands, with the palms down, underneath your hips. Lower your seat onto your hands. Draw your elbows closer to each other, making sure they aren’t resting wider than your shoulders. Push firmly into your hands and forearms as you lift your chest and head off the floor. Keep your hamstrings and glutes engaged as you press them onto your mat. Keep lifting your chest, as if a hand between your shoulder blades is pushing your chest higher. Maintaining length in the back of your neck, slowly release your head back to a point that’s comfortable for your neck; the crown of your head may connect with your mat (but be careful to keeping using your elbows and forearms to support your body here, and not the top of your head). Stay here for five full breaths. To come out of the pose, bend your knees and bring your feet flat on the floor. Push firmly into your hands and forearms and gently lift your head. Lead with your chest to rise up to a comfortable seated position, then release your hands from underneath you.
Alternatively, if your neck and shoulders are feeling compressed and tight during this practice, modify the pose with two blocks: Place one block on its lowest or medium setting so the bottom edge of the block is under the tips of your shoulder blades and one block at its tallest or second tallest setting under the base of your skull. Your arms can rest alongside your body or in a T shape or cactus shape to allow for extra expansion across your chest. Hold for five full breaths. To come out of the pose, bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor. Pressing into your feet, lead with your chest to rise up to seated; your head comes up last.
If you’re a regular runner, incorporating myofascial release and yoga postures can be a wonderful complement to your more high-intensity training (or for the end of those races you don’t train for). These practices can help you create suppleness in large and small muscles that are constantly being worked, increase overall flexibility (which can actually lead to a faster overall speed), and may just plain feel good after a long, hard run!
If you have some extra time to dedicate to a longer post-run stretching session, focusing on the calves can benefit overall ankle, knee, and hip health.
And if you incorporate speed drills into your training (which ask your hamstrings and glutes to work especially hard), this is an excellent sequence to practice afterward.