There are many paths leading to a healthier body and mind. For 20 years, Yoga for Runners creator Christine Felstead thought a regular running workout was the best path for her. That is, until Christine tried yoga and discovered what her exercise routine had been missing.
Now a yoga teacher and no longer a runner, it seems Christine is travelling a new path to better health. She’s now helping other runners see what practicing yoga can do to prevent injuries and improve performance.
Christine wasn’t always called to be a runner. However, when she required a kidney at the young age of 25, she knew something needed to be done to improve her health. In the early ’80s, running was becoming a popular form of exercise that didn’t require much to get started. So for the sake of her health, Christine got involved with the local running community at the YMCA.
Early on, Christine felt many of the positive mental and physical benefits of running. She continued to run daily during her lunch times at work. She eventually worked up the courage to run marathons and other big races. Running became a part of Christine’s identity, as her colleagues, friends and family all saw her commitment to the exercise. Neither Christine nor her network of friends and family could know that would eventually change.
After nearly 20 years of regular running, Christine noticed she was developing a hunch in her upper back, and soreness and stiffness in her legs. Working a corporate desk job and years of only running for exercise, had began taking it’s toll on Christine’s body.
“I became aware of physical imbalances in my body,” Christine said.
While Christine had run plenty of races and marathons, it was a battle to just bend over and tie her shoes.
This call for balance in her body led Christine to search out new forms of exercise. Through a friend at a health food store, Christine heard about a yoga teacher who taught weekly lessons in Toronto. This was the early ‘90s, so weekly yoga classes weren’t popular or easy to come by. But Christine decided to give yoga a shot.
“Right from the beginning, I instinctively felt it was good for me.” Christine said.
Having not paid much attention to her alignment when running, Christine’s body had started to cement into bad posture and sore muscles. But this new experience from yoga brought a new sense of balance.
Christine continued doing yoga once per week for about three years and noticed small changes in the balance of her body. At this point, she was still running four times per week and her body was still feeling a lot of the long-lasting negative effects.
One day, Christine heard of an opportunity in Hawaii to do yoga EVERY DAY and was called to the challenge. As a runner and an athlete with an innate need to challenge herself, this yoga retreat seemed like the perfect opportunity.
After a two-week yoga retreat to Hawaii, Christine found a new connection to her body.
“My body felt so amazing [after those two weeks],” Christine recalls. “I realized my body was quite broken.”
Shortly after this retreat, Christine decided to quit running altogether and become a yoga teacher. By comparing her new “yoga body” to her previous “running body,” Christine could see the long-term effects running had had on her flexibility, posture and body awareness. After identifying herself as a runner for so long, it was strange to suddenly change to a new form of exercise, even if it was having more positive effects for her.
“Separating yourself from an athletic identity can be a challenge,” she said. “I see this in so many students who identify as being a runner.”
A lot of athletes are very attached to their identity within a certain sport, and it can be challenging to try something new. In Christine’s case, it took 20 years to realize a rigid running routine was creating all kinds of anatomical problems for her.
“The best thing you can do for your body is variability,” says Christine. “The posture you have throughout the day is going to carry into your running.”
While runners have strong metabolic and cardiovascular systems, many muscles don’t get the attention they need with a repetitive running workout. Because running is so routine-oriented, runners grow strong in parts of their legs, but feel imbalance in the upper body and glutes. On the other hand, yoga focuses more on alignment and using all the muscles in your body.
“Yoga isn’t about stretching,” Christine frequently reminds athletes. “It’s about balancing the muscles in your body.”
The longer you run without some sort of variability or balance, the more alignment and posture issues become cemented in your anatomy. In some cases, runners will continue to exercise through injuries or strains because of the addictive and competitive aspect the sport brings. Needless to say, a lot of long-time runners feel the effects.
Christine says a lot of runners instinctively feel the power that proper alignment can have in their first downward dog.
“Yoga for Runners is not about taking the same path that I took,” Christine said. “My work for runners is to avoid the same issues I had.”
Yoga for Runners is a proactive approach. Christine argues that if younger athletes supplement regular workout routines with yoga, the better their health can be in the long run. Yoga is especially helpful in reducing repetitive strains, injuries and long-term chronic issues.
“I don’t challenge their identity. I want them to keep running,” she says. “But I want them to run in a healthy way.”
Although any yogi will tell you the powerful mental benefits of mindfulness, meditation and body awareness can have, runners generally don’t see the physical benefits of yoga.
“The meditative aspect of yoga can bring so much to your running. The ability to focus, the ability to be in tune with your body when something is wrong. When runners get an injury it’s usually something that’s been built up. So listening to your body or breath can tell you so much.”
The big challenge for runners or athletes trying yoga for the first time comes in stripping away the competitive aspects. For many athletes, pushing themselves is how they improve.
“As soon as you’re competitive, you’ll push yourself and you’ll get hurt,” warns Christine. She confirms that anyone who is trying yoga for the first time, even the extremely athletic, will need to check their competitiveness and only take classes their bodies are ready for.
Whether you’re an athlete who prefers to stick to one sport, or a yogi who prefers to stick to one kind of yoga, you might find your body and mind limited. Strengthening your abilities in one sport could mean giving another a try. And who knows? Trying something new might just lead you to a new favorite type of exercise or new identity all together!
Christine’s Yoga for Runners workshops are happening all weekend long at the Toronto Yoga Show from March 30 until April 2. You can register here or RSVP on Facebook here. She also regularly teaches in Toronto at Breathe Studio, Roots Studio, and Mindful Body Studio.