Yoga & Stretch Reflex

Yoga is a beautiful and highly effective practice of mental focus and physical stamina but you don’t have to do yoga or be good at it to reap the benefits to be had by stretching. One of the valuable reasons to participating in 60-90 minutes of stretching a couple times a week is that it forces you to stretch for longer then the quick and infamous post workout quad, pectoral and touch your toes stretches that really don’t do much for creating flexibility. 

There are a series of events that happen during a stretch. When a muscle is stretched, something called muscle spindles are also stretched. Muscle spindles record the change in length (and how fast) and sends signals to the spine that will convey this information. This triggers the stretch reflex, which essentially tries to resist the change in muscle length by causing a stretched muscle to contract. 

To put it into perspective, the stretch reflex occurs when performing a plyometric exercise like jumping. The muscle spindle senses that a muscle is lengthening and tries to protect the body from injury as if you were to pull a muscle, by contracting the muscle even more. The more sudden the change in muscle length, the stronger the contractions will be. Yoga is all about slow and purposeful stretches. In layman’s terms, this allows for the muscles to realize “oh this is ok, I’m stretching and don’t need to protect the muscle by contracting it even more.” One of the reasons for holding a stretch for a prolonged period of time is that as you hold the muscle in a stretched position, the muscle spindle habituates (becomes accustomed to the new length) and reduces its signaling. Gradually, you can train your stretch receptors to allow greater lengthening of the muscles.

The next time you’re in a yoga class or stretching elsewhere, think about your breath and how that relates to muscle relaxation. An exhale is when you find room to deepen into a stretch. An inhale is designed to realign and lengthen the entire body. It may not be until a series of deep breaths that your muscles are ready to release from a contracted state. With practice, muscles can be controlled so that there is little to no reflex contraction in response to a stretch. This type of control provides the opportunity for the greatest gains in flexibility.

Yoga for Runners

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Yoga and running are considered two very different activities but when practiced together they can power the ultimate human machine to achieve optimum performance. If you want pain free running, you must have increased strength and flexibility. If you want to prevent injuries you need good posture and body awareness.

For many, running equates to meditation in motion. The body is set on a repetitive cycle that allows the mind to tune into the present moment through the senses. The warm air brushing up against the skin, the visual of sunlight peaking through the trees, the smells of new life, or even the sound of silence. As our senses are heightened, our awareness begins to shift from the head and into the body. We start to become embodied. This expression of embodiment can be a key component in calming anxiety, reducing stress and capturing a moment in the present. 

The use of yoga has recently gained popularity in preparing athletes for competition. Yoga is an important and often times missing piece in many individuals workout routine but especially a runner’s world. Research shows that yoga positively effects flexibility, ventilation, breathing regulation and relaxation. 

The Problem With Short Duration Stretching 

The reason a quick stretch session after a run isn’t enough is because the muscles need to learn how to lengthen and that isn’t possible when you hold a stretch for only 20 seconds. When a muscle is lengthened, nerve signals increase to the brain. The brain sends a signal back, causing muscle fibers to contract and resist the stretch. This is a protective mechanism to prevent a muscle from being pulled. When holding a pose for 3-5 minutes the brain understands that the stretch is intentional and safe. The muscles can then relax and the body can deepen into a pose.

Below are a few yoga poses that strengthen and lengthen specific muscles that attain to runners. One hour of yoga a week can improve the quality of your runs significantly (but the more the better!)

Extended Triangle

While Standing, slide right foot 3-4 feet back. Turn right foot 30-90 degrees right. 
Place left hand on shin or the ground. Keep thighs firm, buttocks relaxed and knees soft. 
Reach right arm forwards, then up.
Extend spine on inhales, rotate spine on exhales
Take 6-10 breaths, then switch sides. 

Standing Forward Fold

Place feet 6-12 inches apart, keep feet parallel and knees slightly bent. Hang over the legs. 
Extend hands for the ground and relax the neck by tucking the chin.
Inhale the chest away from the belly towards the knees. Extend the spine.
Exhale and hang. Keep big toes, pinky toes and heels down. 
Hand for 6-10 slow, long breaths. 


From Downward Dog or plank move left knee to left wrist and right leg back as far as possible.
Move left heel towards right hip. Rest left shin on floor then lower hip.
Place forearms on the ground with elbows under the shoulders. Move hips gently left and right to release hips and rear end.
Raise upper body by pressing down through palms. Relax the elbows and settle hands and shoulders. 
Maintain for 6-10 breaths, then switch sides.