7 March 2013

An attempt to run a marathon using SCIENCE: Part VIII (Yoga)

Hello again running friends.

This last week has been one of the more painful and annoying ones in the lead up to my marathon. It started with that plantar fasciitis scare, which resulted in a semi-diagnosis of, yes, mild plantar fasciitis and a prescription from the physio for more foot manipulation and nasty, hurty calf stretching. As it turns out though, plantar fasciitis isn't my main problem... I'm also "chronically inflexible". I don't know why I put that in quotation marks because it's not actually what the physio said. But that's what I heard in my head. Anyway, what it means is EVEN MORE nasty, hurty stretching, persevering with nasty, hurty yoga and using a nasty, hurty foam roller on my legs to relieve stiffness. Pouty sad face.

On top of all this, someone decided to steal - STEAL - the foam roller that I got delivered to our block of flats. Having seen the package on the way out, I thought I'd leave it at the bottom of the stairs until I got back home, to save going back up three flights; when I got home, it was gone. Well, I hope the thief is happy with his/her new foam roller. Not exactly what they were hoping to find in that box, I suspect.

On the plus side, I ran in my first race for my club - cross country 5.7k in glorious (Welsh!) sunshine. Here's me in my club vest. Hoorah!

So. Yoga. 'Cause that's what the post is supposed to be about. As you can imagine, I don't much buy into all the "vital energy" and "breathing into your hips" (my hips have lungs?!) wotnot, but I've been doing yoga because I thought the stretching might help with the tightness from running. And it gives me a decent hour-long break from work on a Tuesday lunch time.

I have actually spent some considerable time in the past looking for studies on yoga and running performance/injury prevention, but without much luck. As far as the flexibility aspects of yoga are concerned, I might be inclined to say that this brings us back to the question of whether static stretching is useful or not. (Answer: not). But it isn't the same thing. Being generally flexible is quite different to doing a few stretches before or after you run. You could argue that being flexible means you are more able to extend limbs when running and less likely to hurt yourself if you stumble or twist. Equally though, I can't find much evidence to back this up. For instance, this 1996 paper actually suggests that *in*flexible people are more economical runners - they use less energy per mile covered. (I wonder, though, whether the inflexible people are just the people who do more running and therefore better at it.) A more recent study found no connection between flexibility and running economy. And here's a really thorough review that could find no link between stretching exercises and prevention of leg injuries in runners.

Of course, I'm not accounting for rehabilitation from specific injuries. You'd hope professionals would know what they're doing when recommending targeted stretches for running injuries. But let's put the flexibility and injury issues aside for now and deal with some other aspects of yoga. Because I've found this shall-we-say "quirky" paper...

At first glance, it seems quite dull: "Effects of brief yoga exercises and motivational preparatory interventions in distance runners: results of a controlled trial". A quick look at the abstract tell us the authors tried out a couple of different activities - yoga and a "motivational preparatory intervention", whatever that is - to get groups of runners ready for a timed one mile run on an athletics track. But the researchers weren't focusing on the physical benefits of yoga. They were focusing on the psychological benefits. So the question they were asking was: can yoga (or this other intervention) help you prepare your mind to run faster?

It's when you start reading the details of their methods that the study gets quirkier. The group that did the yoga had to perform sun salutations for 20 minutes before running - it doesn't say where but I'm imagining on or next to the track. Okay, moderately funny if you happened to be watching. But it's the motivational preparatory intervention that turns out to be hilarious. This involves a group of runners shouting things at each other very loudly. They weren't allowed to shout any old thing - motivational statements were pre-rated by participants, meaning each had a card with their favourite motivational statement written on it.
"Each note card included the participant’s most preferred motivational statement selected from the list of 40 statements given the previous week. The participants then formed a circle and, for about nine minutes, were instructed to shout out their chosen motivational statement, one person at a time in a clockwise fashion."
What? Nine minutes? That sounds exhausting! But that's not all...

"Next, participants played a game in which they took turns rolling a large ball to another participant after shouting the motivational statement listed on the note card—for example, “you’re the definition of speed”."
"You're the definition of speed"? Really? Then, more shouting, this time at participants striding between two lines of people, and finally...
"participants assembled into a tightly formed circle, and were instructed to enthusiastically and loudly shout their motivational statements for about three minutes. Facilitators encouraged athletes to shout these statements spontaneously, and randomly."
Bloody hell. After all that, I don't think I'd have enough energy left to run. If you can believe it though, the shouty group actually did a bit better than the yoga group compared to an original baseline run. Although the yoga group improved their times by more than a control group (no intervention), the shouty group basically won! Now, it's worth bearing in mind that this study was based on just 90 high school runners, so we shouldn't take the results too seriously. (In fact, HA! Let's not take them too seriously at all.) But it was published in the British Medical Journal, which has its reputation to uphold, so...

Forget the yoga! I should be getting people at my club to shout "You're the definition of speed" at me... Um. Yeah. Or, if I do the yoga, I could at least do it on the track before running. Blimey. There's no real indication as to why either of these two activities work, but there's some suggestion of the social aspects being beneficial.

Apologies if this doesn't exactly reveal much about the effects of yoga on running. I got a bit sidetracked. But I have to say, it was one of the only studies I found on the subject, and certainly the only one published in a high level journal. Which brings me back to a point I have to keep making here. Good studies on endurance running seem to be scarce and most of the studies I've looked at during the course of this series have been small. I guess this kind of research is fraught with difficulties, such as runners not wanting to change their training regimes for the sake of a scientific study, not to mention finding funding for research that is not exactly going to save lives, even if it *might* help win a few medals. However, if doctors are prescribing exercise and healthier lifestyles as protective measures against big killers like heart disease and cancer, perhaps it is important that we do more research on the exercise part.

I would also add that coaches have a big part to play. Even if the research hasn't been done officially, a good running coach will have spent decades playing with different training strategies, making observations and seeing the results in his/her athletes. It's a science of sorts... So definitely worth seeking out your local athletics club and (cautiously) taking on board the advice of the endurance coaches. Personally, I've found those at Bristol & West AC very supportive.

As far as the yoga goes, I seem to be falling increasingly into the category of "creature of habit" (see my stretching post). I'll probably carry on with the yoga. I like the mental break from work on a Tuesday and the fact that it's a completely different type of exercise. The other factor, though, is the lack of evidence to persuade me otherwise. I'd really like to see more studies on this if anyone can dig them out.

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