Cross-Training With Trail Yoga

No one wants to be stuck in a yoga studio when the weather is nice. The solution? Take your practice to the trails.

yoga yogi outdoors outside hiking yoga

    Photo: Courtesy of Katie Arnold

I tiptoed through my house, gathering my gear. When you have a family, a covert exit is essential if you're heading out on an early morning adventure. Wake the kids, and you'll get sucked into pouring bowls of Cheerios and dispensing chewy vitamins. Before you know it, the morning's half gone.

I'm training for a 50-mile trail run next month—my first—so I've been doing a lot of dawn patrols lately. Instead of following a specific training plan, I'm trying to listen to my body, to train myself from the inside out. Some days I go long, others steep, flat, or not at all.

That morning, my quads were saying slow, short. It wasn't just my legs, either. I'd been wracked with doubt for weeks. Fifty miles is a daunting distance, any way you cut it. To be intimidated was natural, I knew, but my nerves were interfering with my training and slowing me down. And it wasn't just mental but physical, too. My doubt was coming out as pain—in my Achilles, in an old stress fracture in my left foot, in my tight hamstring. Running, my old joy, was starting to feel like a chore.

So that morning, I didn't feel like running—not exactly. I had another idea. It started with a simple feeling: I wanted to slow down. Why did I have to go fast all the time? It would be so nice to go for a stroll on the trails or sit down on a rock and just look around for a while. It was time to do some yoga

I know yoga is good for me. I know it can help me stay limber and ward off injury. (My 88-year old great uncle recently fell down the stairs. The only reason he didn't shatter every bone in his lower body is because he does a 20-minutes yoga routine most mornings.

The problem is, I'm a cold-weather yogi. Once spring comes, pretty much the last place I want to be is cooped up inside a studio. There had to be a way to slow down and stretch, without giving up the trails and fresh air.

Creeping around the house that morning, I grabbed my yoga mat and fished a cheap nylon knapsack from the gear closet. I slipped into my Merrell Trail Gloves, sockless, and got into my car.

My destination was Sun Mountain, a small but prominent peak five minutes from my house. When I got to the trailhead, I shoved my yoga mat in my backpack and started hiking. The shoulder straps were so loose and the mat so bulky that it kept bumping into the back of my neck, but, still, it felt good to walk. Above me, the sun was getting ready to pitch itself over the lip of Sun Mountain, lighting up the scrubby pinons from behind.

Halfway up, I started to run. The trail is steep and rough, climbing over boulders and loose rocks, veering sharply around switchbacks, pricky yuccas. I settled into a slow, unhurried jog. The yoga mat swung back and forth, up and down, through the trail's final turns. 

On the summit, I stopped to catch my breath. Sun Mountain looks like its been lopped off by a knife. Its top is so flat it could fit a whole studio of yogis, and their mats. But I only needed room for me, and mine. I walked around looking for just the right spot: flat, smooth, and sunny. I spread my mat on the dirt, took off my shoes, and sat down in the cool morning air. 

I’ve been practicing yoga on and off for 15 years, mostly off. I don’t know the Sanskrit names for poses, and while I’m moderately flexible, I’m too lazy or chicken to push myself. In downward dog, I sneakily check out everyone’s strappy Lulelemon outfits.

But alone on Sun Mountain, there were no cute yogi clothes, thumping music, or walls to close me in. I turned to the east, with my back to downtown Santa Fe, and began to move through a simple routine of postures: Cat and cow, forward fold, sun salutations. In downward dog, blue sky spread out below me like an ocean. Far to the west, the Jemez Mountains had been turned upside down, like a green wave. The slight downward slope of the ground made it easier for me to fall forward into crow. One pose led naturally to the next.

After a while, I lay in savasana and felt the breeze prick at my skin. I didn’t want to leave, ever, but it was time to. Far below, traffic was starting to pick up on Old Santa Fe Trail, early bird yard-salers coming home with loot in the trunk and coffee cups on one knee. I rolled up my dusty mat shoved it in my bag and ran down the mountain the way I came, marveling the whole way. Why hadn’t I thought of this before?

Since then, I’ve gone "yo-running" two or three times a week. Sometimes I jog, but if I’m tired, I hike, scoping my favorite trails for flat, smoothish spots big enough for my mat. I’ve found places on nearby Atalaya Mountain and Picacho.

Trail yoga has become part of my ultra training now. I’m not sure that stopping for 20 minutes in the middle of a run will help my aerobic threshold, but I do know is this: My long runs are feeling easier, my legs and feet have stopped hurting, and my heart is lighter. I'm no longer so terrified of 50 miles. Trail yoga may not be making me faster or stronger, but it's reminding me of why I love to run.

Five Tips for Cross-Training with Trail Yoga
You’ll want a thin, portable mat. Manduka makes the super packable eKO Lite Mat from natural tree rubber that folds up neatly and fits into a small daypack. At first it smells like shredded tires on the side of the road, but that odor quickly fades.

You'll need a way to carry your mat, too. My Camelbak is roomy enough, but the thick straps chafe my shoulders. Nathan and Ultraspire make lightweight running vests with comfy mesh straps and lash cords for strapping a mat on the back.

Consider running in minimalist running shoes like the Merrell Trail Glove, and go without socks. That's one less sweaty thing between your feet and the mat. Don’t rush the transition, though; start slowly with half a mile, or a mile at a time. It’s not the distance that matters in yo-running anyway. Feeling the ground under your feet will help you be more aware.

Almost any trail will do as long as there are flattish places to lay your mat. A little slope won’t kill you. Resist the urge to rearrange the topography. Like your own body, you need to work with what you have: rocks, lumps, tree roots. It's not about being perfect.

Yo-running can help you slow down and listen to what your body, and heart, are telling you. Maybe your quads are sore from a tough run: skip the standing poses. Or if you’ve killed yourself with Crossfit push-ups, nix the vinyasas.

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