Movement and the Mind:

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I don’t consider myself an athlete.  The word athlete seems to denote some sort of talent.  Yet I love to swim, run and to practise yoga.  I kind of like cycling too, although that one is lower down my list of likes.

Why is it that I am exercising 4-5 times a week and practising yoga daily?  Why is it that I enter races and events, when the likelihood is that I will come in (almost) last?  Why do I get grumpy when I am injured and unable to run in the woods?

The reason why, is because all of these things are good for my MIND.   They are not only good for my body, but they are good for my mental health.  I look after my body to look after my mind.  It has always been assumed that Yoga is good for our mental health, but I believe that all forms of exercise can help improve our mental well-being.

Here are some of the reasons why:

  1. Me time:

I am a mum and I work.  When I commit to exercise, I am committing to time for myself.  This is time when I don’t have to think about the next meeting, the next patient to see, getting the children to bed or what’s for dinner.  This is time where I am just ‘me’.

  1. The ‘feel good factor’:

Sometimes I don’t feel like going for a run or a swim.  I don’t really want to leave the house.  Sometimes the run is hard.  Yet always, ALWAYS afterwards, I feel good.  I feel glad that I pushed through the reluctance and went out.   When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins.  Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body.  Many studies show that people who exercise regularly benefit with a positive boost in mood and lower rates of depression.

  1. Camaraderie:

When I enter races, I almost always finish near the back.  However, there is such encouragement and support during events that you always come away feeling like a winner.  Ok, there are some deadly serious competitors who can not crack a smile when they lap you, as this might knock a second off their PB.  But for every one of those, there are five others who smile, say ‘well done’ and ‘keep going’ and make you feel like part of a community.  Then there are the supporters who stand out for hours in the rain and wind and cheer and clap you as you pass.  It is like receiving a pat on the back from hundreds of people.  As someone recently reminded me, you might come last in an event, but you are ahead of all the people who didn’t enter the event!

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  1. Medals:

This is the second reason I enter events.  I love a good medal.  It makes me feel proud of myself and reminds me that I CAN do it!  Even if you come last, you get a medal.  I love this attitude and wish it happened more at school sports days!

  1. Mindfulness:

People often associate doing Yoga and meditating with being mindful.  However, any activity can be done mindfully.  Mindfulness is being fully present in the moment,  aware of your body, your breathing and your surroundings.  Sport is an opportunity to practise mindfulness.  When I am running, I focus on my breath, my body and the sounds around me.  When I swim, even if it is in the swimming pool, I focus on my body moving through the water and counting the lengths.  It is very hard to think about the past or the future while focusing fully on your body during exercise.

  1. Chocolate

The truth is that if I exercise, then I can eat more chocolate.  I don’t care what anyone says, chocolate is good for my mental well-being also!

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Top 10 Yoga poses for Cyclists:

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Why should cyclists do yoga:

  1. Yoga develops your core strength.  A strong core protects your back
  2. To keep flexible.  Holding the same posture in cycling can cause tightness in your hips, back and shoulders.  This in turn helps prevent injuries in these areas.
  3. Yoga can help you to develop your balance, which can help you keep a good posture on your bike whilst also decreasing resistance and increasing speed.
  4. Working on your breathing and opening out your chest area can increase your lung capacity which allows you to take in more oxygen.  More oxygen = a better blood supply = increased ability to sustain pace and remain calm and focused.

NB: It is preferable to use Yoga as “prehab” rather than rehab.  If you have an injury it is better to see a specialist prior to trying Yoga.

The main areas to work on for a cyclist include:

The core:  Yoga can be used to prevent injury to the lower back by strengthening the core.  Many cyclists have strong lower back muscles and weaker abdominals which lead to lower back problems. Yoga pose: Downward dog (see below) and Chair:

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The back: Yoga can help to create a flatter back and avoid lumber kyphosis (curvature of the lower back) which leads to poor breathing.  The back is held in flexion in cycling and yoga can provide side and rotating movements for the full range of spinal movements. Yoga poses: Camel and Cat/Cow:

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Shoulders:  The shoulders are in a forward position during cycling. Yoga helps to open out the chest and draw the shoulders back.  Yoga poses: Downward Dog (see below) and Laying twist:

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Hamstrings and calves: Hamstrings can be tight as a cyclists legs are not fully straightened on the bike.  Yoga poses: Downward dog:

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Quads: These are the cyclists prime pedalling muscle group.  Yoga pose to stretch: Quad Stretch and Reclining Hero.  Yoga pose to strenthen: Chair pose (see above):

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Hip flexors: These help to lift the leg on every pedal stroke. Yoga poses: Pigeon and Lunge:

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Glutes: provide the downward power in the pedal strike. Yoga poses: Pigeon to stretch (see above) and Locust to strengthen:

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For Yoga for Cyclists Workshops see http://www.yogajen.co.uk

Reflections on a summer of sea swimming:

Since I completed the Blue Monster (Abereiddy) 2.5 mile swim on September 1st, I have not set foot into wild waters.  I have returned to my comfort zone of the chlorinated public swimming pools and I have not even looked at my slightly battered and patched up swimming wet suit.

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The last swim of my 3 big swim challenges was tough.  At one point it felt like I was going nowhere fast, but was stuck on some sort of swimming tread mill.  At another point it was so choppy, it was difficult to get a breath that did not involve swallowing sea water.  But I achieved my challenge and raised over £300 for the premature baby charity I was supporting.

This summer I have learnt some important swimming lessons:

  1. I am probably not a long distance swimmer. I promised myself on dragging myself out of the water following that swim that I would not swim 2.5 miles again in wild waters.  You should never say never, but I feel I have found my distance.  1 mile is just right for me and  the Long Course 1.2 mile swim and the Snowman 1 mile swim in Snowdonia were events I enjoyed.  That distance is just long enough to get out of breath, feel that you have met a challenge, but not so long that you are wondering when you will ever reach the end.
  2. Doing an event for charity piles on the pressure. When the Caldey-Tenby 2.5 mile swim was cancelled twice, there was pressure to find a similar event to achieve the challenge.  I think it would be easier to take the selfish route and to do any future events for myself and make a donation of my own to charity!
  3. I do not always love swimming in the sea. Some days the water is murky and cold, some days the sea is full of jelly fish…… but then some days the water sparkles and the sun shines.  Some days swimming in the sea makes me feel completely alive and strong.  This summer I swam at Skrinkle Haven and swam with a group into a deserted Skrinkle Haven Bay.  It felt like we were swimming onto a tropical island.
  4. Lake swimming is slightly preferable to sea swimming. The sea tastes of the sea, funnily enough and it is NOT a nice taste.  In fact, it makes you want to vomit.  The sea tends to have more waves, tides, jelly fish and potential sharks.  Unfortunately, I live in West Wales and am surrounded by the sea.  However, 10 minutes from my house is a beautiful little spot in a reservoir.  This remains my number one favourite spot to swim.
  5. I still don’t feel I quite fit into either the hard core sea swimming groups or the wild swimmers who simply want to have a dip. I want to get into water and swim, but I also want to take time to see where I am and be in that space.  There is a battle between the athlete in me and the yogini in me, but I think it is possible to meet the needs of both sides on my own terms, but possibly not in a group.

Next summer I plan to get into the sea again and into lakes too.  Possibly not as frequently, possibly not to swim 2.5 miles, probably not to raise money for charity and possibly only on beautiful, sunny days.  But, I will definitely go back.  As for my fear of sharks……I have not necessarily overcome this fear but I have faced it full on.  I have gone into the sea and carried on swimming anyway.  When my two little girls want to play in the sea, I am no longer afraid, but can join them and teach them to both respect the sea but enjoy it too.

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Swim no. 1 – The Wales Swim

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The Wales Swim (1.2 miles):
Friday the 13th– Unlucky for some. I am hoping that it will be lucky for me as it is Swim no 1 of my sponsored swims!  The race doesn’t start until 7 pm, so I have a whole day of work to get through first but am thinking of little but the swim. At lunch time I go along to the leisure centre to register and it is here that my doubts about being involved in such an event begin to increase. The Wales Swim is part of the Long Course Weekend in Tenby. This event sees people swimming on the Friday night, cycling on the Saturday and
running on the Sunday. Or if like me, you are only actually any good at one of these sports, you can enter just one event. I have turned up to register in the middle of my work day in semi-smart clothes.  Not a single other person is wearing semi-smart clothes. All are wearing super sporty clothes. I remind myself that I don’t wear sporty clothes for fun and then wonder again if I should really have entered myself in this event. I scuttle in and out of the leisure centre as fast as one possibly can without breaking into a run.
The day seems to drag on interminably and I can’t focus on much. I put my transfer numbers on my bright pink long course swim hat and my number is 2306. Is it possible that 2306 people are swimming in this race? Surely not.
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As work finishes I take a wander to look at the set up for the event. In the distance out at sea, I can see two huge yellow buoys and realise that is the 1.2 mile course. Somehow it looks longer than this. The water looks calm though and the beach is fairly empty at this early stage. I wait for my friend whilst people watching and trying to guess who is doing the swim. It is not too difficult, most are dressed in sporty attire and have an air of confidence about them. By the time my friend arrives and we kit up and head back to the beach, Tenby has become heaving with swimmers and supporters. The beach is covered and the sea is teaming with children splashing about. It turns out there are two and half
thousand people in this race. I can’t even begin to imagine two and a half thousand people in the water at the same time!
We are instructed to “acclimatize”, which means getting into the water and getting
used to the temperature and feel of the water before the race. The water feels surprisingly warm and we laze about. I actually wonder what on earth we’re doing the swim for when we could just stay and relax here.  Time ticks by and we’re ordered into “the pen”. The organizer seem to have over-estimated how many people can get into the pen and many of the two and a half thousand swimmers are unable to squeeze in and are still queuing to get in. We’ve been advised by wise and wonderful swimming friends to stay to the back and to the left. We fail disastrously at staying at the back as we are told if we are not in the pen we won’t swim. We are more successful at staying left. The wait seems to go on forever, and I keep fiddling with my hat and goggles and accidentally tear a part of the bright pink hat off. I will now be swimming with three quarters of a hat! No turning back!
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The gun goes off and fireworks shoot into the air, but we don’t move. I imagine this is how it is running the London marathon. You know the event has started but you are not able to actually move. Slowly we inch forward and stay left. In the distance we can see the sea going into turmoil as hundreds of people are dashing into the sea and racing away. The atmosphere is electric as the spectators cheer us on and we can see people watching from the beach, the promenade and the streets of Tenby. We finally walk
slowly down into the sea. There is no chance to race with people surrounding us, but I prefer this more gentle entry to the water. I set off tentatively, unsure of how I will be able to swim amongst all these people but am surprised to find myself in space. I reach the first buoy and there is a slight jam of people around it. There is some pushing, banging and shoving, but I make it around and off again. I find myself in space again and feel comfortable enough to swim a little stronger. I think I spot maybe one jelly fish,
which is dramatically different from the time I swam here last year, where you couldn’t move for jelly fish. Before I know it, I have reached the second buoy and am heading back to the beach. It begins to become a big more congested here and I find myself stuck behind two swimmers. I have a choice. I can either slowly swim behind them, or I can try and power between them. I know there isn’t enough space really, but I choose to try and swim between them. I become entangled with the arms of the swimmer on the right, which inevitably annoys him and he holds my arm under the water. I am surprisingly
un-alarmed by this and simply hold my breath. We carry on, leaving the swimmer to the left behind and both reach the shore at the same time. I try not to look him in the eye, but luckily he heads right, which means he is doing the 2.4 mile swim and needs to do another lap, whilst I am going left as I have FINISHED! I have a medal placed around my neck and feel ecstatic. I have survived intact, lost no limbs, was not eaten by a shark and did not head butt a jelly fish. My watch says I have swum 1.8 miles in 38.57 mins. My watch is usually a bit generous, but it turns out that the course was longer than
predicted. My official finishing time is 39.17 and I am the 8th woman over 40 out of 94 in the 1.2 mile race. I am quite astounded that I managed that, but I remind myself that all the really good swimmers are probably in the 2.4 mile race.
I feel proud to have been involved in this vibrant, noisy and exhilarating event. I am not sure it is an event I would repeat however, as I prefer to swim in water not rammed with so many people. Having said that, if there was a shark, then swimming with two and half thousand people greatly increases my chance of survival!!
Two more swims to go!

5 exercises to develop ‘Mindful Running’:

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These are exercises to practise whilst running to make it a more mindful experience.  Mindfulness is about being fully in the moment.  These exercises could equally be used for other sports such as swimming, cycling, canoeing and more.

Exercise no. 1- Environmental Scan

What do you hear? Notice all the sounds around you – sounds of cars, birds, people, the wind in the trees, your footsteps, your breathing….

What do you smell? Notice all the smells around you – flowers, cut grass, food from a house you pass…..

What do you feel? You might notice rain as it drops on your face, or the sun warming your face.  You might notice the terrain under your feet.

What do you see? Take in what is around you.  Notice the colours, the shapes, the landscape, other people…

Exercise no. 2 – The Body Scan

Some of you may be familiar with this if you practise Yoga already.

Start at the top of your head and slowly work your way down the body.  Notice where you are holding tension or where you are feeling relaxed.

Work your way from your head, down to your neck and shoulders.  Through your arms to your fingertips.  Work your way down the spine and notice how your posture is.  Work down to the lower back and hips.  Through your legs; the quads, the hamstrings, knees, shins and calves.   How do your legs feel?  Finish at your feet.  Can you feel where your foot hits the ground?

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Exercise no. 3 – A Mantra

A mantra is a word or phrase which a person repeats to themselves during a meditation.  This can also be used during running as a motivation or inspiration to help you to keep going.

E.g. “I am strong”, “I will not give up”,  “I can do this”, “I am a runner”, “I am feeling relaxed” or any phrase or word which will motivate you.

Exercise no. 4 – Find an anchor

If your mind begins to wander whilst running or you find you are focusing on a pain or discomfort, then you can bring yourself back to an “anchor”.  The anchor might be

A:  your breath – notice the air is it enters and leaves your nostrils or mouth.  You might notice the rise and fall of the chest with the breath.

B: your feet – you can count your steps or notice the feeling of the foot as it lands on the ground and then pushes off again.

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Exercise no. 5 – The Colour Scan

Choose one colour to notice during your run.  You might choose green and notice the colour of the grass, the trees, different leaves.  Notice all the different shades of the colour that you can find.  You might choose a harder colour, which is not so obvious – purple or yellow and be aware of all the shades of this colour you may find on your run.

Happy mindful running!

http://www.yogajen.co.uk

 

Slowing down in a fast paced world

 

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It often feels that I rush from one activity to another.  Our lives are full of “stuff”.  We plan and arrange and fill our time, forgetting how to stop.  Forgetting how to do nothing, how to just be.

What would happen if I stood in front of a tree and watched the leaves blowing in the wind?  How would I feel if I walked bare footed on the beach?   What is it like to hug my child and feel her heart beat next to mine?

How would it feel to lay on the grass and watch clouds passing by?  Or to drink a cup of tea and really notice how it tastes?

In all the planning and organising, do I schedule in time to do nothing?  Time to be still.  Time to be quiet.

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Do I provide this for my children? Or are they also rushing from one thing to another?  Do they have time to create their own games, to notice the world around them, to wonder at nature?  Do they watch butterflies dance in the sun?

Jennie has written a book called ‘Watching Butterflies Dance: Letters to my Daughters on Life, Love and Learning’ (available from Amazon).

Top 5 Yoga Poses for Swimmers

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Why is yoga helpful for Swimmers:

Yoga emphasises strengthening, stretching and balancing the WHOLE body.  It can increase the range of motion available to the swimmer.  Although there is a reduced risk of injuring weight bearing joints during swimming, injuries can still occur in the shoulders, knees or back in particular.  Yoga can help release tension in the shoulders and back counterbalancing a swim session.  NB: If you are already injured it is best to seek the advice of a medical professional (Physio, GP) prior to starting a yoga practice.

Number 1: Downward Dog:

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What does this stretch: Achilles, calves, hamstrings and shoulders.

Why is it good for swimmers: This pose lengthens your hamstrings and calves and stretches your shoulders and chest.  It also builds upper body strength.  This is a good pose for both warm up and cool down.

Number 2: Upward Dog:

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What does this stretch: Shoulders, chest, abdomen.

Why is it good for Swimmers: The repetitive movement in the shoulders in swimming can lead to tension.  This pose is a good counter-balance.

Number 3: Bow Pose:

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What does this stretch: Chest, Shoulders, back, ankles, quads.

Why is this good for Swimmers: This pose opens and stretches the front of the body, while strengthening the back and stretching the ankles. A strong core leads to better alignment in the water.  Flexibility in the ankles aids the swimmers kick.

Number 4- Bound Angle Pose:

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What does this stretch: Hips, knees, groin.

Why is this good for Swimmers: Tight hips lead to lower back pain/ache.  This pose is good for releasing tension in the lower back and knees.

 

Number 5- Cow Pose:

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What does this stretch: Hips, Shoulders, Chest.

Why is this good for Swimmers: To release tension in the shoulders and also lower back (tights hips can lead to lower back tension).

 

I teach Yoga for Swimmers workshops.  For more information see http://www.yogajen.co.uk

The importance of posture in running

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Although the perfect posture for runners will vary between each individual, generally running tall, with shoulders back and in a relaxed posture is agreed to be best practice.

Jobs which require a lot of sitting can have a detrimental effect on posture.  Sitting all day can cause tight hips and slouching of the shoulders.

Yoga can help your posture by stretching the spine and the hips, keeping the shoulders mobile and strengthening your core.

Poor posture in running:

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Running with shoulders slumped makes it hard to take a full, deep breath.  Running with the head forward, a curved spine and shoulders slumped means straining the muscles of the neck and shoulders whilst carry the weight of the head.

 

How to check your posture using the wall posture check:

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Stand with your back against the wall.  Place your feet hip width apart a few centimetres from the wall.  Rest your buttocks, back of the head and back of the shoulders against the wall.  Does this feel natural or unusual?  Then step away from the wall maintaining this posture.

A good running posture:

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A good running posture includes keeping the shoulders centered and relaxed, the head looking forward and engaging the core.  In this posture you can breathe more deeply.

Jennie Welton teaches Yoga for Runner Workshops at Crymych Leisure Centre.  For more info see http://www.yogajen.co.uk

Why we changed from the “Naughty Step” to the “Thinking Step”

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I am the mother of two girls, one aged 7 and one aged 4.
The eldest daughter is relatively easy going, mild mannered and it is not too difficult to convince her to do every day tasks and necessities. Growing up, she hardly made any use of a “naughty step” and I congratulated myself on my wonderful parenting skills.
Then along came number 2. This daughter is very contrary. She generally does the opposite of what is required or necessary. She is stubborn and difficult, but also loving and cuddly. She is prone to tantrums and strops in public, breaking down any ideas I had about my wonderful parenting skills. I love this grumpy 4 year old deeply and equally to the easy going 7 year old.
However, The “Naughty Step”, which had hardly been used, suddenly came into use once number two could walk, talk and get close to her big sister. She likes to poke, pull and generally annoy her big sister and the normally chilled 7 year old has learnt to retaliate. It seemed that the so called naughty step was being used most days rather than once every few weeks and it just didn’t work for me. “Naughty” is an adjective, a descriptive word, and every time I talked about the naughty step, I felt that I was labelling my child. The behavior may have been inappropriate, but I didn’t believe that deep down my child was naughty.
We decided to make a change and call our time out space, “The Meditation Step”. To meditate is a verb, a doing word, and I felt that this gave a goal to the time out. This worked well for the 7 year old, who cheerily took up sitting in a meditation pose and chanting ‘om’ during a time out. However, the four year old, despite having seen me meditate and having heard the word, just looked at me like I had three heads when I said it was time to go the meditation step!

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After a few weeks of an unsuccessful Meditation Step, we changed the name again to the “Thinking Step”. Again using a verb so that they have something to do in this space, without being labelled as naughty. The 7 year old has accepted this and has taken on the idea of taking deep breaths to calm herself down. The 4 year old looks at me like I have just 2 heads and generally continues screaming and crying until she has worn herself out. I wondered if perhaps thinking about her breathing was too much at her age. However, one morning, whilst I was rushing around getting schools bags and work bags ready and generally not having enough time,  she said “take a deep breath, mummy”.
We may have some way to go with using the Thinking Step, and it may evolve into something else.  I just need to remember to keep taking a deep breath.

 

 

 

Top 5 yoga poses for Runners

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Runners use repetitive motions on a select number of muscle groups (e.g. hamstrings, quads, hips flexors and calves). This over-use can lead to injury.  An injury in one part of the body can be caused from a weakness or imbalance in another part of the body.  Yoga emphasises strengthening, stretching and balancing the WHOLE body and as such can help to prevent injuries.  NB: If you are already injured it is best to seek the advice of a medical professional (e.g. Physio, GP) prior to starting a yoga practice.

Number 1- Downward Dog:

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What does this stretch: Achilles, calves, hamstrings and shoulders.

Why is it good for runners: This pose lengthens your hamstrings and calves and builds upper body strength.  This is useful for your warm up.

Number 2- Squat:

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What does this stretch: Calves and Achilles tendon.

Why is it good for runners: Calves and Achilles tendons are prone to injury, especially for sprinters and hill runners.

Number 3- Pigeon Pose:

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What does this stretch: Glutes, IT band, hips and hamstrings.

Why is this good for runners: This stretches all of the important muscles for runners.  A must-do for all runners!

Number 4- Back lunge pose:

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What does this stretch: Hip flexors, quads, iliotibial band, hamstring, calves, shins and adductors.

Why is this good for runners: Runners use the hip flexors to lift the leg on each step.  This can cause tight hip flexors which may lead to back problems.

Number 5- Wide legged forward bend:

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What does this stretch: Hamstrings, adductors, spine and quads.

Why is this good for runners: The hamstrings repeatedly contract and extend while running.  The overall health and balance of this muscle group is of vital importance for runners.

**I teach Yoga for Runners workshops at Crymych Leisure Centre, Pembrokeshire.  For more information see http://www.yogajen.co.uk**