Serious athletes and other highly- competitive persons understand that a little bit of flexibility creates resilience — but how to get it? Boston marathon vet, certified running coach and certified yoga instructor Jennifer Wilford feels your pain (and tightness), and knows exactly how to work you through it.
In this episode, Jennifer explains her unique approach: Bringing softness to foster strength and endurance. If you’re an athlete or just a weekend warrior whose performance is limited by inflexibility and/or injuries, then you’ve got to meet Jennifer.
Yoga and running are two of my passions in life. I’ve run the Boston Marathon seven consecutive years. I started running and felt like it was an amazing, life changing activity for me, but realized that in doing so, I was getting pretty tight. So I took to yoga, and eventually decided I wanted to be an instructor.
I am the least pretzel-like instructor, and my students tend not to be overly-flexible. I’ve merged the two — running and yoga — and have been able to bring it to anyone who wants to practice, but especially athletes who want flexibility, not only to their minds but their hamstrings as well.
Jennifer really does come to yoga with the athlete’s perspective in mind.
Jennifer’s 2013 Boston Marathon experience — the Bombing
Boston is the Super Bowl of running! The city just wraps you up in a big hug. It’s like a professional sports experience for an amateur athlete.
I was in 2013, and finished 49 minutes before the bombing. That was one of the major life changing events in my life. It showed me a lot in regards to the fragility of life and the things we take for granted.
I finished the race, and staggered through the finish line. At the time, I thought that 2013 would be the last year I’d run Boston for quite some time. I was ready to foucs on teaching yoga and cut back on mileage, run a little less. I took a moment at the end, and actually looked back at the old South church near the finish line, and soaked in the colors and the experience and the crowd. It was a beautiful day, and I left on what I thought was a really high note.
Later, back at my hotel, I received a text from my no-nonsense brother. It said, “Are you okay? If you’re downtown get the hell out of the city.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I’d been in the shower. At that point, I told my roommate, “I think we need to turn on the TV. I think something is wrong.”
You’re so physically depleted at that point from having run that far, and then to emotionally experience such a tidal wave, to look at the coverage and to realize less than an hour before, I was down there with those people; it jarred me, because it took the things I held most true in my life — running, big events, supportive people, humanity, all these gifts life can offer you — and in a cloud of smoke it imploded. It was a personal thing at that point.
I got home and immediately went to my son’s school and had lunch with him and gave him a huge hug, and felt so much gratitude. I think gratitude is a word that we kind of toss around in yoga, but it was a profound sense of being safe, being home, being with the people I love. It was a game changer. It gave me a chance to appreciate even more what I have in my life.
How did that appreciation manifest itself in your life after Boston ’13?
I decided that I needed to revisit Boston. I wanted to be part of the next marathon. I knew it was going to be healing, not just for the city, but for the runners that had been there, so I committed to maintaining a level of fitness that I needed in order to go back.
— At that point I think you begin to realize that a constant thing in life is change. —
Then you have to figure out how to best navigate it. Some of that change is catastrophic change. Some of it is little bits and pieces that happen every day. But sometimes the wave comes over and the sandcastle diminishes and how do you deal with that?
Yoga is the place that has allowed me to maintain focus, in my practice and also life — in the act of breathing in and breathing out. You take poses as they come, and then you come back to the breath. That for me was a collision in a good way of figuring out how do you navigate these things that you don’t always order up in life. How do you manage it?
In a nutshell, that’s what you do for the athletes you train.
Yes. The perspective I’ve gained is that there are times in life when it’s important to be on your game, and you focus and you push.
— But I also tell my people that recovery is a stage of training. It doesn’t mean you’re wimping out. —
In order for you to push harder, you have to do so from a place that is sometimes full of rest. If you have a really hard workout then in order to turn around and do the next hard workout two days later, you need that day in between. And that’s when I focus with yoga. It’s sort of that idea of embracing who you are.
I said earlier that I’m not a pretzel person but you can be the least flexible person in the room, and that’s okay because that tightness is necessary to serve you in your sport. For all the yoga that I do, it will never catch up to all the running that I do. I’m not going to be the person in full splits in the front of the room.
— It’s a matter of figuring out how you can derive the physical benefits of yoga that can serve your well in your sport but still maintain the integrity of what you need to do in your sport. —
In addition, the mental benefits of yoga countless. That’s what it’s all about, when you can figure out that piece of the equation, that’s when yoga starts.
How do your yoga classes benefit athletes, as opposed to someone who’s already very flexible?
Flexibility is more a state of mind versus just the state of your hamstrings. I don’t want people coming to yoga feeling intimidated. My students are typically people who, if they are fairly athletic, they’re used to competing and doing really well, competing with themselves, with other people, and yoga turns that on its head.
Just by understanding that yoga can be a great counterpart to what they’re doing from a cross training standpoint, most of the people I teach at running stores are a perfect merge of running and yoga. These aren’t the people who are coming to a yoga studio a couple of times a week. I try to teach them that we’re not necessarily doing advanced poses, because the poses that have to be held a long time can be both mentally and physically challenging.
In these classes, I really emphasize stretching out hips and hamstrings, and moving slowly, not at the pace of holding poses for minutes and minutes at a time, but long enough that they can experience a perceived stretch. This allows them to become better acquainted with their body. I always say you’re stretching to a point where you feel a nice deep stretch, but not to a point of pain.
This is important, because lots of times athletes come from a ‘no pain, no gain’ proposition. I’ve been there, I understand that. I understand what it feels like after a track workout and you’re throwing up or feel like you’re going to throw up, at some point, while that piece of intensity is necessary, you have to also find some level of softness along with the strength. And figuring out where that meets in terms of flexibility, that’s where yoga comes in.
I’m not looking to make people do the full splits in the front of the room. The objective is, if you are in a contact sport, can we give you a little bit of flexibility so that if you endure a collision then maybe you won’t get injured.
If you’re in a distance running sport can we give you a little bit of flexibility so that when you’re sixty, you’re not walking around with such tight hamstrings. Distance runners get injured, and often they come to yoga because of these injuries. I think yoga asks the question of understanding where your limitations are — not in terms of limiting your ability, but to understand and listen to your body.
None of us have Olympic sponsorships riding on winning a race; it’s a personal thing. None of us are driven by fame or glory. But you do want to be in it for the long term, and how does that look for you? What do you need to incorporate in your life in order to make that happen? A little bit of flexibility and balance might help that.
Using your drishti — your gaze, your breathing — all carry over into the athletic arena, just as they do in yoga.
What is drishti?
Drishti is your gaze, being able to have focus. Putting your focus in a place that is consistent, and matching your focus with your breath, knowing you can look out at something and zero in on it. If you’re in a ball sport where that level of concentration can be cultivated outside the sport, yoga can give you that opportunity.
About an hour. My Luke’s Locker Highland Village classes are on Friday nights, and they’re free! You can come in your running short and tee shirt, and I even have extra yoga mats you can borrow if you don’t have one. I always say if you come in with a good attitude and a smile, you’ll be in pretty good shape. I love teaching in a yoga studio too, but this isn’t your typical yoga studio crowd.
She isn’t slamming yoga studios, and I can tell you that I’ve seen her bust out a fairly perfect handstand!
That is my favorite pose because it represents my entire yoga journey. In the beginning I would power through handstand, kick my way up, and usually fall over! But I’d watch these people who so subtly, gracefully, gently move into the pose, and once I started to understand how muscles work and what they need to activate, it became a pretty cool journey to understand that muscle doesn’t always get you where you need to go. It will, but you have to know what to employ and when.
Jennifer really does exemplify so many qualities of a world-class athlete, in that she embodies persistence. (I think she was probably a very stubborn child, but she denies it!) Here Jennifer tells a story about winning tickets to the NCAA tournament at a basketball dribbling tournament. It lasted for 22 hours! She is a dynamo!
Her story is another terrific illustration of Jennifer’s empathy/connection with the athletes she helps, in that she understands the drive and persistence that it takes to be a practiced athlete. Competition is part of her nature and something she understands intimately.
The people I work with are really competing with themselves. I understand the desire to improve, and how I can help that through running, and how can I help them on the yoga mat. That’s the fun part of the puzzle, to be able to help them bring those worlds together.
Every Tuesday night from 7-8pm. It’s a free class. We laugh a lot, and it’s a safe place for anyone. If you are intimidated by the idea of yoga, this is the perfect place to explore. Just show up! You don’t even have to have a mat.
My classes at Inspire Yoga are on the studio’s schedule at inspireyoga.com. I teach for early birds at 5:30-6:30. It’s a great time to jump start the day and be productive.
Questions? You can reach Jennifer via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 972-824-0965.