Somatic Exercises Bring Balance to Your Running By Helping You Manage Stress and Pain (2024)

December often brings with it a myriad of responsibilities, never ending to-do lists, and maybe if you’re lucky, enough time to squeeze in some miles.

That makes it a pretty optimal time to dial your fitness routine back a notch and practice somatic exercises—a perfect antidote to those grueling miles you’ve been logging all year long.

What It Means to Practice Somatic Exercises

Somatic exercises involve bringing conscious awareness and curiosity to how the body is feeling, says Emily Winter, M.P.H., somatic experiencing practitioner and trauma-informed yoga instructor in Ithaca, New York. This type of exercise brings a major focus to the mind-body connection, taking your thoughts away from counting reps or improving performance and turning them to the way your muscles and joints move and how that feels.

Renee Exelbert, Ph.D., psychologist and certified personal trainer who morphs movement and psychotherapy in her practice, The Metamorphosis Center of Nyack, New York, says when you apply somatic exercises to the body, you’re not pushing your body to do a particular stretch, but rather exploring whatever it is that your body is feeling. In doing so, you gain awareness of the process your body is going through as you perform the move. Tuning into how your body is feeling in the present can help you process where you might be feeling tension or pain, and this can help you get in touch with how your body works.

If you’ve practiced yoga, Pilates, Tai Chi, or dance then you’ve probably already done some somatic exercise, as these type of movement practices bring more awareness to how you’re moving. “You could think of somatic exercises as ‘body-based mindfulness exercises,’” says Winter.

3 Major Benefits of Somatic Exercises

1. Reduced Pain and Increased Mobility

Preliminary research suggests that there are some benefits of somatic exercises for those experiencing trauma and/or physical pain.

A recent review published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that somatic therapy (which combines talk therapy with movement) could be beneficial to individuals living with chronic pain. That’s because somatic exercises can help one become more aware of body signals related to pain and how to best self-manage those symptoms, the study says.

Another small study involving 10 cancer patients published in Integrative Cancer Therapies in 2019 found those undergoing chemotherapy benefited from somatic exercises, including yoga and meditation, during treatment, noting improvement in overall quality of life and fall risks often associated with chemotherapy.

For the chemotherapy study, participants met twice a week for eight weeks and practiced 90 minutes of yoga. To measure stress markers, researchers collected salivary cortisol (the stress hormone) at the start of the study and after the eight weeks. By the end of eight week, the cortisol levels decreased in patients and participants also marked improvements in balance, flexibility, and timed up and go tests. While this study was small, it does suggest promising evidence for the case of somatic exercises to help with functional movement and improved quality of life.

Exelbert explains that heightening our awareness of the mind-body connection can help with posture, breathing, and pain, because it helps you understand how your body works and better notice tense areas of the body where common aches and pains might manifest.

2. Relaxation and Stress Reduction

A review of 83 scientific articles published in European Journal of Psychotraumatology in 2021 found that somatic experiencing (a type of somatic therapy that works to treat trauma and conditions like PTSD) may lessen physical symptoms in individuals experiencing trauma.

Even if you feel that you might not need somatic experiencing therapy, practicing somatic exercises, which are often used with this therapy, has the potential to decrease your overall stress and aid in relaxation. “Conscious awareness of sensations in the body actually expands our window of tolerance for stress and trauma,” Winter says.

Paying attention to how your body is responding to movement—like in a yoga class when you focus on your breath moving through the body as you flow from pose to pose—can bring you a sense of calm.

Plus, by practicing somatic exercises whenever you begin to feel tension, Winter says you’ll begin to notice a shift in anxious feelings. “The body actually learns a new way to process anxiety,” she explains. The reverse is also true: Instead of tensing up when you start to feel anxious, somatic exercises train your mind to help calm the tension, bringing on a state of relaxation.

3. Increased Mindfulness

Somatic exercise will encourage you to tune into your body at its present state, a form of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice can help to self-regulate stress as it comes up, but it also allows you to experience more joy in the moment.

Practicing mindfulness also can serve runners well by reducing depressive symptoms and enhancing performance, as research has shown.

How to Make Your Exercise Somatic

To make an exercise feel somatic, the first step is to develop awareness of how your body is feeling in the present moment, Winter says. You can do this by asking yourself questions: Do I feel tightness anywhere in my body? Where do I notice any pain? Do I feel generally relaxed at this moment? Overtime, asking yourself these questions can become routine and offer you a mental check-in for your physical state.

After cultivating more awareness of how you’re physically feeling in the present, then get curious about why you might be experiencing these sensations. “Curiosity is a really key component of doing somatic exercises because it keeps us in the present moment,” Winter says.

When you can shift to a state of curiosity from a state of fear or from expectations about how the body should feel, it changes how you experience sensations in the body and also helps to bring in more calm, she adds. This is especially true for those with anxious thoughts. Maybe you shift mental statements like “I feel so tired right now” to “If I relax my shoulders, will I be able to run taller and feel more energized?”

Also, if you’re running and feeling anxious about having enough energy to finish, or feel stressed because you’re not running the times you want, you can incorporate somatic exercises into those moments by simply focusing on your breath or shifting your mindset to the parts of your body that do feel good.

5 Somatic Exercises to Try at Home

Winter offers these exercises below to start practicing somatic movement, but cautions that somatic exercises can sometimes bring up bodily memories of past physical trauma. If you’ve experienced trauma and notice yourself feeling worse after a somatic exercise routine, this may not be the tool for you at that moment. Reach out to a mental health professional if you begin to feel uncomfortable or more anxious with somatic exercises.

1. Grounding

  1. Sit in a chair with feet on the floor, back straight.
  2. Gently begin to sway side-to-side, bringing attention to the changing pressure under your glutes.
  3. After about 20 seconds, return to stillness, still focusing on where your body is supported by the chair.
  4. Take a few slow deep breaths, sensing the support of the chair under you. Notice if you feel more grounded.

2. Energy Builder

  1. Sit down and let shoulders slump. Gently round the spine and tuck the chin in. Pause for a moment to feel the safety and closed nature of this shape.
  2. Then, with an inhale, lift chest, draw shoulders back slightly, and lift chin slightly. Feel this shape for a moment, noticing the opening of chest and the lifting sensation.
  3. Use the breath to go back and forth: exhale as you slowly round the spine. Inhale as you lift chest and lengthen spine.
  4. Repeat for 6 rounds, pause and notice how you might be sitting up taller, feeling more alive and energized.

3. Shoulder Release

  1. Gently exaggerate the tension in shoulders by 10 percent by flexing the muscles of the shoulder. Go into the tension a little more.
  2. Notice how the body can fully brace against the world, protecting the neck. Then allow shoulders to release and come back toward a neutral posture.
  3. Feel for any release or dropping of shoulders. Repeat as needed.

4. Anxious Energy Release

  1. Sit in a chair with feet on the floor. Place palms down on upper thighs.
  2. Gently press palms down on the thighs toward knees and press feet into floor.
  3. After 30 seconds, pause and feel the effects on the body. This is about grounding the anxious energy in the body by pressing into the floor, and offering an outlet for its release.
  4. Repeat as needed, until you feel more relaxed.

5. Stress Release

  1. Find a dish towel. Fold it a few times so you can hold it in both hands, with a few inches of towel between the hands.
  2. Then, with all your strength, twist the towel. Continue twisting, bear down, and engage all muscles of the body. You can even try growling at the same time.
  3. After 3-5 seconds of twisting hard, release and feel the settling in your body. Repeat a few times if needed.

Somatic Exercises Bring Balance to Your Running By Helping You Manage Stress and Pain (1)

Jennifer Acker

Jennifer Acker joined the editorial staff of Runner's World and Bicycling in January 2022. A former freelancer writer and NCAA runner, she started running as a kid and basically never stopped. She also loves outdoor adventures, like hiking, skiing, and mountain biking.

Somatic Exercises Bring Balance to Your Running By Helping You Manage Stress and Pain (2024)


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