I've been curious about yoga for endurance athletes for a long time. Several of my athltes have tried it with good results as far as their range of motion goes. Others have liked it for the meditative state which they believed enhanced recovery. So I asked Sage Rountree, the author of The Athlete's Guide to Yoga, to write a guest post for my blog. Her comments follow. I'm curious as to what others have experienced with yoga. Please feel free to add your personal experiences under 'comments'. -- Joe
Why Do Yoga?
By Sage Rountree
In a training week already chock full of workouts and other commitments, it can be tough to see the benefit of adding yoga to the mix. Wouldn’t that time be better spent on the road, trails, track, or in the pool? Not necessarily—especially if you have limited flexibility that impairs your range of motion. Yoga can certainly improve your flexibility, but it will also enhance your training by increasing your strength, your mental focus, and your mind-body awareness. In addition, yoga gives you an opportunity for recovery between workouts.
Strength: Yoga uses whole-body movements to increase your functional strength, making you stronger organically. This serves as a good complement to the work you do on the weight-room floor. Be sure to schedule your class or longer home practice on a day when you are not lifting.
Flexibility: Yoga’s stretches, practiced mindfully and noncompetitively, will increase your flexibility and help correct imbalances in the body. This improves your efficiency and can help prevent overuse injuries.
Focus: Yoga teaches you to focus your attention on the present moment, using form and breath to stay relaxed at the edge of intensity. It’s an experience very similar to being in a race: you come up to just below the limit of what you expect you can sustain, and keeping your attention on form and breath, you hold yourself there.
Breath awareness: Yoga emphasizes long, slow, diaphragmatic nasal breathing, which teaches you to use oxygen efficiently. The more you know about your breath and its patterns, the more you can use it as a tool to gauge your effort. Breath awareness also improves your swimming by helping you grow more comfortable with different inhalation to exhalation ratios.
Recovery: A dedicated yoga practice gives you a chance to relax. On the mat, you’ll tune out the distractions of your day and tune in only your breath and your body, focusing just on the moment. Some yoga positions, like the one described below, can actually speed up the recovery process.
A Pose to Try
Viparita karani, or legs-up-the-wall pose, is a great pose for practice after a long workout or on a rest day. You’ll give your legs a chance to recover while resting your back and, depending on your flexibility, stretching your hamstrings.
Sitting on a soft surface (a mat, a blanket, a carpet), scoot one hip as close to the wall as you can, then swing both legs up so that you are “sitting” on the wall. If your legs don’t want to stay put, you can strap them together with a yoga strap or a necktie, or slide your seat away from the wall a little without locking your knees. Hold your spine neutral and choose a comfortable position for your arms: in an inverted V by your hips, out to a T, bent to a W, or in a full V overhead. This will give you a chest stretch as you rest here. Stay for at least three minutes and up to ten or more, breathing slowly and deeply. If you find your mind wandering, bring your awareness back to the sensations in your body—they should remain pleasant—and to the motion of your breath. To come out, turn to your right side and rest a few breaths in a fetal position before moving on.
Finding a Class
Many athletes are turned off of yoga because they drop in on a class that’s either far too easy or way too hard. You’ll want to find a class appropriate for where you are in the training cycle. In the off-season and base period, a more dynamic class (Ashtanga, power, and vinyasa yoga) is appropriate. As you build, stick to gentler classes that focus on flexibility. Your racing season is a good time to work on restorative and very gentle yoga classes, and these make a good introduction to yoga throughout the year.
Look on yogajournal.com and yogafinder.com to find a local studio or teacher. If you don’t connect with the first teacher you meet, visit other classes—there is a wide spectrum of styles out there, and with a little searching, you’ll find a good match.
To learn more about how yoga will enhance your training and racing, see my book, The Athlete’s Guide to Yoga, just released by Velo Press. It contains a DVD to guide you through 15 minutes of yoga practice. (A full-length DVD will be released by Endurance Films this spring.) I blog about yoga and training at http://sagetree.blogspot.com. You can follow my podcast of short post-workout routines and check out my upcoming workshops, including one in New York City on February 9, at http://www.sagerountree.com.