Over the years, I have tried really hard to get some of my friends to start doing yoga, particularly the ones who are athletic already (you know who you are). Though many of these super athletes have no problem going for hours-long bike rides or double-digit mile runs, the idea of taking a yoga class seems either too “low-intensity” or, to the other extreme, too intimidating. But here are a few things that yoga can do for a traditional western athletic training routine.
Increase your flexibility to improve performance. In working out with one of my dearest triathlete friends, we’ll call him J, he mentioned that swimming was the most challenging leg for him. In the pool, I watched his freestyle and noticed that his torso was under-rotating and he wasn’t getting as much reach as he could with every stroke. The reason? His shoulders were tight from spending hours hunched over bicycle handlebars. Several poses in yoga include stretching of the Latissimus Dorsi, such asEagle Pose as well as stretching and strengthening the upper back, like Dolphin Pose. To improve range of motion in J’s case, I would recommend incorporating asanas that include twists – Pavritta Trikonasana (Revolving Triangle Pose) and Pavritta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose), which increase lateral mobility in the spine and are also meant to detoxify the system by wringing out your internal organs.
A while ago, I did a training program for the Marin Half Marathon, and found that the repetitive motion of running gave me tight hips. While training with a running group a few times a week, and attempting to do my own cross training, I found that yoga really helped to get into my hip flexors (yay for Pigeon pose) and psoas, and helped to lengthen my stride a little, keeping things loose and relaxed on longer runs.
Better your balance and agility. Proprioception isn’t a word people use every day, but it’s important – it’s the way your body is able to interpret and use information about your position in space, through a complex network of sensors from the soles of your feet, to your brain, to your inner ear. You use these cues to activate particular muscles when you’re riding a bike, running, skiing, getting up from a chair, and walking down the street – so developing your balance skills helps with coordination and posture. You’ll be able to react better, too, when, say, you’re trail running and step onto an uneven surface. Basic standing poses such as High Lunge or Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II) help with balance, as does one-legged standing poses (Standing Split, Warrior III, and Ardha Chandrasana/Half Moon Pose).
Still your mind and give you focus. When I did mid-distance runs, I almost always ran with an iPod. It was hard for me to run without music. But one day, I forgot my iPod at home and was forced to spend the next 2 hours running in silence. Well, not quite silence. I had a million thoughts and conversations running around in my head that distracted me from the task at hand – which was good and bad. The good part is, it helped me forget how LONG my run was. The bad part was that I tended to tune out what was going on around me. Being forced to find stillness in a yoga class is a new experience for someone who is used to working through noise, and can be difficult. But being able to find focus is extremely important, particularly when gearing up for a big race or competition.
Find your breath and increase your lung capacity. Lastly, several of my yoga teachers always emphasize that yoga is breathing through your entire body. We tend to hold our breath unconsciously when we’re focused on something intense. Learning to coordinate breath and movement is something that can be invaluable to other sports – swimming, martial arts, running – you name it. Last night in class, the instructor said that hopefully, our deep inhales and exhales also carry over to when we sleep, so we get excellent oxygen flow to our blood and brain, which can help in repairing and rejuvenating your muscles!
Still not convinced? Try it for a month and see if you see any significant changes – I know I started feeling changes within my FIRST class after starting half-marathon training. And feel free to ask your instructor if they have any tips for you as a runner/cyclist/etc. You may find that yoga is just what you needed to add a little something to your training.