Are you one of the many athletes, from weekend warriors to world champions, who love to test your limits by taking on marathons or even ultra-marathon distance events?
I’m talking about anything from a marathon, an Ironman, the Coast to Coast, 12- or 24-hour events, or the growing number of gruelling (some may say ‘crazy’) ultra endurance or multisport events that can have you on the go for hours and hours at a time. Or perhaps you are an ‘event junkie’ looking for a different challenge every weekend to push your physical and mental boundaries.
To succeed at this type of activity, your body and mind must be able to handle long periods of sustained, demanding activity, often repeating the same action sequence thousands of times non-stop. There’s no doubt about it – if you are doing this kind of sport long-term without succumbing to injury and/or exhaustion, then you are tough (in my book at least).
Along these lines I’m coining a new phrase this month: ‘When the going gets tough, the tough… do yoga.’
‘What?’ you may say. Yes, that’s right – yoga. I like to think that successful endurance athletes know a thing or two about training not just harder, but training smarter. And that’s where yoga comes in. This month I’m sharing with you a few points on how yoga can help you achieve endurance or multi-event feats.
If you are an endurance or multi-event athlete, you need to be able to rely on your body to keep going. Your body needs strength, stability, balance, efficient movement and endurance. Your mind must also be strong, with the capacity to remain calm and focused, and to keep you moving forwards in the face of at times, extreme challenge and discomfort. Effective recovery and avoiding injury are also critical to being able to keep up your endurance endeavours long-term. Yoga is designed to help with all these factors, and an increasing numbers of athletes from all manner of endurance sports are now realising this and adding yoga in to their regular training schedule.
From a purely physical perspective, yoga has a lot to offer the endurance athlete. Yoga can be made sports specific, with particular poses and sequences used to target the muscle groups or joints that need strength, flexibility or balance for any given sport.
Core strength and balance are requirements for most sports, and many yoga exercises are designed to enhance these aspects specifically, giving you greater holistic strength through your body and an improved sense of simply ‘where’ your body is in each moment. Standing balancing poses help shore up joint strength and stability in the ankles and knees.
Stretching your body purposefully and mindfully with yoga is a valuable injury prevention tool. If your sport demands a highly repetitive action (think cycling, running, swimming, paddling etc.) overuse injuries can develop.
Yoga helps to counter the affects of such repetitive actions, promoting healthy alignment and balance in your joints and muscles. Longer, more relaxed muscle fibres are less prone to injury.
The greater range of motion that yoga develops means that your body is able to move more freely and find a more efficient path, giving you improved economy and improved performance.
Dedicating time to yoga will give you improved flexibility, balance and whole body strength, and can play a big role in injury prevention.
The mental edge
Yoga is a very mindful activity, and helps you develop mental focus and strength.
Through the physical poses, breathing exercises, meditation and visualisation, yoga teaches us to be fully aware and focus on the present moment, constantly checking in with our body, our breath and our mental processes.
This can help athletes experience the state of ‘flow’ where they are completely absorbed in the process of what they are doing, and when everything they need to do feels like it simply falls into place. They are completely ‘in the zone’. This is a powerful place to be in the midst of an endurance event.
All else being equal in a physical sense, an athlete’s mental capacity to focus, to put aside distracting thoughts and to find a sense of calm despite physical discomfort can determine their success in an endurance event.
Recovery is a crucial part of the training cycle if you want to realise performance gains. You must allow your body time to restore, rest and heal in order for it to come back stronger and fitter next time.
Yoga promotes faster and more effective recovery following training and racing. Stretching can help your body process lactate after exercise, and improve muscle oxygenation.
Restorative poses, done softly with a focus on breathing, not only release tension from the body, but promote greater mind-body integration.
A favourite restorative pose with athletes and non-athletes alike is ‘legs up the wall’ pose. This pose promotes recovery for the legs, boosting circulation, draining fluid from the legs, and settling the hips and spine.
What does yoga for endurance athletes look like?
Any yoga programme for athletes should be specifically designed to complement the rest of your training. Just as your training programme changes from day-to-day and month-to-month over the course of your year or season, your yoga practise will also change.
Over time you can incorporate different forms of yoga at varying intensities to focus on aspects such as strength and endurance, flexibility or mental focus. So having ‘yoga’ in your weekly training doesn’t have to mean an hour-long stretching session.
It may mean a few rounds of a routine to warm up before a training session, or some poses to stretch out your muscles afterwards. It may be a power session to build strength, some breathing and visualisation to prepare you mentally, or a restorative session to recover from an event.
Yoga is very adaptable, hence the potential for a large range of benefits. So whatever your poison – climbing mountains, racing bikes, or going farther, faster in any form – get tough and do some yoga.