Saturday, May 1, 2010

Yoga and the Triathlete

By: TriSaraTops

Due to my pregnancy, I spent the greater part of the last year shifting my focus away from triathlon a bit. Being a pretty typical Type-A triathlete, I wondered what to do with all this new found time. How would I be able to still remain active while dealing with the changes during pregnancy? I managed to run through about 30 weeks and continued swimming almost right up to delivery, but I really fell in love with yoga. I am hoping to keep this up now that I'm getting back into training for the Rev3 70.3 in September.

But I know, I know. I know what you're thinking. "I have to train a gazillion hours could I possibly squeeze in yoga on top of all my swimbikerunning?"

The simple answer is, I don't know--but you need to.

Yoga has many benefits for triathletes, but it tends to be the first thing triathletes cut out of their busy schedules. However, if you can make yoga a regular part of your training routine, you'll soon see that you will avoid injuries, recover faster, and wonder how you ever trained without it.

I spoke with Puma Reyes, owner of Puma Yoga and a fantastic instructor that I worked with while I was training for Ironman Wisconsin in 2006. I also practiced prenatal yoga with Puma over the past year and credit that in helping with my delivery and recovery. I asked her to convince you, the Type-A, short-on-time triathlete why yoga must become a regular part of your training routine. Here's what she had to say!

Q: What are the benefits of yoga for triathletes who spend so much time swimming, biking, and running?

Puma: Yoga brings focus and clarity to the triathlete; a consistent yoga practice can stabilize, strengthen, stretch and restore muscles which will improve your form, efficiency and build power. Practicing gentle yoga postures will not only help to open and stretch tight muscles, it will also encourage you to use your muscles more efficiently and in a full range of motion. Flexibility in both body and mind are key to the triathlete. As you begin to embrace and experience yoga, you'll see that it, too, can be quite challenging; similar to what you might experience during triathlon training. Keeping in focus and aware of the present without feeling overwhelmed builds confidence in oneself to remain calm no matter what happens. Having mental flexibility and remaining open are crucial in competition.

Q: Many triathletes have trouble fitting in their workouts into their busy days. What would you say to them about how important yoga is? Would you consider it a "fourth discipline" of triathlon?

I believe yoga is very important to an athlete whether your into competitive sports or are someone who enjoys working out at a gym. I would look at yoga as overall conditioning or cross training for the mind, body and spirit. It's something that you can incorporate into your 'daily diet'; yoga is a practice that can be done anywhere. It is a discipline that encourages strength not only in the physical, but the mental as well. There are core yoga moves that can be incorporated into part of your post training routines that can help you prevent injury and also teach you more subtle awareness of your body's center of gravity in different positions. Instead of reaching the finish line and setting a goal, yoga teaches us that what we do on our mat is a process; it's not about the end results; it's about how we got to the end. What was our experience?

3. What poses are good to balance out the muscles used in swimming, biking, and running?

Forearm Plank

Enhances core strength; stabilizes shoulder blades; builds balance and focus.

How-to: From your belly, bring your elbows under your shoulders, hands together. Curl your toes under (toes to the ground) and lift up to form a long line from head to heels. Stay for a few breaths, take a break, and repeat; build to 10 or more breaths at a time.

To make the pose easier, keep your knees on the ground. To add intensity, reach an arm forward, (think of swimming), or back (when reaching for a water bottle when biking). You can also try alternating lifting one foot, then the other, to mimic the challenge of holding your core steady while running.

Crescent Lunge

Increases range of motion for the run, working to balance strength and flexibility in a split-legged stance.

From hands and knees, line up your right foot with your hands, shin perpendicular to the ground. Slide your left knee back until you feel a stretch in the left hamstring and outer hip, as well as in the front of the right hip. Hold five to 10 breaths before changing sides.

Keep your hands on the ground, or bring blocks or books under them if the ground feels too far. For a deeper stretch and balance challenge, take your hands to your knee or overhead.

Cross-legged Twist

Increases range of motion in the spine, critical in swimming; stretches chest gently; works to release tightness in the iliotibial band (IT band) and outer hip, which tighten during cycling and running.

Rest on your back, right knee crossed over left, arms wide. As you exhale, roll to the left hip and let your legs drop to the left. Stay ten breaths or more before changing sides.

If this feels too intense, rest your legs on a pillow rather than the ground. To deepen the stretch, keep the knees tightly together and raise them toward your left arm while keeping your right shoulder on the ground.

Supported Backbend

Benefits: Gently stretches the muscles of the chest and torso; counteracts the tightening encouraged by miles biking and at the desk; establishes a great position for breath exercises and awareness, as well as relaxation.

How-to: Fold a blanket into thirds so that it is long enough to support your spine from the waist through the head. Bring the bottom end of the bolster against the top of the sacrum and lie back so it supports your spine. If your low back feels crunched, bend your knees, keeping your knees together and walk your feet to the outside edges of the mat. This poses opens the chest and ribcage.

Q: How often should triathletes practice to see benefits?

Some gentle stretching can be incorporated everyday. My thought is that you begin or resume a yoga practice in your offseason of training. Why you might ask? It can give you a newer perspective on your body. Yoga is best learned in the presence of an experienced, patient and gentle teacher who will encourage you to be where you're at and not push you to go further. Look for classes geared toward beginners, gentle or alignment based classes. Here you'll learn the basics. Remember, yoga will be an enhancement to your workouts...not a workout in and of itself.

Thanks, Puma, for your thoughts and suggestions! I am looking forward to using yoga not only for strength, flexibility, and conditioning this season, but for my mental training, too. If you've never tried yoga, the benefits of it go beyond the physical. Holding poses teaches you to be "in the moment," which is critical for all triathletes--especially those in long-course racing. You'll be surprised how hard it can be to be still, present, and in the moment as you hold these poses. Once you master this, you can translate it to tough times on a ride, hitting the wall on a run, or dealing with anticipation and fear before an open-water swim. And all the while you'll be making your body leaner and stronger! What's not to love?

See you on the mat!