Add Yoga This Offseason to Improve Flexibility, Strength and Balance
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of USA Triathlon Life.
By Sage Rountree
All photos courtesy of Don Karle
Yoga will make you a better triathlete. Even if you never do touch your toes, gaining flexibility, balance and whole-body strength will improve your form, efficiency and power.
And even if you never assume a single yoga posture, yoga's approach to concentration and breath awareness will improve your mental focus and mental endurance - the intangibles that become so important at the end of a long training session or race.
Yoga's physical, mental and spiritual approach will teach you how to integrate the body, the breath and the mind to stay focused and calm even in the face of intensity - a skill that will serve you in every aspect of your life, be it training, racing, work, relationships or undergoing a root canal.
You probably think of yoga as primarily stretching - or even contortionism. Indeed, flexibility is a big part of contemporary Western yoga, but you don't need to twist yourself into a pretzel to get the benefits. Practicing yoga postures gently will stretch tight muscles and encourage use of your full range of motion. A freer range of motion means more economy in your swimming, cycling and running since you can find the most efficient path for your body to move.
Beyond physical flexibility, yoga cultivates flexibility of mind. As you gain experience with yoga, you'll come to see that the mind will heave you through highs and drag you through lows, just as happens during triathlon training and racing. Staying aware of the present without feeling overwhelmed builds equanimity, the capacity to remain calm no matter what comes your way. Keeping your brain in the present while outside forces try to bend you in various directions is the equivalent of mental flexibility, and it's critical for competition.
Yoga works holistically to strengthen the body as a unit. Some poses, such as those described in this article, are held static, engaging the muscles isometrically (holding the fibers longer against resistance). Others, such as sun salutations, involve flowing from pose to pose, engaging and releasing the muscles through concentric and eccentric contractions. Yoga postures help create whole-body functional strength and encourage greater awareness of the body and the breath.
Holding challenging poses also teaches mental strength. On the mat, you will observe your mental and emotional reactions to your physical situation and learn ways to manage intensity. When you encounter similarly intense situations on the course or in life, you'll have experience with using your breath and your form to find strength.
Yoga confers balance. First, there's the literal work of the balance poses, which will strengthen your lower legs and hone your proprioception so you grow more aware of where your body is in space. The poses also teach a more subtle awareness of your body's center of gravity in different positions, along with a finer sense of how the body works as a unit to balance.
In addition, yoga gives dimensional balance to the work you do in triathlon training and in life. Instead of moving stroke after stroke or step after step in a linear pattern, as you do when you swim, bike and run, in yoga you'll move the body through every available direction. Sometimes you'll be standing; sometimes you'll be upside-down. Your perspectives will change, and you'll get a fuller sense of your body and what it can do.
Yoga will also balance the work of your training. By their nature, sports are goal-oriented. In workouts and races, you aim to cover a distance, to achieve a time, to beat the competition, or to reach a certain speed or heart rate - doing something. Yoga instead emphasizes the process - being in the present moment. Think of it as a mental recovery workout.
Yoga and Your Offseason
The offseason is the right time to begin or resume a yoga practice, since it gives you a chance to learn a new approach to your body. You'll learn yoga best in person from an experienced, gentle teacher who can check that your alignment is correct - and who can keep you from overdoing it. Look for a class geared toward beginners or focused on alignment; these are good places to learn the basics. Then, if you are enjoying yoga, you can try some flow (vinyasa) or power yoga classes. Just remember to keep the intensity of your yoga in inverse proportion to the intensity of your training, so that yoga can support your workouts, not become an extension of them.
Poses to Try
Here are four poses that you can practice safely at home. Including these three or four times a week at the end of a workout won't take long, but it will certainly enhance your offseason by improving your strength, flexibility, balance and focus.
Benefits: Enhances core strength; stabilizes shoulder blades; builds balance and focus.
How-to: From your belly, bring your elbows under your shoulders, hands together (think aerobars). Turn your 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.
Variations: To make the pose easier, keep your knees on the ground. To add intensity, reach an arm forward, as in your swim stroke, or back, as though reaching for a saddle-mounted bottle. Or alternate lifting one foot, then the other, to mimic the challenge of holding your core steady while running.
Benefits: Increases range of motion for the run, working to balance strength and flexibility in a split-legged stance.
How-to: 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 pleasant stretch in the left hamstrings and outer hip, as well as in the front of the right hip. Hold five to 10 breaths before changing sides.
Variations: 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, as shown in the picture.
Benefits: 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.
How-to: 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.
Variations: 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.
Benefits: Gently stretches the muscles of the chest and torso; counteracts the tightening encouraged by miles in the saddle and at the desk; establishes a great position for breath exercises and awareness, as well as relaxation.
How-to: Roll two towels together lengthwise to fashion a makeshift bolster that's at least 8 inches wide and long enough to support your spine from the waist through the head. Bring the bottom end of the bolster against the back of your pelvis, and lie back so it supports your spine. If your low back feels crunched, push into your feet, lift your hips and slide your tailbone toward your heels. You're looking to feel expansion across the ribcage and chest. If your neck feels craned, add another towel as a pillow.
With your ribcage spread, you'll feel the action of inhalation and exhalation more deeply. Relax here for a few minutes, noticing how your body moves as you breathe in and out. When you find your attention wandering, just turn it back to the breath, observing the rise and fall of your belly, ribcage and upper chest. This is a simple exercise in focus, which is so critical in triathlon. It's natural to get distracted; the key is bringing awareness back to the object at hand: your breath.
Variations: Depending on your flexibility and preference, you might stretch your legs long, bend your knees and take the feet to the floor, or let your knees drop to the sides with soles of the feet together. Arm position is up to you, too: turn your palms up, but experiment with resting your hands by your hips or moving them out farther and closer to your shoulders.
Sage Rountree, PhD, is a USAT Level II coach and an Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher. Her writing on yoga includes The Athlete's Guide to Yoga and The Athlete's Pocket Guide to Yoga (both from Velo Press), from which parts of this article were adapted. She coaches, trains, and races in North Carolina, and she teaches workshops on yoga for athletes nationwide. Find her schedule and her free post-workout yoga podcasts at sagerountree.com.