Many triathletes have told me they would love to try yoga but can't squeeze it into their intense training regimens. The swimming, biking and running leaves little time in a triathlete's schedule, but those who find time for yoga agree the benefits can be considerable.
I didn't get the 'yoga craze,' said local Ironman competitor, Caroline Gregory. Now, yoga is an essential element to my Ironman training. The stability poses help work those small tendons and muscles that are essential for running. The flexibility poses help open the hips, back, and shoulders, which helps with recovery and injury prevention. And savasana is hands-down the best moment for race visualization.
Triathletes are unique because they compete at peak levels in three physically demanding sports. Over time, this extreme training can cause imbalances in the body, which can result in injury if not addressed. Yoga can help by going beyond simple stretching to work the muscles and joints through all ranges of motion. By working the body through all planes of motion, yoga creates balance, stability, core strength and flexibility.
Common injuries from running and cycling include those involving the illiotibial band (ITB), knees, hamstrings, hip flexors, and shoulders. Running tightens and shortens the muscles and joints without a corresponding lengthening and flexibility. Cycling can result in overdeveloped quadriceps and tight hamstrings, which can pull the hips out of alignment. Swimming is less stressful on the joints and muscles, but can result in a tight back and shoulders. A well-rounded yoga program can remedy these issues.
In addition, the mind-body connection in yoga is a vital element in building focus and concentration necessary for succeeding on race day. Proper breathing is one of the foundations of yoga. Athletes who learn to stay focused and centered through uncomfortable poses by concentrating on deep inhales and full exhales can utilize yogic breathing techniques to achieve peak stamina and endurance during a race or challenging workout.
You don't have to spend hours to obtain tangible results. Attend one or two classes per week and/or add a few short sessions pre- or post-workout. Try these three poses to strengthen, open up and lengthen both sides of the body.
Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon)
This pose is probably the best hip opener in yoga. It helps open the deep muscles of the hip and the hip flexors.
Start in Downward Dog. Lift your right leg up and sweep it through to your mat, folding it and placing it on the mat. Keep your right foot flexed to protect the knee. Your left leg is straight behind you with the toes pointed. Keep your hips square and level, with the left hipbone pressing toward your right foot. Inhale and press your hands into the mat, getting as much length in the spine as possible. Exhale as you walk your hands forward on the mat, coming out to your edge. This might be on the elbows, with the arms extended all the way out or right where you started. Hold this pose for one minute. Remember to breathe! Switch sides.
Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose), variation
This twisting pose is excellent for creating balance between the left and the right sides of the body, for opening up the chest and torso, and for opening up tight hips.
Sit tall with both legs extended in front of you. Make sure you are sitting evenly on your sitting bones. If your hips are very tight, sit on a block, or folded blanket until you can sit with a straight spine. Bend your left knee in and place your foot on the ground on the outside of your right thigh. Place your left hand on the ground behind your sitting bones, as close to the back as possible. Inhale and reach your right arm straight up. Exhale and twist to the left, rotating from the waist. Place your elbow on the outside of the left quadriceps and gaze out over your left shoulder. Hold for one minute and switch sides.
This pose is excellent for opening up the chest, shoulders and the hamstrings. It also mirrors the proper upper body alignment for cyclists.
Start on your hands and knees, with your knees directly beneath the hips and hands slightly in front of your shoulders. Exhale and tuck your toes under, pressing your tailbone toward the sky. Keep your knees slightly bent to start. Press your heels toward the ground, it is okay if they don't reach it. Lower down onto your forearms, with your elbows directly beneath your shoulders. Broaden your shoulder blades away from each other. Breathe deeply and hold for one to two minutes.