Yoga can be a great addition to any endurance athlete’s training plan and overall health. It can improve your strength and balance, as well as give you a heightened sense of how your body moves. But like all aspects of fitness, it’s not without risks.
The Benefits of Yoga for Endurance Sports
Yoga helps develop strength through controlled movements and poses. In any sport, consistent movement is vital for efficiency and injury prevention. Consider running — the connection of your feet to the ground, where you toe-off, your body symmetry in dynamic movement, and your posture are all dependent on good core strength. Boat pose, downward facing dog, locust pose and plank are examples of poses that build strength and stability.
Yoga also develops balance. Cycling (cornering, descending, and out-of-the-saddle climbing), swimming (holding streamlined body alignment during rotation), and running (maintaining a limber, dynamic gait through technical cross-country courses) can all benefit from better balance. Tree pose, warrior, and side plank are good examples of poses that develop balance.
As you move through various poses, remember to breathe into the stretches and be mindful of how your body is feeling as you work through any discomfort. This will give you context in racing and training and help you hone in on imbalances. Simply slowing down your day and moving through a flow session with intent and focus can also be incredibly relaxing.
The Risks of Yoga for Endurance Athletes
If you are in the thick of training for a 100-mile century ride, an hour of strength-intensive vinyasa yoga at the end of the day may take away more than it provides. Even practicing yoga on your recovery day can be too much exercise. To continue yoga without adding fatigue during heavy training blocks, choose a beginner class, or opt for yin yoga, which is more regenerative.
Injury can be a concern in yoga as well. Athletes tend to be physically competitive in nature, which isn’t always ideal for deep stretching. To avoid going down with a yoga injury, try to err on the side of under-doing your poses. Remember, there’s no prize awarded at the end of class to the downward dog champion! Instruction quality is also important. An experienced instructor can help you avoid excessive soreness, a strained muscle, or joint injury.
It’s also a good idea to approach bikram (hot) yoga with caution. It’s a style of yoga enjoyed by many, and can help with heat adaptation for hot climate races. On the flip side though, it can also contribute to fatigue and dehydration. Additionally, the heat opens your joints and muscles for further range of motion, which may increase the risk of a strain or a tear.
Whether you are a yoga novice or a veteran returning after a break, adaptation is key. Yoga should be supplementary to your training, not deleterious. Be consistent and ease into it gradually over a span of three to four weeks. Learning new skills can benefit your main sport as well as overall long-term health and happiness. Be calm, consistent, and patient, and yoga will be a great supplement to your endurance training protocol.