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Winning Strategies

Improve performance, prevent injuries, and bring more joy to the sporting life.

By Karen Macklin

If you run, cycle, or swim, practice this sequence three or more times a week after your easier workouts. Begin with Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose) and stay for a few breaths, turning your focus inward. Notice your energy level, and register any areas of tightness or openness in your body. Just as you begin a training session with a sense of purpose, take a moment to set an intention for your practice.

Lentine Zahler had always dreamed of doing an Ironman triathlon, and now she was in Kona, Hawaii, at the World Championship. She had completed a little more than half of the 112-mile cycling portion, which took her from a lush green neighborhood of downtown Kona up a hill to brutally hot black-rock lava fields. Fierce winds were blowing cyclists sideways on their bikes, and Zahler, unable to let go of her handlebars for fear of toppling over, had gone the whole distance without solid food. She was achingly hungry, irritable, and exhausted. She couldn't remember why she had signed up for this torture and thought about giving up. But then she turned her focus inward, deepened her breath, and felt a sense of calm come over her. She directed attention to the areas of her body where she was holding tension and released them. Finally, she arrived on flat ground and was able to free up one hand to eat. Instead of dwelling on the frustration of the previous 70 miles, she found she was able to be in the present moment and let the past go. In short, she tapped into everything she'd learned through her yoga practice, and she finished the race in good time—and with a feeling of ease.

Her story is inspiring, but not unusual. Zahler, who is also a yoga teacher in Portland, Oregon, is part of a growing number of endurance athletes—marathon runners, cyclists, and triathletes—who have found that the physical and mental practices of yoga can help them prevent injuries, improve their performance, and bring a whole new dimension of awareness and joy to the sports they love.

Putting the Body at Ease

One of the things many athletes love about sports like running, cycling, and swimming is that rhythmic, repetitive motion over long distances can be deeply meditative. But the downside of this action from a physical point of view is that the continuous cycles of repetitive motion tax one set of muscles while underutilizing the rest. Over time and distance, this creates muscular imbalances that can lead to misalignment and injury. "If you have even a minor misalignment in your stride, when you repeat that action over and over, it can cause injury," says Sage Rountree, a yoga teacher and triathlon coach in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the author of The Athlete's Guide to Yoga. Runners, she says, tend to have overworked hip flexors and quadriceps and underworked glutes. Rountree teaches lunges as a way for runners to release the hip flexors in their back legs while stretching and strengthening the hamstrings of their front legs. And because the shape of a lunge mimics the runner's stride, she says, it is a good way for runners to examine their alignment and balance.

According to cyclist and Stanford University exercise physiologist Stacy Sims, cyclists develop similar kinds of imbalances. Because they are constantly in a crouched position on the bike, their quads and gluteus muscles tend to be strong, but their hip flexors are tight and weak, she says. "Yoga opens the hips up and strengthens the surrounding muscles, which can prevent injury."

In addition to the stresses of repetitive motion, there's also the matter of holding the body in one position for a long time, whether it's crouched down over a bike or in a running stride. The body becomes contracted, with the shoulders and the back rounding forward. Most of us already have a somewhat forward-leaning posture, simply from daily-life activities like sitting at a desk. Assuming a similar position while running or cycling exacerbates the contraction and can lead to back pain and postural issues. Poses like Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge) that open the front body, including the hip flexors, can counteract this.

And to strengthen the core muscles needed to support the posture during training, Rountree teaches poses like Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III) and One-Legged Plank Pose. "When the core muscles tire while you're running, you wind up slouching," she says.

Body Conscious

In addition to correcting muscular imbalances and misalignment, yoga offers athletes another tool for preventing injuries: increased body awareness. "With yoga, you begin to feel your body more," says Ed Harrold, the director of yoga and sports training for the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the originator of the Flexibility for Athletes performance training program. Harrold recommends that athletes hold poses for 10 to 20 breaths at a time to develop body awareness. By doing so, he says, you can learn how the body feels when uninjured and become much more aware of "yellow lights" (twinges of pain or discomfort that could signal the beginnings of an injury) when engaging in a sport.

Increased body awareness also means learning how to isolate the muscles you need so that you can relax the ones you don't. "In an endurance sport, you need to have the most efficient form you can," says Rountree. "You don't want to be running with your elbows out by your shoulders or your shoulders hunched up to your ears. That's inefficient. You want to save that energy because you are going to be out there for a long time." To practice this awareness, Rountree suggests standing in a lunge and scanning the body. If you are engaging muscles in places like the shoulders or neck, practice releasing them. You'll then be able to repeat this on the track.

Recreational distance cyclist Greg Merritt of Berkeley, California, says that learning this principle through yoga has been a huge benefit. "Holding tension unnecessarily for 5, 15, or 25 hours on the bike will lead to no end of trouble, and can even result in the dreaded 'DNF'—did not finish," he says. "Now, as I ride, I do continuous self-checks about how I'm holding myself on the bike. It's kind of like learning to drive a car and building the habit of watching the road ahead, your mirrors, your speedometer, and so on, but this is a habit of internal monitoring, keeping check on my body from the inside." Adds Zahler, "If I am on the race course, and I feel discomfort someplace in my body, my yoga practice has taught me to check for compensation in other areas." She says that this body scanning has also taught her to take an inventory of how everything feels in general. "My work on the mat has given me the opportunity to explore the way that my body acts as an interconnected system and use that interconnectivity as a tool anywhere I might be."

Sporting Mind

By definition, endurance athletes need to endure, whether you're participating in a triathlon, running a marathon, or even going out for a weekend 10k bike ride. But your mind often tells you that you've had enough before your body is really ready to quit. By practicing mindfulness on the mat, says Rountree, endurance athletes can learn to be present with any number of sensations—discomfort, boredom, anxiety, resistance—while training or competing. "There are always moments in a yoga class when we feel restless," says Rountree. "Sometimes it's tough to stay in Utkatasana (Chair Pose) for another few breaths, but we learn to do it anyway. We learn that restlessness is just an aversion that the mind is throwing at us, and we keep going." Taking this skill into endurance sports can give an athlete a tremendous edge.

Jason Magness, AcroYoga teacher and co-founder of Yoga-Slackers, says that the mindfulness he's learned through his yoga practice has gotten him through his hardest endurance-sport experiences. While on a multiday expedition trekking race in Moab, Utah, he started to panic. He was exhausted and anxious about what was to come—and he was only halfway through. "I was already miserable, and everything seemed so far away. I thought, 'I am never going to finish.' "

But he was able to tap into what he learned on the yoga mat to bring him back into the present moment. He thought about what he does at the beginning of his Ashtanga practice when he gets anxious about the backbends that come at the end. "In my practice, I would say, 'I am just going to feel what it's like to be in this asana, in this breath.' So I started to do that during the race, and I was able to pretend that all I was doing was a long practice." Suddenly, he says, the future didn't matter. "I was just able to feel what was going on now—and keep going."

Seated meditation is another way to practice stilling the mind, which can help athletes stay focused while competing. If you can take this calm state with you into activity, your effort becomes effortless, says John Douillard, a former professional triathlete who practices Ayurvedic and chiropractic sports medicine in Boulder, Colorado.

"It's all about the ability to be calm in the midst of dynamic stress," he says. Douillard compares the stillness of the mind during a long run or ride to the still eye of a hurricane. "This is the runner's high. For most athletes, this state is a random event that they sometimes stumble into. Yoga gives you the ability to enter into it on a regular basis."

Learning to Breathe

Many yoga teachers will tell you that the breath is everything—a tool for meditation, a way of directing energy throughout your body, and an astute indicator of your physical and emotional state during practice. Similarly, the breath is an essential part of any endurance athlete's training. The breath dictates athletic performance, and performance dictates the breath—when you are losing steam, you'll notice your breath becoming shallow and labored. Shallow breathing, says Douillard, stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, which makes you anxious. That zaps your energy even more. If you can find a steady, even pace of deep breathing while moving through an asana practice, you can take that skill and apply it while running or riding.

Douillard suggests practicing Ujjayi Pranayama (Victorious Breath) while training, which triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and establishes a neurological calm in your brain. Deep nasal breathing brings the mind into a steady alpha state, he says, which is ideal for grappling mentally with long distances. Simply bringing attention to the breath also helps athletes to stay focused when going long distances, which is a great antidote for something that even the most enthusiastic and dedicated endurance athletes say they suffer from on occasion: boredom."You see everyone out there running with their iPods," says Rountree. "They need some kind of distraction. But there's so much inside to pay attention to. Focus on the breath, and you don't ever have to be bored again."

Athlete's Breath

According to Dr. John Douillard, director of LifeSpa, an ayurvedic retreat center in Boulder, Colorado, and author of Body, Mind, and Sport, practicing Ujjayi Pranayama regularly can enhance your athletic performance by calming the mind and body and allowing you to exert yourself more efficiently. "Exhaling with Ujjayi has the effect of creating a meditative calm during the activity. That's what yoga is all about, learning how to be both still and dynamic at the same time."

If you normally breathe through your mouth during exercise, Douillard says, this technique will take some getting used to. "Most of us are accustomed to taking shallow breaths from the upper chest, which is extremely inefficient," he explains. "When you breathe out with Ujjayi, you have a more complete inhalation and exhalation." Practice Ujjayi pPranayama at rest until you're comfortable with the technique before trying it while training.

1. Start by Inhaling normally through your nose.

2. Exhale through your nose. As you exhale, constrict your throat slightly, making your exhalation audible. You'll notice that, in normal nose breathing, you can feel the air coming out through your nostrils, but here you should feel a sensation in your upper throat; it doesn't feel as though air is moving through your nostrils much at all.

Try making this sound without constricting your abdominal muscles. If you're doing it correctly, you'll find it's impossible to make the sound without slightly contracting your abdominal muscles. Think about squeezing the air out of your abdomen by tightening your stomach muscles. The tighter you make your stomach muscles during the exhalation, the more pronounced the sound will be. If you're not sure you've got it, exhale with your mouth open, as if you were fogging up a pair of glasses for cleaning; the haaa sound you make comes from inside your throat rather than your mouth. Now, close your mouth and make the same sound, and carry the sound throughout your exhale.

Once you have mastered making this sound with a shallow breath, begin to increase the size of the breath and the resonance of the sound. Keep increasing the depth of the breath until you are taking in every last bit of air and squeezing out every last bit.

Anjaneyasana (Low Lunge), variation

Anjaneyasana opens the hip flexors, which can be very tight in runners and cyclists. It strengthens and balances the quadriceps muscles on the front leg and stretches the outer hip, both of which are important for healthy knees. This pose also works the erector spinae muscles, which run vertically to support the spine. The split stance improves the range of motion in the running stride.

From Downward Facing Dog, step your right leg forward into a lunge with your shin perpendicular to the ground and your right knee directly over your right heel. Drop your left knee to the ground, well behind your left hip. Keep your pelvis low and squared toward the front of your mat. Lift from your torso and stretch your arms overhead. Find a balance in your right leg between stability and rest, and notice the intensity of the stretch in your left hip and thigh. Hold for 5 breaths, then repeat with your left leg forward. Notice how your experience differs between sides.

Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I)

Warrior I builds strength and stretches the hip flexors of the back leg as it opens up the front of the body.

Stand with your feet 3 1/2 to 4 feet apart. Turn your left foot in 45 degrees, and turn your torso to face your right leg. On an inhalation, sweep your arms alongside your ears, keeping your shoulders low. Reach strongly through your arms, lifting your waist up and out of your pelvis. As you exhale, bend your right knee toward 90 degrees, keeping it directly over your right ankle. Press back through your left leg, grounding through your left heel, and bring your left hip forward, keeping your spine long and your chest broad. Hold for 4 to 5 breaths. Come up on an inhalation, pressing your left heel into the floor and straightening your right knee. Repeat on the other side.

Virabhadrasana III (Warrior Pose III)

This strengthening pose improves balance and focus while stretching the hamstrings.

Come into Warrior I with your right leg forward. Shift your weight into your right leg and, on an exhalation, synchronize the straightening of the front leg and the lifting of the back leg as you come into Warrior III. With your hips even and parallel to the floor and your arms extended in front of you, press back through your left heel. Inhale and return to Warrior I; exhale and return to Warrior III. Repeat 4 times, and on the last time, stay in Warrior III for 5 breaths. Repeat on the other side.

Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged King Pigeon Pose), variation

Come onto all fours, with your knees directly below your hips and your hands slightly ahead of your shoulders. Slide your right knee forward behind your right wrist, placing your right shin at an angle under your torso. The outside of your right shin will rest on the floor. Slowly slide your left leg back.

Lower the outside of your right buttock to the floor, keeping your hips squared to the front (if needed, place a folded blanket under the right buttock for support), with your right heel just in front of your left hip. Flex your right ankle to protect your right knee. Fold your torso forward over the right thigh. Settle in for a longer hold, either propped on your elbows or extending your arms in front of you. Build toward holding for 3 or 4 minutes. Repeat on the other side.

This longer Yin-style hold creates a deep stretch for the iliotibial band that runs along the outer thigh and the hip rotators, which can become extremely tight on endurance athletes. Use the sensations you feel in this pose as an opportunity to explore how you react to intensity. Can you experience sensation without wasting energy fighting it? Can you tell when the sensation is prompting you to pull back a little?

Happy Baby Pose

This pose releases the lower back, stretches adductors and hamstrings, and fosters recovery in tired legs.

Lie on your back and bend your knees toward your belly. Take hold of the outsides of your feet (if you can't hold them comfortably, hold your calves or behind the knees) and bring your knees toward the armpits, shins perpendicular to the ground, soles of the feet facing the sky. Release your low back and tailbone toward the ground. Gently rock left and right to give your back a pleasant massage. After 5 to 10 breaths, bring your knees together and place your feet on the floor.

Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)

This restorative posture gives many of the benefits of inversion, including enhancing recovery, without being an active pose. As a bonus, you receive a passive chest opening.

Place a thickly folded blanket about 5 inches from a wall or other upright support. Sit sideways on the left end of the blanket, with your right side against the wall. Exhale and bring your legs up onto the wall and your shoulders and head lightly down onto the floor. (Your pelvis should be elevated by the blanket.) Open your shoulder blades away from the spine and release your hands and arms out to your sides, palms facing up. As you rest for a few dozen breaths, notice where the body is holding tension and release it. To come out of the pose, slide off the support onto the floor before turning to the side.

Karen Macklin is a writer, editor, and yoga teacher living in San Francisco.

August 2010

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