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Yoga’s Far Reaching Effects on Endurance Athletics: Triathlon

Posted Jan 11 2010 1:04pm

By Krystle Potter

To some triathlon is just swim, bike, and run for a really long time, and that it is just a sport. To some yoga is a “girly, wimpy, poor excuse for exercise or a way get a good stretch, or for those who can bend themselves into pretzels.” Unfortunately for those who view yoga and triathlon in this light completely miss what both of these truly are. They are both a way of life, they are holistic practices. In order to be a triathlete, you must eat, sleep, train, and focus your mind, body and even your spirit. Similarly, being a yogi entails eating properly, resting, exercising, and focusing the mind properly etc. Although Yoga alone will not make one a triathlete, integrating yoga and using its holistic precepts will allow one to tap into their full potential as not only a triathlete but also their full potential as an individual.

The five foundation principles of the yogic lifestyle as described by Swami Vishnu-devanada are, “Proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet, and positive thinking (deep Philosophy) and meditation” (Vishnu-devananda xi). For the purpose of this exploration of the integral necessity of yoga for the triathlete (as well as any endurance athlete), I will focus on these five principles and show how yoga can serve as the key to achieving one’s full potential as a triathlete and as an individual. One can still be a triathlete without the conscious integration of yoga, however they who do this will not achieve their full potential as an athlete or an.

Proper Exercise - proper posture

In yoga the proper exercise is more commonly described as having proper posture. If one neglects to have the proper posture, one will most likely develop or cause an injury. This could be due to over stretching, twisting and bending of joints in inappropriate angles etc. These injuries could be acute or chronic. Acute injuries would result from a single instant. For example, if one were to fall out of the hand stand posture and in doing so twist their shoulder the wrong way which would result in injury. Over time with proper treatment this injury will heal. Whereas chronic injuries such as a pulled or even torn muscle develops slowly over time and/or is a continuous cause of pain. Such an injury could be caused by lack of stabilizing the knee while doing such poses as Pidgin posture. In this instance, continually putting the knee in a vulnerable position time and time again without stabilizing the knee by using the muscles in the shin and foot could cause injury of the knee to develop. Thus improper practice causes injury. Similarly, in triathlon training, if the proper position or technique is not observed during practice, acute and/or chronic injuries can develop. Observation of proper posture through yoga will promote proper posturing during triathlon training and racing which will prevent injury.

Another aspect of proper posturing is that it will result in more efficient form, which will thus increase the performance of the tri-athlete as well as the yogi. Proper posture of the three disciplines (swimming, cycling, running) are required for efficiency and injury prevention as well as rehabilitation. Since swimming is possibly the most technique oriented disciplines of the three, it will be used to demonstrate this. The stroke that is practiced in triathlon is the free style. Swimming requires, balance in the water, rotation about the spine with the spine used as the axis, stabilizing the shoulders, while breathing, rotating the neck, as well as kicking. Indeed there is much coordination is needed for swimming and certain postures in yoga assist with this. However, the more influential aspect of yoga that aids in swimming technique are the body awareness and breathing. Exhaling completely to allow a full breath of fresh air in while still stroking is the key, and yoga aids in this coordination.

The swimmer needs to know where his/her hands, fingers, arms are at all times throughout the stroke. If the swimmer enters their hand into the water either too far or too close to the so call “midline of the body,” over time this will result in injury of the shoulder. Postures such as Downward-Dog aids in swimming for this reason since when one is in Down-Dog, the yogi must become aware of their arms, how to hold their shoulders to support themselves. They become aware of what angles hurt, and what angels are proper for the individual’s body. Additionally, an integral part of the stroke is the rotation about the spine while still using the arms to paddle through the water. Poses such as Down-Dog while lifting one leg to the sky, if practiced correctly will teach the yogi to elongate the arm of the opposite side of the lifted leg to keep the trunk and spine long and strong while practicing the posture. This same position of the body is exactly what is needed through the rotation of a free-style stroke. The collapsing of the side while stroking or while performing the posture while practicing yoga has many detrimental effects. The most important position for breathing is to prevent the lung cavity from collapsing which causes and promotes shallow breathing. In the water, this position will make one’s stroke more efficient and will also aid in endurance since a more full breath can be taken, and fatigue will be lessened since energy will not be wasted due to inefficient stroke and inefficient breathing.

Beyond posturing, yoga focuses so heavily on suppleness of the spine which eliminates stiffness. “Excessive stiffness can be due to different causes, but especially to faulty body alignment and poor balance, which cause shortening of the ligaments” (Vishnu-devananda 53). Endurance training only exacerbates this stiffness especially of the vertebral column. Think of one training for an Ironman who cycles near 250mi, and runs 30 miles, or who swims 4miles each week. One might think that their bodies would not be stiff since they are so active and are achieving the purpose of exercise which, according to Vishnu-devananda, “is to increase the circulation and the intake of oxygen” (47). Unfortunately, ‘simply’ exercising for hours on end will not provide the practitioner with a lose and supple spine. Analyzing the movements of the three sports, swimming, biking, and running, they are all very linear motions! Swimming has a greater amount of range of motion than biking and running, however it is still very linear in nature. Thus it is not providing the spine, the stretch, bend, twist and elongation needed for the health and suppleness of the spine. This suppleness will aid in the technique for swimming, position on the bike, and form in running.

An interesting analysis of the general concept of exercising shows how “physical culturists” and the yogic approach differ. Physical culturists focus on purely the physical aspect of yoga, ignoring the mental and spiritual component of yoga. The physical culturists’ approach is described as “emphasizing violent movements of the muscles,” (46) which produce large amounts of lactic acid, lack of oxygen to the muscles, consequently the practitioner feels pain and stiffness. The practice of Yoga is the very opposite of violent muscle movements. In Yoga, “all movements are slow and gradual with proper breathing and relaxation” (Vishnu-devananda 47). In the physical culture, the idea is increase the intake of oxygen to reduce the fatigue that is generated by the production of lactic acid, whereas the yogic method is to not even cause the body to enter into a state where there is the excess production of fatigue due to violent muscle movements. Through yoga, the body is observed as a whole system which every component of the system needs to be cared for. Although the before quoted idea may seem contradictory to triathlons, the basic precepts can be applied, which will aid the triathlete. There is no way to avoid this fatigue, muscle tear, and sheer exhaustion after running a marathon or an Ironman, for example. However, using yoga to become more efficient in form and technique of not only posture but proper breathing will decrease the violent nature of endurance training and racing, especially with running. This yogic approach will increase stamina, and potential for performance through more efficient movements with the body.

With more control, a lighter and more graceful approach in one’s movement will decrease the amount of unnecessary stress on the boy that develops over time due to the violent movements. The application of the seemingly contradictory concepts between yoga and triathlon may seem impossible. “Doing yoga during your marathon doesn’t involve Sun Salutes while sandwiched between thousands of racers or Downward Dogging it to the finish line. It’s about applying little tricks you’ve learned on the mat, like using form principles of an asana and practicing mindfulness exercises at the mile-markers. Doing so will keep you injury free and running at your peak” (Yoga for Marathoners). Yoga for the triathlete as well as the marathoner is a vital component to training and racing. Being clam while having the proper posturing will aid in efficiency, endurance, decrease chances for injury and make the triathlon experience more of an enjoyable practice rather than a chore.

Proper breathing

Proper breathing is one of the vital functions of one’s body during an athletic performance, just as it is essential for yoga practice. There are many misconceptions concerning breathing. For example, some think that during exercise breathing harder and faster will get more oxygen into the blood to get sufficient oxygen in the blood which will generate the energy needed to sustain the physical activity. This is not the case at all! Instead having steady slower breaths which use the majority of the lung capacity is what needs to be practiced at the point where we naturally want to hyperventilate. One way to achieve this is by the following strategy: “…Yogis emphasize exhalation rather than inhalation. As long as the air sacs are filled with old air, no amount of strength applied in inhalation can bring fresh air from the atmosphere” (Vishnu-devananda 238). Further, with regards to marathon running which can be applied to cycling and swimming as well; ‘”If you’re out of breath, it’s not because you aren’t breathing in enough, it’s because you aren’t breathing out enough,”’ (Yoga for Marathoners). The reasoning behind this concept is that, “in ordinary breathing we squeeze out a very little volume of air from the apex of the lungs, leaving the base of the lungs almost inactive” (Vishnu-devananda 238).

The goal of proper breathing techniques is to facilitate, “efficient breathing technique, you’ll not only be capable of a higher level of performance in the marathon but also you’ll teach yourself how to acquire a better supply of oxygen and improve almost every aspect of your exercise experience” (Galloway 167). In yoga efficient breathing will allow the practitioner to experience a new level, explore deep and unexplored places within themselves through their practice. Similarly, in triathlon, if the athlete practices the same breathing techniques (s)he will discover new and before secret areas of their athletic practice. Most of all they will become more efficient athletes. Linking posturing to breathing, proper posturing will open and allow the ribs to expand freely which will facilitate proper posturing in both triathlons as well as yoga practice. Additionally, “the relation of the harmonized breath helps the Yogi to the regulation and steadiness of mind” (Vishnu-devananda 222). This steadiness of mind will allow for one to be more calm which will inherently facilitate more regular and controlled breathing. When we are in a state of stress our breath tends to become shorted as described before, consequently causing lack of proper breath, as well as lack of proper posturing, all of which can result in injuring not only to the physical body but also of the mental and emotional body.

Proper Relaxation

Many seek the practice of yoga for relaxation the relaxing aspects. These attributes learned aid in not only everyday life, but also in athletic performance. Relaxation is essential not only for the sake of relaxation, but also for efficiency, recovery, and rejuvenation of the athlete as well as the yogi. In order for the athlete to become stronger, they must allow themselves sufficient time to rest in order to recover. Training and relaxation need to be in harmony with one another. Too much training without proper rest will cause tight muscles, emotional fatigue amongst an array of other detrimental effects. Relaxation may be a day off, or may be a 30 minute meditation session, or maybe more hours of sleeping. Relaxation practices can be observed throughout the day in everyday life as well as during training and a race.

Relaxation is not only a practice of shavasana at the end of a yoga session. This is a portion of relaxation, however there are so many more dimensions to it. Relaxing during the difficult poses allowing for one to breath properly and in order to attain the proper posture are essential. Similarly, from an athletic stand point, remaining calm during training as well as racing will have the same beneficial benefits of proper release of tension, breathing, and posturing. All of these benefits have the potential to work together to create a more efficient triathlete as well as individual. Remaining clam in physiological terms means that unnecessary tension is not held in the body, thus energy is not lost due to tension. That same energy which is conserved is then able to be used for athletic performance. In psychological terms, the mind is quite, controlled, and focused allowing that same individual more potential to accomplish their goals by releasing the unnecessary tension. Overall, if proper relaxation is not practiced by the yogi or athlete sever physical, mental and emotional fatigue will result which most likely will end in injury of the body, mind, and/or spirit.

Proper Diet

Diet is essential to the athlete, yogi, and every human being for that matter. “The body needs food for two purposes: as fuel to supply energy and to repair body tissues” (Vishnu-devananda 204). The triathlete needs to be especially contentious of his/her nutrition during training, but also during their everyday lives. The athlete needs to consume more food than the more sedentary person, but they still need to consume the nutrient dense foods which will provide health to their body as a whole. In yoga, the idea is to consume healthy, more natural foods to care for not only the muscles, but also the organs is essential. The body as a whole needs to be observed, for if certain systems in the body are not working properly due to organ dysfunction, the athlete will not be able to perform, nor will the yogi have the ability to participate in his/her practice. If a triathlete consumes foods which do not support the body’s health as a whole, the triathlete will not be able to perform to his or her full capabilities as an athlete. Their muscles may be strong, but the body is a whole system which needs to be cared for. The teachings of yoga show us that caring for the body as whole rather than independent systems is vital to one’s health which can be translated to one’s performance as a triathlete.

Positive thinking/ Meditation

According to Danny Dryer, author of ChiRunning, ‘”Many people run with a mind-over-body mentality-they will get to the finish no matter how-but true mind-body work is working with your mind and body as a team”’ (Yoga for Marathoners). One cannot eliminate the mental component from endurance running and/or triathlon, or even yoga. In endurance sports, the mental component is needed not only in racing, but also in training. Seemingly countless hours of training, the days seem to blend together, wake-up, eat, train, go to work/school, eat some more, train, eat, train, and sleep…day after day after day. How do you keep things in perspective, how do you keep a positive look on the world. How can you go for a six hour bike ride!? Or how can you swim for an hour straight!? It is so boring, you just swim lap after lap after lap the same mundane thing! How do you deal with all of this? Being positive, keeping your mind fresh, appreciating the world around you as well as yourself as a being. Many understand this concept, however many do not know how to actually achieve it. Yoga is the key and path by which one can achieve a positive state of mind as well as control over his/her thoughts. This is so important for the individual. In a practical running application, “Running mindfully means staying in tune with your body throughout the race” (Yoga for Marathoners).

“You don’t have to give in to any negative message that hits you when you’re under stress. By focusing on the positive, you maintain control. It’s what you put in the forefront of your thoughts that counts” (Galloway 88). On method which will facilitate this is mantra yoga. Mantras “…provide a form of concentrative mediation.” This medication during exercise does not mean that you just go and sit in the middle of your race in lotus pose, rather it is the state of your mind during the race. The concept of mantras can also be described as “Magic words” or mantras in the form of single words. “Magic words gradually program your internal systems to pull together in an instant the complex series of internal connections that produce success in past experiences. Invoking an isolated work to dramatically turn around the natural effects of fatigue can increase speed for a short distance, but will use up valuable resources you need in the long run.” (Galloway 88). Keeping this meditative focus throughout the race as well as the yoga practice will essentially allow all of the other precepts of yoga to fall into place.

Overall, Yoga allows us to act, rather than always be acted upon. Control over our internal environment through a proper diet, as well as our mental state through mediation practices will allow the yoga practitioner to be better able to achieve the physical feats. Proper posturing, breathing and relaxation will work hand in hand with proper diet and meditation/ positive thinking will allow the practitioner to achieve more as a yogi and consequently as a triathlete. Yoga opens the doors and allows one the ability to fulfill and/or achieve his or her full potential.
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