5 Powerful Benefits Of Yoga For Athletes
The snow keeps building up outside as the temperature keeps dropping and my goodness, what is a triathlete to do?!
Treadmills, trainer rides, and swimming pools can make us feel less like athletes and more like hamsters spinning on an endless wheel. Weight training is always an option, but improper form can easily lead to injuries and muscle imbalances.
Therefore, the logical thing to do is hop in a yoga class. If you think yoga is just flexibility, you’re in for a real treat. Chances are you will walk out having used muscles you didn’t even know you had! While I’m partial to power yoga (heated anywhere from 85-99 degrees) most yoga classes offer plenty of benefits for athletes. Here are the top 5.
Posture: A lot of standard poses that you hit in class focus on good posture. Don't get me wrong, the student still has to do the work, but there is at least an attention or an awareness on good posture. For example, I will give the following cues in a multitude of poses throughout class: neutral hips, shoulders pull down and back, squeeze shoulders together, tuck your tailbone down. All of these are subtle adjustments but for those of us who sit or slouch all day it can be incredibly challenging. Having better posture can result in more efficient form and less injuries!
Breath: Breathing is an essential part of training, but you'd be surprised at how shallow most athletes breathe! Since so much emphasis is placed on building strength, the breath is almost always forceful and constricted. Now, you won’t likely be taking deep belly breaths during a race, but the ability do breathe deeply can have a drastic effect on your nervous system. Tapping into your breath is like turning on a switch from a reactive state of fight or flight to a responsive state of informed decision and clarity.
Relaxation: It offers a space to decompress. Most of us triathletes are type A and tightly wound. You don’t have to change who you are; part of your success in sport comes from your drive, your ambition, even your obsession. However, it’s often helpful to unwind, to give yourself a place and time to step back and relax. Training puts a lot of force on the body, which isn't necessarily bad. The body is designed to adapt to stress, but it can only handle so much at one time.
Intuition: It helps us tune in to our body. The most successful athletes don’t unflinchingly stick to rigid training plans. Instead, they train how how their body feels. This allows them to find a plan that creates consistency in progression over a long period of time. The rest of us often try to ignore the warning signs and push through pain because that’s what we mistakenly believe is what it takes (trust me, I learned this the hard way). When we listen to our body better we can see the warning signs more clearly and learn to proceed with caution, retreat, or go full steam ahead. Listen to the teacher and your coach, but listen to your own body more.
Awareness: As they say. triathlon and running are mental sports, and we are all insane! I’m only slightly joking. So much of success in sport is determined by your choices, not your ability. We all have mental battles that go on inside our heads when it gets challenging. Doubt and fear start to creep into our thoughts in subtle ways. They appear in the form of what if’s and negative self talk. Yoga teaches us to notice our thoughts, to become aware of them, but then set them aside if they don’t serve us and focus on something else. So maybe your training session gets really hard and when you have one more interval set or repeat to go you think, “I can’t do this, I am not good enough.” Instead of calling it quits there, you can ask yourself if that thought serves you. Chances are the answer is no, it is coming from a place of fear. Instead, replace it with a thought of faith. Both fear and faith believe in a future that hasn’t happened yet, why not pick the positive one?
Bonus: It improves heat tolerance if the class is heated. Not only are you building physical stamina, but you're also building mental toughness as well. This is perfect for those spring and summer races on your schedule (i.e. Ironman 70.3 Florida & Chattanooga for me!). Think of this similar to a sauna where you actually move and stretch instead of sit and suffer.
Double Bonus: It can improve flexibility. Although there are reasons to go outside of that, I've found that athletes who regularly do yoga are more flexible. This can directly translate to cycling because they are able to adjust to a more aerodynamic position (mine drastically changed after a few months!) and hold it with ease. It can also help your reach during the swim and hip extension and knee drive during the run. It's the most obvious benefit of yoga, but the first 5 are extremely powerful in their own right.
Hope this provided some food for thought. Let me know what you love or hate about your next class!