As an endurance athlete, you probably don’t have much time left in your schedule but even a short yoga practice can make a big difference to your fitness level, recovery and wellbeing. Here’s what you need to know about yoga for endurance athletes and how to make the most of the limited yoga time you might have.
Physical and mental effects of endurance training
Whether you’re an ultra runner, triathlete or cycle a lot, your body has to perform countless repetitive movements and keep going for long periods of time. It feels both invigorating but also tiring at times and sometimes your motivation needs a boost.
Let’s face it, as an endurance athlete, you spend most of your training time in a forward-moving plane. When you run or cycle, your hip flexors, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core propel you forward. When you swim, your shoulders keep moving nonstop and your pecs, trapezius and latissimus dorsi back muscles work overtime, as well as your core and leg muscles powering you through.
Because there’s so much repetitive motion, these sports can lead to muscular imbalances, which could eventually result in injury. And because there’s so much repetitive motion, you need a lot of patience, perseverance and focus. That’s not easy and sometimes your mental state, rather than physical, can hold you back.
What can yoga do for endurance athletes?
Yoga makes you use all muscle groups, including all the deep stabilizers, which creates a balanced state in the body. It compensates for the repetitive nature of your endurance sport by strengthening the muscles neglected during your regular training. At the same time, it stretches the overworked muscles and prevents their tightening.
As a result, yoga gives you a unique balance of strength and flexibility, which helps to improve your movement technique, body awareness and prevents injuries. Although you are probably used to working with your breath, yogic breathing can further improve how you breathe and teaches you to work with your breath to calm your nerves.
Lastly, an inherent part of every yoga session is mindfulness training – learning how to be present in the moment. And that’s more useful than you think! Rather than distracting yourself when something’s uncomfortable, being mindful means focusing on it and working through it. This improves your resilience, movement precision and self-knowledge – it makes you a better athlete!
5 essential yoga poses for endurance athletes
These five yoga poses don’t take long to perform and can be a game-changer for your training.
Low crescent lunge
What it does: It’s an amazing hip flexor stretch and offers a great release to athletes who repeatedly engage their hip flexors to lift their thighs
Pay attention to: Front knee above the heel, pelvis facing forward (don’t allow your back leg to pull your pelvis sideways), when you arrive in the pose, let your hips sink a little deeper with each breath
Stay in the pose for 10 breaths on each side.
Downward facing dog
What it does: It stretches the hamstrings, calves, achilles tendons and low back. It also reverses the position of your upper back and arms compared to their position during running or cycling – that helps to stretch and strengthen muscles around your shoulders and prevents many aches and pains
Pay attention to: Palms flat on the mat, as if pushing the ground away, tailbone being the highest point, knees can be bent to achieve the correct back alignment, head is hanging freely
Stay in this pose for 10 breaths.
What it does: It strengthens the transverse abdominis muscle which gives you a stronger and more stable core to improve force transfer during athletic training. It’s also good for stretching the arches of your feet..
Pay attention to: Shoulders above elbows, back level with the ground – no low back sinking!
Stay in the pose as long as you can breathe deeply and count your breaths, stop when you have trouble breathing smoothly and/or your muscles start shaking. Next time, stay for the same number of breaths and then you can start increasing the count by a couple of breaths at a time.
What it does: This pose opens up the shoulders, upper back and pecs – these all tend to be tight in endurance athletes. At the same time improves your balance and strengthens the side-body muscles which is useful for improving your performance
Pay attention to: The hand and foot that carry most of the weight should be in one line on the mat, supporting foot on toes only
Top tip: Start in the plank pose – that ensures the correct alignment – and simply lift one leg first, then arm and flip the body over.
Stay in the pose for at least five breaths on each side, longer if your back allows.
What it does: It stretches outer hips, including the IT band, glutes, hip flexors and increases mobility in the hip joint that improves your stride technique
Pay attention to: Your pelvis being level – not falling to the side, front foot flexed, back leg directly behind you, start with your back upright and only then lower onto your forearms
Stay for 10 breaths on each side.
Start or end your practice with a grounding breath technique
The box or square breathing is a simple yet very effective breathing technique that has a calming effect on your nervous system and helps you focus.
Sit cross-legged or on your heels, make sure your back is straight, shoulders relaxed, hands resting on your knees, and close your eyes. Inhale for the count of four, hold your breath for the count of four, exhale for the count of four, and hold your breath for the count of four. Your breathing should be smooth and deep with no sudden expulsion of breath on the exhale. As you get more comfortable in the rhythm, you may want to increase the count to five or six. Perform this for a few minutes and see how you feel afterwards.
Join us on the mat!
The five yoga poses above are great to start with but it’s best to follow a yoga program that teaches you more and helps you improve. If you’re a complete beginner, try our Beginner Yoga for Athletes program. Or, if you want to start every day with a short yoga practice, try the 7-Day Morning Challenge. A series of just 20-minute yoga sessions that will set you up for the day and training ahead.