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How Yoga for Triathletes Works


Triathletes are turning to the ancient practice of yoga to help them compete in the demanding multisport endurance competitions.
Triathletes are turning to the ancient practice of yoga to help them compete in the demanding multisport endurance competitions.
Hemera/Thinkstock

Triathlons are among the most demanding multisport endurance events being held today. Athletes pound through a 1.5-kilometer (0.9-mile) swim, a 40-kilometer (24.9-mile) bike race and a 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) run. There is no stopping and no breaks -- except when the athlete's mind or body cracks under the pressure and exertion.

To help prevent a breakdown, more and more athletes are turning to the ancient practice of yoga to help them in their pursuit of this modern sport.

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Yoga's history is muddied, but adherents and historians agree it came into being thousands of years ago in what is now India. At its origin, it was a series of stretches and breathing exercises practiced by an enlightened group referred to as yogis. The ultimate intent of yoga was to bring mind and body together into a unified whole. By doing so, the yogi becomes one with the universe and transcended humanity's base needs. To become proficient at yoga -- to become a yogi -- was to attain the highest state of being.

Fast forward several thousand years and across a couple of continents. The core precepts of yoga have changed very little, though they've been adapted to today's lifestyle in many senses.

The spiritual path of yoga is often downplayed, but the physical and mental aspects of the discipline have risen accordingly. Yoga has also diversified what it offers to practitioners. Some variants offer a calming and stretching routine. Others offer a body cleansing routine accomplished through a hot room and specific poses. Others focus on strength, pre-natal conditioning or mental acuity.

Yoga for triathletes remains largely an idea at this time rather than a codified set of poses. Generally, it pushes a combination of strength, flexibility and concentration into its routines. With no specific type or school of poses an instructor will develop a very specific set of poses that work best for the athlete, or poses that are part of a larger program the athlete takes along with a group.

The idea is to build strength and flexibility, especially in the core muscle groups. This allows an athlete to perform better, suffer less injury, and the gentle movements and poses, or asanas, help promote healing. The mental portion of yoga allows for better concentration during a competition and a better ability to move beyond the place where a body thinks it can no longer go.

Keep reading to find out more of the benefits of yoga and a few asanas that may help get you started.

Yoga Poses for Triathletes

Planks
Planks
Courtesy of Sage Rountree

Sage Rountree has worked with triathletes and runners as a trainer and a yoga instructor. She began her own yoga training during the months leading up to the birth of her first child. "(Yoga) felt good when I was pregnant, so I thought it would feel good when I was running," said the 38-year-old.

At that point she was a competitive runner completing her first marathon in 2002. She found the sport challenging and rewarding, but ultimately painful. She brought yoga into her training regimen and much, if not all, of the pain she felt passed as her body loosened and her core muscles became stronger.

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When she began triathlon training, competing in her first event in 2005, yoga was as important as bicycling, swimming or running. More importantly for beginners, she said, results can be seen in as little as three weeks of consistent practice.

Sage's suggestions for an initial yoga routine are listed at the bottom of this page. However, she does offer a few words of caution for the triathlete attempting yoga for the first time. "This isn't a competition," she said she often tells her students." [Triathletes] are generally very competitive people and they see yoga the same way. But this is a time when they can take a break from that and do things differently."

The general rule of thumb with yoga is to enter the poses slowly, say over a period of a few breaths, hold the pose for the recommended time and then exit the pose as slowly as it was entered. Like any physical activity there is a chance of injury if pushed too far. Use caution when performing these poses, be aware of your body and don't do anything that hurts.

The poses Sage recommends:

Planks:

Hold a long line up the whole body for five to ten breaths, take a break and then repeat. For even more of a challenge, practice on the forearms.

Balancing Lunge:

Balancing Lunge
Courtesy of Sage Rountree

From a deep lunge, raise your arms overhead. Hold this pose for five slow breaths.

Pigeon Fold:

Pigeon Fold
Courtesy of Sage Rountree

Keep your right knee to the right of your right hip and fold your upper body over your right shin. Avoid anything that hurts the knee. Repeat other side.

IT band twist:

IT Band Twist
Courtesy of Sage Rountree

With your left knee crossed over your right knee, drop both knees to the right. Hold for 15 breaths and repeat on the opposite side.

Rountree said these poses are designed to increase core-muscle power and "open" the hips, increasing flexibility. Staying in the poses for longer periods helps focus concentration.

Benefits of Yoga for Triathletes

Following closely behind strength and endurance for triathletes is the ability to race with efficiency and economy. Every wasted motion is one that takes away from the reserves an athlete has for an event.

Yoga ties into triathlon training by offering an alternative form of exercise that helps build strength and endurance, while increasing efficiency and economy of movement at the same time.

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"It's about core strength and flexibility," Rountree said. The benefits of yoga go beyond the physical. "Yoga can be added in at any point in an athlete's training," she said. "It's becoming more accepted as a training tool."

Closer to an event, when training really begins to ramp up, the athlete can lessen or even stop yoga. When the event is over, they can increase the amount of yoga to help keep the body flexible and whole.

There is a less direct, though no less tangible, connection between yoga and the mental side of training.

The yoga poses teach patience, breath control and allow an athlete to slow down and develop an awareness of their body. This awareness often translates into the ability to remain calm and collected in the face of diversity and intensity -- say, during the last mile of a grueling open-water swim." [Yoga helps you] see things as they are and focus so the mental chatter dies down," Rountree said.

The intensity of triathlon training often leads to burnout, both mental and physical. And this may be the best kept secret yet -- yoga reinvigorates an athlete and reestablishes a training balance. "Yoga is something you can do at home in just a few minutes a day," Rountree said. "Even just a little (fairly often) and you can see benefits."

For more information about triathlon training, yoga and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Carillo, Anthony and Neuhaus, Eric. "From Ironman to Iron Yoga: How West met East in the Training Room." Prevention.com. May 27, 2005. (Sept. 11, 2010) http://www.prevention.com/health/fitness/yoga/iron-yoga-workout-inspired-by-ironman-triathlon/article/ac8488dc78803110VgnVCM10000013281eac
  • Genoist, Heidi. "Yoga Training for Triathletes." Run the Planet. (Sept. 10, 2010) http://www.runtheplanet.com/trainingracing/triathlon/triyoga.asp
  • Johnstone, Jack. "Triathlon - The Early History of the Sport." Triathlonhistory.com. (Sept. 11, 2010) http://www.triathlonhistory.com/
  • Rountree, Sage. Yoga expert, trainer and triathlete. Personal Interview conducted on Sept. 14, 2010.