It took me way too long to discover yoga. Like most endurance athletes, I gave empty promises to try it because I heard how good it was for you, but it never felt that important. To be honest, I didn’t start practicing yoga to become a better athlete, but I quickly learned that the benefits I was getting from my practice were translating to the bike. In honor of International Yoga Day, here’s my list of reasons why yoga should be incorporated into your training.
1. Injury prevention
Yoga is something that I like to call “pre-hab” because it starts working before you end up in the physical therapist’s office. Methods to protect the body from injury are often overlooked but extremely important for an athlete to consider when designing a training plan. Hopefully you don’t know what it’s like to have to drop out of a race because your body fell apart before race day, but unfortunately a lot of athletes do. It took me years to finally finish my first ½ marathon because I kept getting debilitating injuries before every race I signed up for, even though I probably had enough physical endurance to run a full one. No matter how much training, thought, determination and preparation might go into a race, an injury can make all of that effort disappear overnight. Most injuries suffered by endurance athletes are caused by overuse and overtraining, and these are exactly the kind of injuries that can be avoided by incorporating the techniques offered by yoga into your training. As I describe below, yoga effectively improves flexibility, mobility, and stability, which play key roles in keeping your body healthy and injury-free.
This one is probably the first thing that comes to mind when considering yoga, but why should you even care about flexibility as a cyclist or endurance athlete? One reason is that tight muscles are more susceptible to tears, acute injury and repetitive use injuries. Increasing the flexibility and natural range of motion of a muscle is generally accepted to prevent sports related injuries and improve performance when done after exercise. When an athlete does not move a muscle through its full range of motion, such as when a cyclist pedals a bike for hours without ever fully extending the hamstrings or hip flexors to their full length, the muscle becomes shortened. Cycling is also an activity in which the leg muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, etc.) concentrically contract (contract while shortening) rather than eccentrically contract (contract while lengthening), which can lead to a shortening of the muscle fibers known as adaptive shortening. This is something every cyclists will want to avoid because shortened muscles are more prone to tearing and injury.
Depending on the style you choose to practice, yoga can significantly help you improve flexibility and restore muscle length through static and/or dynamic stretching. Note: there are important differences between these two types of stretching that relate to performance and injury prevention, and there is controversy in the literature regarding the benefits of stretching for athletes. Stay tuned for a future post on yoga, stretching and flexibility.
I like to emphasize to my students, especially to athletes, that yoga is not about contorting into ridiculous pretzel-like shapes (unless, of course, that is what you are into), which I think turns a lot of people away. To me, yoga is more about bringing your body back to baseline by allowing you to maintain the natural length of your muscles and range of motion in your joints, which will keep you healthy and feeling better on and off of the bike.
What happens when your muscles and connective tissues shorten due to long hours in the saddle or other stresses? You lose range of motion around your joints, or mobility. Mobility of a joint refers to how much two articulated bones (i.e. a joint) can move until they are restricted by the tissues that surround them (muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc.). In other words, it’s how freely you can move your body before you experience some type of physical limitation or pain.
As cyclists, we never move our hip joints through their full range of motion when pedaling. When the leg is never fully extended or flexed, over and over and over for hours at a time, the hip joint can lose its mobility due to shortening of the associated muscles (see flexibility above). This is why hip tightness is a huge issue for cyclists.
Tight muscles and limited mobility lead to muscular imbalances and compensation patters in adjacent muscles that can ultimately lead to pain or injury. Low back pain and IT band syndrome are common issues resulting from limited hip mobility and faulty compensation patters. For example, IT band syndrome (inflammation of the fibrous band of connective tissue along the outer thigh) is commonly caused by tight hip flexors and quads along with weak hip abductors and extensors. It’s no fun.
The good news is that yoga is exceptionally effective at relieving hip tightness and improving mobility in the hip and other joints, and can prevent the onset of these aforementioned injuries and pain. Through targeted approaches to opening hips using various styles of yoga such as vinyasa and Yin, the natural length of your muscles and connective tissues can be improved and maintained so that you are not forced off of the bike and into the doctor’s office.
Stability of a joint also plays a major role in injury prevention, and refers to the ability to control the movement or position of a joint. Establishing proper joint stability (along with mobility) should be the foundation of any fitness program, whether you are an athlete or just trying to get healthy. Certain regions of the body are classified as either “mobile” or “stable,” though they all need some degree of mobility and stability to be healthy. For example, the pelvis should be relatively mobile, while the lumbar spine and knees need to be stable. Stability and mobility work in inverse proportion to one another: when a joint becomes more stable, it loses mobility, and vice versa. The stability of a joint can be lost due to a weakening of muscles around the joint, impaired motor control, injury, and other factors. In addition, when a stable joint loses stability, adjacent joints (which typically favor mobility) have to overcompensate by sacrificing their mobility for stability. When these adjacent joints lose their range of motion, or mobility, they become more susceptible to injury. In other words, we want to keep stable joints stable and mobile joints mobile, or else they start compensating for one another (which is not good).
Yoga, especially balancing and core strengthening poses, can help improve the stability of joints that should be stable by strengthen muscles around them. For example, strengthening the core muscles through poses such as “boat” pose and “locust” pose will create stability around the lumbar spine. Stability in this is region fundamentally important if you want to protect your low back from injury and avoid the pain that cyclists commonly get in this area. Core strength will also create a healthy chain of mobility and stability in the joints distal to the lumbar spine, reducing the risk of injury in those areas as well.
Recovery is an integral part of training that is crucial to perform optimally and prevent overtraining. Certain styles of yoga, particularly a type called restorative yoga, can help the body recover from exercise by giving it an opportunity to repair itself, which is the only way you will get stronger. Exercise, especially a long ride or interval training, is a stress on the body that raises cortisol (in the short term), creates microtrauma in the muscle fibers, and causes inflammation, among other things. Restorative forms of yoga allow the body do rest and adapt to the stress response from exercise. If the body is still under stress, even mental stress, when exercise ends, it will not have an opportunity to recover and become stronger before the next workout. Restorative and even Yin yoga help with recovery by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), or the “rest and digest” part of your autonomic nervous system that is necessary for recovery. This part of your nervous system balances out the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), or “flight or fight” response that is activated during exercise and from mental stress. The PNS is necessary to balance out the SNS and our bodies are designed to have the PNS in control most of the time, but this is often not the case. I believe that activating the PNS through yoga and even meditation is an overlooked method of boosting recovery that has a lot of data to back it up. Certain yoga poses can also help you sleep, which is also an essential component of recovery from exercise.
6. Mental Training
This is probably one of the greatest benefits that yoga can provide an endurance athlete considering success in endurance sports is at least 50% mental. The mind-body connection that yoga creates by focusing on breath and mindfulness is what differentiates it from all other forms of exercise or physical activity. It wasn’t until I started practicing yoga that I started paying attention to what was going on with my body from the inside out. It has allowed me to pay attention to everything from when I need to slow down and take a day off to recover, to the things I am telling myself when I want to quit during a hard ride. Yoga teaches you to listen and pay attention to your body and mind in ways that allow you push harder or pull back when necessary during your training. It also teaches you how to sit with and cope with both mental and physical discomfort, which we all experience at some point during a long ride or intense workout, not to mention in our daily lives. You might find yourself in a yoga class forced to hold challenging positions for extended periods of time, or asked to sit in stillness with nothing but your thoughts. These are the moments that strengthen your ability to breathe through discomfort; an ability that will translate to your endeavors on the bike when you practice it often on your yoga mat.