STRETCH THE DISTANCE, STRETCH THE BODY
Headstands might be the last thing you crave when you’re exhausted and sleep-deprived in the middle of an adventure race that goes for hundreds of kilometres, but Jason Magness swears by them. We asked the elite adventure racer, 2XU ambassador and co-founder of YogaSlackers, to explain why yoga can help before, after and even during any long endurance race.
2XU’s Jason Magness is professional adventure racer and internationally-renowned yogi.
Yoga is not all about lycra-clad women and guys in tight tights twisting their body into all sorts of crazy, pretzel shapes. Still, this image is enough to make most long distance athletes – renowned for being constantly stiff and often more than a little inflexible – laugh off the idea of a yoga class. The weird thing is that endurance athletes have so much to gain in terms of performance and recovery if they add yoga to their training.
In the USA, yoga is often essentially a sport. Yogis are athletes, striving for greater flexibility, balance, control and power. A pose becomes the goal, then it’s time to move on to a more difficult challenge, just like athletes would in any other sport. Endurance athletes can be a competitive lot, but this is not the way they should approach yoga. For them, yoga should be a tool that’s used to help with their specific sport.
BEFORE – YOGA FOR PERFORMANCE
There’s a multitude of yoga styles out there, but vinyasa yoga is one that is particularly applicable for increasing endurance performance. A vinyasa class uses movement and breath to seamlessly link together a series of poses – this is the combination of the pranayama (breathwork) and dynamic asana (poses linked together in a flow).
You can still get that winning feeling through Ujjayi or ‘victorious’ breath, which focuses on a style of nasal breathing that endurance athletes can learn to carry through to their sport.
Several modern studies suggest that focused nasal breathing during activity can lead to lower heart rate, less anxiety, increased physical and cardiovascular endurance, more mental alertness, and even better proprioceptive balance. You can read more about real experiences with focused nasal breathing in John Douillard’s Body, Mind, and Sport and Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness.
There’s another good reason that vinyasa yoga can help with your endurance sport. Many of its postures are designed to created asymmetrical instability in the core, which forces you to develop ‘dynamic’ balance. This will make your body better able to react to sudden moments of instability, such as a stumble while running down a rocky trail, or swerving suddenly on the bike to avoid a sharp rock. Our ability to react to sudden instability during long events decreases as fatigue sets in, so training for this is very beneficial. In fact, many vinyasa yoga practitioners significantly increase their ability to endure physical discomfort (eighth hour of Ironman, anyone?) while still maintaining their technique, their focus, and a good breathing pattern.
AFTER – YOGA FOR RECOVERY
You can reduce inflammation after a long event by stretching muscle and connective tissue through basic yoga poses, which promotes more efficient blood flow and lymph drainage. Three times a week can help hold off most of the overuse symptoms that come from all the repetitive strain of long distance events. There’s no need to go too hard at it – recovery yoga is not meant to be strenuous. Focus more on movement of the spine (back bending, forward bending, side bending and twisting), as well as gentle internal and external rotation of hips and shoulders.
Recovery yoga can be done anywhere from just a few hours an endurance event or training session, or even the day afterwards. Don’t worry if it feels uncomfortable in some poses – that can happen as your body releases knots and bound tissue. If you’re looking for a class to join, most ‘level one’ yoga classes or any labelled ‘restorative’, ‘gentle’ or ‘yin’ are good for recovery.
DURING – YOGA TO KEEP YOU GOING
Stopping for a spot of yoga mid-race will seem like a waste of valuable time to many people, but Jason Magness says that even during the most gruelling ultra-endurance races, yoga has profound effects and benefits for him and his team.
“Stopping mid-race for a one or two-minute inversion session (headstand or shoulderstand) was hard at first. Sometimes we’d watch our competition pass as our team did headstands beside the trail, but we’d always pass them soon after. Inversion is one the most versatile techniques I use during long events.”
You should learn proper inversion technique from a qualified yoga teacher – doing yoga in a hyper-fatigued state takes practise and should only be attempted when you have the poses down pat. Laying with your feet up a wall brings some of the same benefits (i.e. for reducing inflammation and blisters), but overall it is less effective than a shoulderstand or headstand, where your body is in a straight line from feet to heart/head.
Jason says that inversions are the best thing when it comes to:
- Preventing blisters. Mashed-up feet often cause ultra-runners and adventure racers to come a cropper. There are a ton of tips about how to keep feet healthy during a long event and I’ve tried them all – and going upside-down makes a huge difference.
- Reduce inflammation in joints. A few minutes upside-down helps rejuvenate the quads and glutes, and it will relieve pain and swelling in the knees, ankles, hips and even the lower back/sacrum. You’ll get even better results when you’re wearing compression pants or leg sleeves. After an inversion, my legs feel fresh when I return to running or cycling – the longer I can hold the inversion (up to about five minutes), the longer the effects last. If you do it at the end of the day during a stage race, you can get an even better recovery during your sleep.
- Restoring wakefulness. ‘Sleepmonsters’ – the delirium that creeps in due to physical tiredness and sleep deprivation – can slow even the best-prepared athlete to a crawl. Even worse, it can see you wander off course or make really silly decisions. Just a minute or two upside-down will increase oxygen-rich blood to your brain and leave you feeling alert. This may only last 30-60 minutes, but I can usually DOUBLE my speed after a short inversion. Even if I stop every 20 minutes, I come out way ahead.