YOGA FOR ULTRA-ENDURANCE ATHLETES
Adventure racer jason magness swears by yoga before, after… and even during his races! Here he explains why yoga is a great tool to help you with your long endurance events.
2XU’s JASON MAGNESS is professional adventure racer, an internationally-renowned yogi, and co-founder of YogaSlackers.
Yoga in the west has become synonymous with fit, LYCRA®-clad women in all sorts of crazy, pretzel-like postures. Most long distance athletes I know take one look at a yoga class and say – ‘not in this lifetime’. And yet endurance athletes are some of the best candidates to make huge performance and recovery gains through the addition of yoga to their training.
Yoga – as practiced in western settings and propagated in the yoga magazines and the like – is essentially a sport. These yogis are athletes, striving for greater flexibility, power, balance and control. When they can achieve a pose, they move on to a more difficult challenge, just like most athletes in any sport. We constantly strive for a faster PR, a heavier lift, or a better race result. Endurance athletes should be careful to not approach yoga in this way, but to use it as a tool to improve your specific sport.
BEFORE – YOGA FOR PERFORMANCE
The most relevant way to use yoga to increase performance is a practice known as vinyasa yoga. A vinyasa class will comprise of poses seamlessly linked together through movement and breath. The key elements here are the pranyama (breathwork), and dynamic asana (poses linked together in a flow).
Breath work in these classes is focused on a technique called Ujjayi, which translates to “victorious” breath. Ujjayi is a focused nasal breathing, and learning it through yoga class will allow the endurance athlete to begin using it during their sport. A myriad of modern studies and experience (see John Douillard’s Body, Mind, and Sport and Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultra marathon Greatness for reference) suggest that focused nasal breathing during activity can lead to increased cardiovascular and physical endurance, lower heart rate, less anxiety, more mental alertness, and even better proprioceptive balance.
The physical postures in a vinyasa yoga are more balance and movement-oriented. Many of them are designed to created asymmetrical instability in the core, which forces you to develop greater understanding of “dynamic” balance. Increased dynamic balance allows your body to react correctly during sudden moments of instability (a misstep on a rocky trail run descent, sudden swerve to avoid road debris on the bike). During long events, our ability to react to these moments decreases as fatigue sets in, so training this is very beneficial. In fact, many vinyasa yoga practitioners significantly increase their ability to endure physical discomfort (eighth hour of Ironman®, anyone?) while maintaining form, breathing pattern, and focus.
AFTER – USING YOGA FOR RECOVERY
Stretching muscle and connective tissue through basic yoga poses facilitates more efficient blood flow and lymph drainage, which helps reduce inflammation after a long event. Done regularly it (three times a week) it will help inhibit the formation of most of the overuse symptoms that come as a result of repetitive motion associated with long distance events. Don’t be too aggressive and focus primarily on the motions of the spine (forward bending, back bending, side bending, and twisting), as well as gentle internal and external rotation of hips and shoulders.
Recovery yoga should not be strenuous, but it may be uncomfortable in some poses as your body releases knots and bound tissue. Recovery yoga can be started the day after an endurance event or training, or some people may even be able to do it just a few hours afterwards.
Most “level one” yoga classes or any classes labelled “restorative”, “gentle”, “yin” are appropriate for recovery.
DURING – USING YOGA DURING AN EVENT
For both me and my team, yoga continues to have profound effects and benefits during some of the most gruelling ultra-endurance events we race. Please note that doing yoga in a hyper-fatigued state takes practice, and it should only be attempted when you are fully familiar with the poses/techniques you’ll be attempting. Inversion is one the most versatile techniques I use during long events.
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.
I find inversions are unmatched for helping these three things:
- RESTORING WAKEFULNESS.“Sleep monsters” (what we call the delerium that creeps in as a response to sleep deprivation and constant physical activity) can slow even the best prepared athlete to a crawl, or worse have them go off course. Inverting for a minute or two will increase oxygen rich blood to your brain, and leave you feeling alert – like a shot of caffeine. While this may not last for more than 30-60 minutes, I am usually able to DOUBLE my speed after a short time spent upside down. Even if I stop every 20 minutes, I come out way ahead.
- REDUCE INFLAMMATION IN JOINTS A few minutes upside-down will relieve pain and swelling in the knees, ankles, hips and even sacrum/lower back. It helps rejuvenate the quads and glutes. This technique is even more effective if you are using compression tights such as 2XU Compression pants or Leg Sleeves. My legs then feel fresh when I return to running or cycling – or at least fresher for up to an hour. The longer I can hold the inversion (up to about five minutes), the longer the effects last. This is also a great technique to end the day with during a stage race, making the recovery you get during sleep better.
- BLISTER PREVENTION. Macerated feet have been the end of many an endurance runner’s dream. Foot care is a huge topic on its own in the endurance running and adventure racing world. There are a ton of tips about how to keep feet healthy – I’ve tried them all and going upside down makes a huge difference.
NOTE – these inversion tips are by far most effective in shoulderstand and headstand – where your body is in a straight line from feet to heart/head. Laying with your feet up the wall is less effective, but does offer some of the benefits for reducing inflammation and blisters.
Care should be taken to learn proper inversion technique from a qualified yoga teacher.