With my triathlon just four days away, Ive entered the wonderful period known as taperingÂshort, easy workouts and lots of downtime this week. Which is great, because its given me more time to enjoy another type of exercise Ive recently rediscovered: yoga
Ive taken yoga classes on and off throughout the years, but mainly I used to think it was a waste of time: Id much rather spend an hour blasting calories with intense cardio or building muscle with weight training. Even though I enjoy the way yoga refreshes and relaxes me, I always felt like during class I should be doing something...more.
That changed last year while I was training for my first half marathon. I was running faster and for longer distances that I ever had before, and my muscles were paying the price. I returned from every long workout session (and woke up every morning) with tight hamstrings, even tighter calves, and general aches and pains all over.
I turned to stretchingÂand yoga in particularÂto help balance out my long runs and give my body the cross-training it needed. And I soon began to look forward to yoga classes whenever I could squeeze them in.
More than chanting and hocus-pocus
âWhen athletes are sent to me to prepare for the draft or a new season, theyre usually under the impression that yoga is âsoft or âjust for girls, and that theres going to be a whole lot of chanting and over-the-top hocus-pocus,â explains sports yoga trainer Kent Katich, who recently designed a series of Yogaletics DVDs and products for Go Fit (on sale mid to late August) based on a program used by his clients such as NBA stars Reggie Miller and Blake Griffin and MLB All-Star catcher Mike Lieberthal. âI have these massive guys wriggling on the floor, sweating buckets in their first session saying its the hardest thing theyve ever done in their careerÂtheres really something to it when they begin to see results and cant wait to come back again.â
I recently had the chance to tour a new YogaWorks studio in SoHo, New York City, a beautiful space that puts you at ease the minute you walk in the door. (If youre in the city, I highly recommend checking it out!) When I mentioned to the staff that I was training for a triathlon, they put me in touch with branch manager Liana Sheintal for her recommendations as to what styles of practice I might find helpful.
Id never given much thought to this type of yoga; to be honest, Ive pretty much stuck with typical Vinyasa Flow classes. But Sheintal explained that Ashtanga is actually a specific type of Vinyasa, in which every class follows the same set series of poses.
Since theres less variation in Ashtanga than there would be in a more instructor-driven class, I assumed I would get bored with the repetitionÂand Id guess that for some people, thats probably what happens. But after a few classes, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself automatically repeating the moves Id learned, allowing my mind to focus on other parts of the practice, like breathing, that I'm usually too distracted to even think about.
Ashtanga starts with sun salutations and a lot of standing poses, which are great for runners because they help with strengthening and improving balance. And it closes with back-bending inversions, which is reeeealllly nice for cyclists who are hunched over on their bikes for hours at a time and swimmers with tight upper-body muscles.
This is another weird word that Id done my best to avoid on yoga schedules throughout the years, knowing only that it had something to do with posture and thinking that it didnt really seem "active" enough for me. And the truth is, an hour in an Iyengar class is more relaxed (and considerably less sweaty) than one spent in my typical Vinyasa flow class.
But I do certainly see the benefits of this practice, which focuses on proper alignment, executing the poses correctly, and using props such as belts and blocks. This helps you really get deep into your poses, opening up your hips, your chest, and your shoulders to an extent you might not get on your own. I left this class with a whole new appreciation for flexibility, and a new understanding of the poses and postures that can help keep me injury free.
Specialty strength training
Now this is what I call double-duty exercise: YogaWorks offers a class called Sculptworks, which blends traditional yoga poses and Pilates moves with the use of resistance bands and Gliding discs. (I'd never tried these discs before, and I have to say it is quite a tough workout but really fun!) Because Ive been embarrassingly lax about strength training and weight lifting during my training, I really felt it in my arms and my legs the day after taking this class.
If you dont have a YogaWorks near you, check your local gym schedule for a similar type of hybrid class (it doesnt necessarily have to be yoga related) that uses handy props like resistance bands and/or Gliding discsÂor try them out at home.
More yoga for athletes
The idea of practicing yoga to become a better athlete isnt new, of course. There are plenty of resources out there for people who want to get better at almost any sport. Here are a few recommendations:
- YogaWorks senior instructor Billy Asad has two sports yoga DVDs, one targeted specifically at tennis players and the other at skiers. In the works are golf, water sports, and triathlon versions, as well.
- Yoga instructor and competitive runner and triathlete Sage Roundtree writes and blogs about becoming a better endurance athlete through yoga.
- The book Yoga for Healthy Knees includes poses specifically geared toward knee health and toward strengthening the surrounding muscles that are often responsible for knee discomfort.