Endurance sports require athletes to push themselves to extraordinary lengths and give their best in every game. Naturally, endurance athletes are quite competitive. They are always looking for ways to improve. While exercise and practice are two obvious ways to improve, can yoga, too, unlock hidden benefits for endurance athletes?
Yoga for endurance athletes is beneficial as it lowers the risk of injury. By performing yoga poses endurance athletes strengthen all areas of the body. This reduces muscle imbalances and identifies weaker areas. Other benefits include improved balance, flexibility and mobility and a stronger core.
This article covers the key benefits of yoga for endurance sports and the specific sports that best benefit from yoga. It also provides direction on yogic breathing and how endurance athletes can get the most from yoga.
What Are the Benefits of Yoga for Endurance Athletes?
Yoga has been marketed towards women with an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. So one may assume that the practice has very little to offer to serious athletes. Fact is, yoga is an ancient and expansive mode of meditation, exercise, and relaxation that has benefits for people from all walks of life. Below are the key benefits you get from trying yoga as an endurance athlete.
Yoga Lowers the Risk of Injury
Endurance athletes are quite driven in their pursuit of excellence. However, endurance sports aren't designed to improve the condition of your body. Let's take cross-country cycling, for example.
On the surface level, it might seem like you're improving your health by pushing your limits and developing stamina. But in reality, you're using certain muscles over and over while other muscles barely get a chance to be activated. This in itself isn't a risk, but sustaining such imbalance over a long period will likely result in injuries. At its simplest, this would be like only doing bicep curls with one arm and never working out the other arm.
If you then attempt a bench press, you will hurt the arm that isn't prepared to lift. Such is the case with microfibers that never get activated in any endurance sport. After all, there is no endurance sport that activates all the muscles and microfibers to lend balance to your body. Yoga is a great addition to your routine as it incorporates muscles throughout your body. It also allows you to strengthen areas that may have never received any attention before.
Yoga Builds Your Core Muscles
While injury prevention is important to an athlete, their highest priority is to gain a competitive advantage in their sport. Yoga helps you improve your performance in the field as much as it takes care of your body outside. Regardless of whether you run marathons or are a long-distance cyclist, your core strength matters a lot
A strong core is universally useful for athletes. However, outside of fight sports, athletes don't have a strict core-exercising regimen. That is because it is tough to isolate the core, and almost any exercise to build one's core will simultaneously exhaust one arm, chest, or leg. Yoga provides a low-effort avenue for those looking to build a strong core over time.
While there are certain poses that will have your abs on fire, you will get the best results out of yoga's consistent practice. Since you're not using free weights to force your core into action, you're not exhausting your arms or chest in the process. This lets you exercise your core every day in small enough with enough time to recover.
Yoga Helps Muscle Mobility
What better to offer an endurance athlete than more endurance? To understand what endurance is, we must break down how most endurance sports work. These sports are usually gamified exercises with a competitive spin.
Endurance athletes go long periods working out certain muscle groups. This ensures they keep their aerobics stamina for a long period. In other words, the person who can move the muscles specific to the sport for the longest time has the best endurance.
With yoga, you improve your muscle mobility by engaging in breathing control and pose-holding and release. This allows you to make your body more flexible, which in turn contributes to your in-game performance.
With that said, you'll have to be specific about the poses you select. Different endurance sports benefit from specific poses in different ways. We recommend using poses with greater emphasis on bandhas (core locks) as they help the broadest range of endurance sports.
Yoga Adds Balance
Certain endurance sports have more inherent balance than others. But most endurance athletes lack the kind of balance that yoga can provide. By this, we don't mean the balance of muscle mass or physique. Yoga adds to your ability to balance yourself.
We can generally balance ourselves during regular functions like walking and running. But doing so for extended periods isn't natural for our bodies. Endurance athletes might develop the required balance to cycle or ski long distances, but it takes a lot of time.
You spend a lot of energy retaining balance as you push yourself to go further. If you incorporate yoga into your training regimen, you'll automate balance. So as you run, cycle, or ski long distances; you aren't exerting any energy into trying to balance yourself in unnatural circumstances.
Yoga Improves Your Back Health
Some evolutionary biologists have theorised that our spines didn't evolve to be upright, but we became bipeds anyway. As a result, most humans can expect to have back problems at some point in their lives. This gets accelerated when one crouches over a bike for long distances or holds any other pose for an extended period.
Ironically, as far as spinal health is concerned, sitting in an office chair all day is pretty close to cycling all day. Yoga is an important regulator of back health as it lets you stretch and take much of the tension out of your spine. Yoga, maintaining a good posture and exercising your back muscles will help you in your endurance sport and overall well being.
Which Endurance Sports Can Yoga Improve?
Now that you're aware of the general benefits of yoga for endurance athletes, let's look at the sports that stand to gain the most from yoga:
How To Breathe for Yoga
Yoga is more than just stretching exercises; it is a discipline with a holistic focus on wellness. Consequently, breath-work is a major part of yoga. In fact, there is a whole array of benefits you can unlock from yogic breathing alone. You reduce stress, have more clarity, and exert better control over your decision-making. Here's how you breathe according to the yogic teachings.
- Inhale with your nose and let your belly expand as you take in the air. Unlike chest-breathing, adding your belly to your breath naturally pulls down and expands your lungs. This increases your oxygen intake.
- Hold the breath for a longer period. While using this breath-work during yogic exercises, you shall only move your body with the breath suspended. Breathing in or out happens while you're holding a yoga pose. And for best results, you should hold in your breath for a slightly longer period, then start exhaling
- Exhale from your mouth and give it extra effort. Let more air out than you normally would.
- Repeat steps 1 to 3 for as long as you are practising yoga.
Best Yoga Poses for Endurance Athletes
If your sport of choice among the above list, you will benefit from adding yoga to your training. So what are the best yoga poses for endurance athletes?
In this section, you'll learn about the ones most beneficial to endurance athletes. It's worth noting that pretty much any yoga exercise is beneficial to an athlete. But since one has to account for time and effort, it is best to start with the poses that make the most difference.
What You Will Need
If you want to incorporate yoga into your training schedule I would recommend investing in a good quality yoga mat. A yoga mat will aid your practice in many practical ways as well as helping you get in the right mental state to practice regularly.
I would also recommend yoga props. These include blankets, blocks and straps. Yoga props are an intrinsic element of yoga but their role can be misunderstood or worse neglected by many yogi’s. Many assume that yoga props, like blocks and straps, are for beginners who are unable to do certain poses. The fact is that anyone doing yoga will benefit from using yoga props. They help to deepen your practice whatever your level or experience.
Downward Facing Dog Split
If you've researched yoga even briefly, you've probably heard of the downward dog or the downward-facing dog. This pose is quite easy and beneficial. By adding leg raises to the downward dog, you get the added benefits of strengthening your hips and hamstrings.
- Kneel on the floor with your feet apart.
- Place your hands shoulder-width apart with your fingers spread out wide.
- Place your hands on the upper-right and upper-left corners of the mat.
- Inhale deeply and exhale once.
- Lift both your knees and make your legs as straight as possible – you're now in the downward-facing dog position.
- Now, step your left foot towards the bottom-centre as it is initially more towards the left corner.
- Lift your right leg up while keeping it straight and flex your foot.
- Repeat steps 6 and 7, alternating your feet till your hips and hamstrings feel a burning sensation.
Do this exercise if you practice rowing, skiing, or cycling but avoid it if you run long distances regardless of your sport. The following video teaches you how you can get into the downward-facing dog:
The butterfly pose is a great beginner-friendly pose that will help your hips unwind. It requires minimal learning and execution time. You can do it almost anywhere you can sit with your legs crossed, making it one of the most versatile warm-up exercises in your arsenal. Here are the steps you should take to get into the butterfly pose:
- Sit on the floor with your feet pointing ahead and legs wide apart.
- Turn both calves inwards and let the feet touch each other. At this point, your back will arch forward, and your knees will come off the ground. These are signs of a lack of flexibility. Keep your back straight.
- Begin you yogic breathing and your knees and legs will gradually relax towards the ground.
- Hold this pose for at least 60 seconds but if you stay in the pose for a longer time your whole body will relax and you will experience a very deep stretch.
You should make the butterfly pose a part of your morning routine. This is regardless of whether your endurance sport is a fixed-posture sport or a free running sport. The benefits of this pose are universal. While the butterfly pose is quite easy to get into, it still helps to have a visual reference. Watching this video will help you be clear on how you can hold the butterfly pose:
Legs up the Wall Pose
Unlike other poses that make for a great warm-up, this one helps you relax and rejuvenate your feet after a game. It has great benefits for your lower back as well, and since it is a stress-relieving pose, it is easy to master. Here are the steps you should take to have your legs up the wall as per yogic instructions.
- Sit down cross-legged with your knees touching the wall. You would be facing the wall and have your mat behind you.
- Gradually lower your head till you're lying down with your legs still crossed. Your feet will now face the ceiling
- Position yourself against the wall until your hips both are pressed against the wall.
- Unfold your legs till your feet are both facing upwards.
- Use the wall as a straightener for your legs and stay in pose for 1-3 minutes.
This pose is great for running sports as they build up a lot of tension during competition. By using this exercise to wind down after a long race, you ensure proper self-care.
Legs up the Wall (Workout Variation)
While the Legs up the Wall is a great restorative pose, you can use its variant as a warm-up or workout alternative. It also impacts other areas of your legs and works out minor muscle fibres by stretching them in various directions.
- Loop a yoga strap around one foot.
- Move into the 'Legs up the wall' pose with both feet pointing upwards.
- Relax the foot by letting go of the strap.
- Hold and pull the strap again.
- Do multiple repetitions with one leg, then alternate to the next before switching legs and executing equal reps on the other leg.
Seated Forward Bend
This pose is great for athletes involved in challenging competitive sports like boxing and soccer. The benefits they receive are a deep stretch in the hips, lower back and shoulders. It is a simple, beginner-friendly pose.
- Sit down on the ground with your feet stretched out in front of you.
- Avoid any gap between your knees, and make sure your legs stay together.
- Gradually bend forward to grab your feet while keeping your elbows in touch with your legs.
- Beginners may not be flexible enough to hold their feet. They can tie a strap to their feet and pull on it till they reach their feet or just tug on the strap to create tension.
- Hold for 30 -90 seconds before slowly coming out of the pose.
Head-to-Knee Forward Bend
If your endurance sport involves weight training, chances are you need to unwind and stretch. This pose allows you to deep stretch your spine and works your hamstrings as well. Here's how you get into the head-to-knee forward bend.
- Sit with both of your legs extended in front of you with knees touching each other.
- Gradually turn the right calf inward till your right foot is touching your left inner-thigh and reach forward while bending at the groin (and not the hips).
- If you can't reach your foot, grab a strap. Do not tug too much on the strap, as your focus should be to bring your head as close to your left leg as possible.
- Hold for 3 - 5 breaths before releasing and doing the pose on alternate leg.
Since this is a deep stretching exercise, it shouldn't be done as often as other ones. Ultimately, the returns diminish if you overdo it. Beginners should rely on seated forward bend till they can hold their feet before moving on to the head-to-knee forward bend. Here is a video showcasing the head-to-knee forward bend:
This pose is perfect for athletes interested in back health as it stretches the lower back and hips in a tension-releasing manner. That said, the pose is slightly difficult to get into and might initially feel uncomfortable.
- Start in the downward dog position or a plank, depending on which you're more comfortable with.
- Bring your right knee as close to your right hand as possible.
- Maintain your left leg's position and turn your right calf inward till your right foot is as close to your left hand as possible.
- Breathe deep and hold the pose for 30 - 60 seconds.
- Step back into the plank and take steps 2 to 4 with the alternate leg.
One-Legged King Pigeon Pose
This is an advanced pose that requires a degree of flexibility you may not have as a novice. It is still worth learning because you'll eventually use this to unlock many benefits. These include deep stretching to your quads and strengthening your upper body.
- Move into the pigeon pose with your right calf turned towards your left hand.
- Bend the left leg at the knee so your foot is facing upward.
- Bring up both arms till your elbows point towards the roof, then extend your hands behind your head till you're holding onto the left foot.
- Hold for 30 - 60 seconds and reverse steps 1 to 3.
- Switch legs and execute the steps on the alternate side.
As a beginner, you can tie a strap around the foot and hold that, similar to doing a triceps curl. It keeps you from overextending your foot and still builds flexibility till you can gradually pull on the strap and actually hold your foot.
This exercise is crucial for runners and those who take part in running sports. When you run, your calves, hips, and glutes all get activated to some extent, but the tension isn't really released. By holding the one-legged king pigeon before each game, you can flex the microfibers that may otherwise be ignored.
Beginners should avoid trying this before competitions as incorrect execution can cause injury. Those with advanced (or even intermediate yoga experience) should use this as a warm-up. If you find it hard to follow along with the method illustrated above, you can use the following video as a reference:
Yoga for Endurance Athletes FAQs
In this section, we will explore the questions most frequently asked by endurance athletes who are yoga novices.
Should I Do Yoga Before or After My Sport?
Many athletes like yoga and see performing the poses as a great potential warm-up sequence. However, they are unclear about whether these exercises are meant to help them get ready for a match or wind down from a tiring performance.
You should use deep stretching yoga poses as your warm-up while relying on yogic relaxation techniques to wind down after a match. Any pose that takes a few seconds to bring along a burning sensation is great for warming up. On the other hand, poses that bring about a sense of relief are best executed at the tail-end of a long day.
Do I Need To Do Yogic Breathing While Practising Yoga?
There is an incredible "good enough" factor with yoga. You will get stretching and relaxation benefits from every yoga pose. When you add breath-work you receive the extra benefits of mindfulness clarity and stress-relief. Alternatively, you can do just the yogic breath-work in the absence of any poses and still calm your nerves (especially before a match).
What Kind of Clothes Should I Wear for Yoga?
Yoga apparel is a multi billion dollar industry involving many brands and manufacturers. But you can wear any comfortable clothes to perform yoga though most enthusiasts choose to wear yoga pants and stretch shirts.
If you want to buy clothes from yoga specific outlets we recommend the following:
Yoga is an ancient art with modern benefits ranging from rejuvenation to exercising and isolating minor muscle fibres. For the most part, yogic exercises can be divided into deep stretching poses and relaxing poses. Both are great for endurance athletes as they can use these exercises for a warm-up and winding down post-game.