Why Endurance Athletes Should Cross-Train with Yoga

Payge McMahon in the Standing Pigeon Pose

If you are an endurance athlete (or aspire to be one), you need to cross-train with yoga. It will make you stronger, and increase your stamina, flexibility, agility, balance and mental focus.

Yoga began more than 5,000 years ago in Northern India. It was originally designed to calm the mind and prepare the body for meditation – to heal, enlighten and unite the mind, body and soul. Over the years, it has evolved; yoga is now much more physical, and very popular.

Yoga Statistics
Over the past 10 years, the number of Americans who practice yoga has nearly doubled – to 37 million. Seventy-five percent of those practitioners use yoga to cross-train for other activities. Correlating with studies that show endurance athletes peak later in life, 43% of the yoga population are 30-49 years old and 38% are over age 50. Although women make up the majority of yogis, men are seeing its benefits and embracing the practice; they make up 28% of yogis today.

Professional Athletes Do It
Many NFL, NBA, world football (soccer) and rugby teams now incorporate yoga into their training schedule. From
LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal to Ray Lewis, Aaron Rodgers, David Beckham and the entire New Zealand National Rugby Team, the All Blacks – real men do yoga.

Professional endurance athletes, also, are adding yoga to their training regimens, including ultra marathon running legends Anna Frost and Dean Karnazes; adventure racer, James Magness; long distance runner and Olympic medalist, Lynn Jennings; Iditarod sled dog musher, Zoya DeNure; and Ironman triathletes Sara Piampiano and Anthony Carillo.

What Type of Yoga to Practice?
Today, there are many different types and hybrids or fusions of yoga. In general, the main poses (asanas), like a common language, stay the same in all practices.

The favorite types of yoga among endurance athletes (and, coincidently, those who have ADHD) are Vinyasa/Power Yoga, Ashtanga and Hot Yoga. These practices combine meditation through movement, linking controlled breathing (prana) to holding and transitioning to and from various poses and positions. Your heart rate will increase, and you will sweat. These types of yoga are not for those who just want to do a little stretching, sit, meditate and work on their chanting.

Restorative Yoga is another favorite among athletes who need a good stretch and/or are going through some type of injury rehabilitation. Everything is done sitting or lying down on the mat and at a tranquil, slow pace.

Getting Started – Just Breathe
We cannot live without air. Breathing is the most important thing we do; if done with certain techniques, you can maximize your oxygen intake – which can help enhance your focus and performance.

There are eight types of breathing techniques (called pranayama) taught in yoga. The most fundamental and useful is the Ujjayi Breath, also called ‘Ocean’s Breath.’

Ujjayi Breath
This type of nasal breathing invigorates the body and calms the mind. Combined with certain types of yoga, it can lead to a lower heart rate and increased cardiovascular and physical endurance. Engage it in everyday life, from calming yourself down in gridlock traffic with screaming kids to focusing your energy while mountain climbing, skiing, and running ultra marathons. It works!

How it’s done:
1. Eyes can be open or closed.
2. Place the tongue to the roof of your mouth.
3. Keep your lips together.
4. Through your nose, take a long, smooth inhale.
5. Through your nose, take an equally long, smooth exhale.
6. An audible sound, like the wave of the ocean crashing to shore, is typical.
7. Repeat.

Most Requested: Hips & Hamstrings
The most requested ‘tune-up’ from athletes: hips and hamstrings.

Here are a couple of my favorite yoga poses for the hips and hamstrings to get you started. Don’t forget to incorporate the Ujjayi breathing technique!

Pyramid (Parsvottanasana)

Pyramid (Parsvottanasana)
A great way to lengthen your hamstrings is to do a variation of Pyramid. This pose will stretch the hamstrings, back,
shoulders and calves.

1. Stand with your feet together and hands on your hips.
2. Step your right foot 3 to 4 feet back. Turn the right foot to a 90-degree angle. Make sure the heel of the front (left) foot lines up with the middle of the back (right) foot.
3. Keep legs straight.
4. Keep hips even/squared.
5. Inhale, lifting your chest, and gaze toward the sky.
6. Exhale, leading with your chest; fold forward over the front (left) leg, bringing your forehead to your shin and hands to the ground (or your leg if you can’t reach the ground).
7. Squeeze quadriceps, keeping hips even.
8. For an even deeper hamstring stretch, lift the front (left) foot’s toes off the ground.
9. Breathe.
10. Hold the pose for 60 seconds.
11. Switch legs and repeat.

Standing Pigeon Pose (Half-Chair, Half-Ankle to Knee, One-Legged Squat)

This is one of the best hip opening, leg strengthening and ankle stabilizing poses you can do. If you are not used to doing this one, use a wall, pole or tree to help keep your balance.

1. Start by standing, bend the right knee and cross the right ankle above the left knee. Keep the right foot flexed.
2. Slowly bend the left knee and sit the hips back, keeping them even. (Pretend you are sitting in an invisible chair.)
3. Bring your hands to chest in prayer position; press the back of the arms against the chin and lock the flexed right foot around the back of the left arm.
4. Breathe.
5. Hold the pose for 60 seconds.
6. Switch legs and repeat.
For more information or answers to your yoga questions, contact me via my website, www.turnthepayge.com.

Payge McMahon is a professional adventure athlete, journalist and certified yoga instructor. She has studied yoga in Thailand, India and Nepal, and trained with Shiva Rea, DDP (Diamond Dallas Page) and Yoga for Athletes author, Sage Rountree. Payge has a B.A. from Pennsylvania State University and an MBA from California Lutheran University.