Why Endurance Athletes Need Yoga

Why Endurance Athletes Need Yoga

As a devoted and enthusiastic endurance athlete, I find great value in adding a yoga practice to my training, and hope to help others discover the benefits for themselves. With the type-A, all or nothing attitudes often innate in many runners, triathletes, cyclists, backpackers or other endurance monsters, we need a way to create balance. While the physical benefits are important, I don’t see my yoga practice as an additional workout, I don’t need any more of those! We need physical, mental and spiritual balance to enhance our performance on the road or trail, at work, with family and at rest. All athletes are likely aware of the flexibility and mobility yoga will help them attain, but perhaps are sometimes put off by the suggestion of spiritual, intangible weirdness (like the fear of possibly having to chant) or maybe worry that they might not be good at it. It doesn’t have to be like that. There are real, practical benefits to incorporating a “non-workout” yoga practice into an endurance training program.

On a purely physical level, asana practice can address the multiple imbalances athletes unknowingly create during hours of devotion to whatever favored sport. “Asana” is just a Sanskrit word for physical poses. Cyclists, and even runners, are constantly scrunched forward, shoulders often chronically shrugged up at their ears, and stuck in singular, forward motion. Specific muscles are overused again and again, while others that should be more actively engaged are usually misused or unused. Stuck in one chronic forward motion also results in incredible lack of spinal mobility, which then leads to more muscle imbalance and misuse, putting unnatural strain on the skeletal system, tendons, and supportive muscles. Proper asana practice works every part of the body equally, and encourages that important spinal mobility. Runners typically have weak and underused gluteal muscles, leading to overuse of the quadriceps. Without gluteal engagement, we also put too much reliance on small stabilizing muscles that aren’t meant to handle the load of running. Utkatasana (Awkward Pose, sometimes known as Chair Pose) can be a great pose to learn how to engage the glutes, keep knees in line and “allow hip and knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion without collapsing into gravity.”1

On a purely physical level, asana practice can address the multiple imbalances athletes unknowingly create during hours of devotion to whatever favored sport.

So many runners visibly collapse from side to side with each step exhibiting classic weak gluteal instability. One-legged poses can be helpful, as well. Running is inherently multiple one-legged poses after one-legged poses, all strung together very quickly. The body must be able to support more than its own weight on one side over and over, again and again, without collapsing. Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Extended Hand to Big Toe pose) and Virabhadrasana 3 (Warrior 3) are examples of some balancing poses that require us to keep hips level and our upper body steady while on one leg. Runners need to learn to lead with level hips and keep the core and upper torso stable.Asana also demands correct alignment in any position, which can be translated to running, cycling or swimming body positions. Yoga teaches how to stand correctly, lie correctly, sit correctly, bend and move across all planes while maintaining the correct alignment. Eventually the practitioner can learn to take each step and each pedal stroke with the same correct posture: keeping hips aligned, shoulder blades pulled back and down, even pressure through each foot, tailbone reaching down, head and neck reaching long and tall. This body awareness that the athlete develops is important as a means to constantly assess how the body is feeling, moving and posturing during sport, and to be able to make small adjustments to keep herself in correct alignment.

An important aspect to asana practice is the creation of space: space between vertebrae, space around joints and organs, space to move.

Too many endurance athletes are crunched up, slouched and stuck in a limited range of motion. After the workout they continue to move around their day in the same position. By elongating and extending our bodies on the mat we can open up space to move off the mat, as well. More range of motion, mobility and better blood flow equals less injury and likely even better performance.Similarly, besides physical asana, another yoga practice that creates space is pranayama: control of the breath. In yoga, “prana” is our life force, our energy. Through the careful development of pranayama, athletes will develop greater lung capacity and clear the pathways for fresh oxygen and proper expulsion of waste. Our breathing tends to be shallow and fairly ineffective. Athletes, especially if engaged in long distance, endurance activities – maybe even at altitude – certainly will benefit from deeper, proper breath to deliver more nutrients throughout the body. Deep inhalation naturally expands the lungs, chest, rib cage and in turn the rest of the body follows, opening it up for movement.

Regulation of breath also regulates our mind, body and movement. As exercise goes on, the body often starts acting in random, erratic ways and the mind starts jumping from thought to thought, maybe even in panic. The body and mind sometimes don’t know how to react to the stress that endurance activity might instigate, and the default response is “fight or flight.” Turning back to focus on the breath, regulating the breath, calms those other systems. Athletes can use the experience they have in pranayama practice before or during competition to calm nerves, quiet thoughts and compete in a state of relaxation rather than stress. Regular, energy balancing breath brings the body back to a homeostatic state where injuries and illness are less likely to thrive. If instructed properly, the athlete can learn to focus the healing prana to areas that need extra support, and experience natural resolution of injury. A consistent pranayama practice may also regulate sleep and digestive patterns.

“Bad” pain should be recognized, as well, of course. Yoga teaches the value of ahimsa, the dedication to non-violence and compassion. Ahimsa means that we do no harm not only to other beings, but also to ourselves.

Beyond the physical benefits yoga offers athletes are the more significant mental and spiritual blessings. Many athletes pursue their sport looking for performance success and competitive results, along with – hopefully – pure love for the activity. Yoga, on the other hand, is not results based in the same way. If led along the correct course, the yoga practitioner will not practice in hopes of competing with others or earning awards. It is not about pushing the body to perform but rather about learning its nuances and needs. Yoga will reveal that he is more than the results of his bodily performance, but that he is a whole being – spiritual and physical. The athlete can start to enjoy sport without attachment to outcomes. Many of us wrap our identities up in “The Runner” or simply accept that our physical prowess defines us. Yoga study shows us that we are so much more, and we do not have to limit ourselves to this definition.

Additionally, the athlete can become better aware of pain; specifically the difference between good, productive pain and harmful sensations that should be heeded as warning signals. Knowing that there will likely always be uncomfortable periods during sport can be discouraging for some. Discomfort can also, of course, steal joy from activities if she is focused on dealing with the mental struggle of pushing through “good” pain. By learning to work through the discomfort, accept that it is there but detach a bit from it, an athlete can return to her focus on getting the task done, and enjoying it. She can appreciate the workings of her body, her breath, her movement and the mental clarity exercise can bring. It is through practicing yoga – asana, pranayama, pratyahara (looking inward) – in a meditative way that we learn to deal with all of life, including sport, in a thoughtful way.

“Bad” pain should be recognized, as well, of course. Yoga teaches the value of ahimsa, the dedication to non-violence and compassion. Ahimsa means that we do no harm not only to other beings, but also to ourselves. Athletes tend to ignore this philosophy, always pushing harder, thinking more is better and believing training has to hurt to be effective. We ignore signals our body tells us to stop. We think that we are stronger, tougher, better than the average person and our bodies are impervious to the workload we carry. As an athlete studies yoga philosophy, along with asana and pranayama, he hopefully will begin to acknowledge some of the self-inflicted violence to his being, and hopefully begin to think more clearly when deciding on appropriate workouts versus appropriate rest.This goes for nourishment, as well. Many of us punish our bodies with food, or lack of food, hoping to improve performance to the detriment of overall health. I, personally, am working on honoring my body’s needs and appetites instead of ignoring damage done by a history of improper nutrition. Self-compassion, self-respect and self-care reveal themselves as vital aspects to living a full life, and to enjoying activities we love, as we work our way through yoga practice.

Finally, to continue with a personal note as example, my vata dosha begs for the balance that yoga practice offers in antithesis to the chronic and often obsessive, frantic movement of running. Our doshas basically describe our physical and mental constitutions. Asana, pranayama and concentration ground me from my flighty, always in motion, nature. Any athlete can benefit from slowing down, both in body and mind, and resting. Constant movement is not sustainable, and while I realize the consequences of continuing activities that don’t support my constitution, I am not willing to give them up. So, I can do my best to counteract the running with basic grounding practices, including restorative asana, chakra work (especially with that root chakra!), steady breathing practice and continuous attempts to get better at stilling my anxious mind. The benefit from grounding work like this would benefit the classic athlete personality described earlier more than any supplement, renowned coach or magical diet.

Stay tuned for detailed pose descriptions, instruction for short sequences to try at home and more detailed ideas about how to practically incorporate yoga into your workouts and daily routine. Getting dirty doesn’t always mean mud and dust — dig into yourself and work out some of that gunk that holds you back from a full, vibrant life of your own humble adventures!


1. Kaminoff, Leslie and Amy Matthews. Yoga Anatomy. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2011. Print