The time commitment required for triathlon training is particularly demanding, especially during race season. However, many athletes get so caught up in swimming, biking and running that they forget to properly take care of their body to support such high volumes of training. When recovery activities are implemented, it is often in the form of static stretching at home or a yoga class. While stretching on its own has very little benefits with regards to improving mobility and aiding recovery, a yoga class can have far more to offer for recovery beyond short term flexibility.
Unfortunately, the West has adopted only one of the eight limbs of yoga (the Asana limb) which is the only limb that focuses on physical body movements. Interestingly, the other seven traditional limbs of yoga actually have nothing to do with physical movements. These other limbs include things such as meditation (Dhyana) and breathe practice (Pranayama). Particularly for endurance athletes, the practice of Dhyana can have tremendous implications on both training and racing performance. It can help combat fatigue and aid in muscle recovery via increasing nutrient absorption.
High training volumes and chronic stress to our body can result in sleep disturbances, overtraining, mood swings and adrenal fatigue. Although there is no scientific proof that adrenal fatigue exists, it is theorized that it might be responsible for brain fog, low energy, depressive mood, salt/ sweet cravings and excess fat around the waste. These are all common symptoms many endurance athletes deal with. Many of these symptoms of stress arise from imbalances in cortisol levels released into our blood stream which activates our “fight or flight” response. Among other things, cortisol also encourages our body to store fat as well as having a role in waking us up in the morning. The problem arises when this hormone is constantly being released into our blood stream. This can result in more fat being stored than necessary and feelings of alertness before bed and fatigue in the morning.
How Does Yoga Fit Into This?
There has been a significant amount of research to suggest that breathing patterns can either relax your brain (by breathing slowly) or increase your stress (when hyperventilating). Therefore, by shifting your focus to your breath you can start to decrease your “fight or flight” state and shift your body into a “rest and digest” state. This not only will help you calm your mind (give your adrenals a break and begin to balance cortisol production), but also allow your parasympathetic nervous system to take over (which is responsible for digestion and nutrient absorption). In particular, there is a strong body of research that suggests nasal breathing specifically is the most effective way to deliver oxygen to your tissues and organs, including your brain. This is why most yoga classes will have you “seal your lips” at the start of your practice.
Although yoga seems like a great way to simultaneously get strong and flexible, optimal strength training happens in the gym. Also, having a high degree of flexibility for runners is relatively useless and can even inhibit performance. However, taking time to shift your focus away from every day stressors and focusing on your breath can begin to take your body out of the constant “flight or flight” stress state and activate your parasympathetic “rest and digest” state of body and mind. It is in this state where we can begin to see massive positive implications to recovery and performance such as increased digestion and absorption of nutrients, improved quality of sleep as well as better weight management. Since learning to shift your focus and calming your breath can be challenging, yoga can be an ideal method to implement theses strategies in a professionally guided space.