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Yoga for Triathletes and Runners

By Wendy Benwell | Sept. 08, 2015, 4:15 p.m. (ET)

Yoga can help improve triathletes’ strength, balance, range of motion and flexibility. Here’s an overview of common muscular imbalances yoga addresses, plus seven poses to get you started.

When an athlete adjusts their training program in order for efficient performance, yoga training should also be carefully organized. Periodization is an important concept for recreational and professional triathletes. If structure is lacking throughout the year, the athlete is at risk for injury, fatigue, overtraining and burnout. Work yoga into your annual training plan, including the base phase, build phase and peak phase.

Triathletes tend to have extremely strong quads with tight hip flexors, strong and tight calves, and a hypermobile, unstable lumbar spine with weak abdominals. Most triathletes train the upper and lower body indicative of swimming, biking and running. If the spine lacks normal range of motion and strength, transitioning from swimming to running can be a cause for severe discomfort and a hindrance to performance. Triathlon involves three very different positions for a prolonged period of time. The static neutral hold of the trunk during swimming, biking and running is imperative for upper and lower body performance.

Triathletes can be prone to hypertonic muscles if not properly addressed, especially post-practice or competition. If a muscle is shortened, that muscle will not be able to fire efficiently and will lack production of power. If an athlete is not well balanced in strength as far as anterior/posterior, right/left or top/bottom, a triathlete will not be as efficient and will be prone to injury. Yoga helps to balance out strength deficiencies in order for a more proficient athlete. If an athlete lacks appropriate proprioception — awareness of where their body is in space — the athlete is at risk for injury such as a sprained ligament. Balance can improve stability of a joint to prevent joint hypermobility in a weight-bearing limb.

The following poses will help with range of motion as warm-up and cooldown, strengthening, balance and flexibility in order to aid the triathlete through each training phase.

childs poseChild's Pose

(5-15 breaths)

Description: Sit back on your heels with the spine relaxed into forward flexion. Arms should be outstretched in front and then from side to side to stretch the lateral tissues.

Benefits:
Range of motion and relaxation during warm-up or cooldown. Light stretching of the lumbar spine, multifidus, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi and glutes. Sagittal plane stretching for the quadratus lumborum.

bird dogBird Dog

(3-5 breaths w/ each hold x3)

Description: Abdominals should be tight and spine in neutral. The left arm and right lower extremity should be in a straight line from the body.

Benefits: Spinal stabilization and strengthening for the glutes and scap stabilizers. Promotes neutral lumbar spine positioning for efficient swimming, biking and running. 

Downward Dog Downward Dog

(3-5 breaths x5)

Description: The hips should be high and the heels should slowly sink down toward the ground in a moderate stretch for the calf. The head should be relaxed in neutral.

Benefits: Strengthening for the shoulders, range of motion and stretching for the ankles (gastrocnemius) and hamstrings.

Dancers Pose Dancer’s Pose

(5-10 breaths x2)

Description: Hold the inside of the foot; the standing knee should be slightly bent. Tighten the belly and look forward at the outstretched hand.

Benefits: Stability/balance and strengthening for the weight bearing lower extremity and flexibility of the quads/hip flexors in the non-weight bearing limb.

Prone PlankProne Plank

(5-15 breaths x3)

Description: The spine should be in neutral and the abdominals tight. The head should also be held in a neutral position with the eyes looking straight down toward the mat.

Benefits: Core stabilization and scap stabilization strengthening. Promotes core stabilization. 

Standing Pigeon PoseStanding Pigeon Pose

(5-15 breaths x2)

Description: The standing lower extremity should be flexed with the knee facing toward the second toe. The non-weight bearing lower extremity should be in a cross-legged position and the hands clasped behind your back.

Benefits: Balance/stability pose of the weight bearing lower extremity and stretching of the piriformis and gluteus medius for the non-weight bearing lower extremity.

Kneeling Hip Flexor StretchKneeling Hip Flexor Stretch

(5-15 breaths)

Description: While kneeling, gently shift the body weight forward and tilt the pelvis into a posterior position in order to appropriately stretch the psoas. Arms overhead for a deeper stretch of the proximal insertion of the iliopsoas.

Benefits: Flexibility of the iliopsoas and rectus femoris. A tight hip flexor will deactivate the gluteus medius and can create inefficient running gait therefore creating injury down the lower extremity.

Wendy Benwell has a doctorate in physical therapy, a master’s in kinesiology and she is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach. She has competed in marathons, ultra-marathons and ultra-distance triathlons for 16 years. Currently, she is working in an outpatient setting and serving clients on a one-on-one basis for run/tri training and yoga for athletes. Wendy can be contacted via email at wcwbird@hotmail.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.