Everyday Yoga isn’t my only new publication this summer; I contributed to The Women’s Guide to Triathlon, a fantastic compilation of essays covering all aspects of the sport. (It’s a great book for women and men; you can also read a chapter of mine in its companion volume, USA Triathlon’s Complete Triathlon Guide.)
Here’s an excerpt from my chapter, “Alternative Exercises for Triathletes,” reprinted with permission from Human Kinetics.
Training for triathlon is time-intensive. Not only are you executing workouts in three sports, you’re also managing equipment, washing laundry, and feeding yourself before, during, and after workouts. All of this comes on top of the regular work and household duties that take up your time. It can be tempting to focus exclusively on your swim, bike, and run workouts, perhaps including a perfunctory weight session at the gym. This busy schedule can sacrifice attention to complementary alternative practices such as Pilates, yoga, barre classes, and the like. But including these modalities for cross-training will have a direct positive effect on your sport performance, as they build core strength and hip flexibility while sharpening your focus and breath awareness.
Pilates and yoga use body weight to cultivate a healthy balance between strength and flexibility. This balance is the key to injury prevention. When your body is out of balance, whether balance in space or balance within the body, front to back, side to side, or top to bottom, you’re risking injury. By including alternative exercises to complement your swim, bike, run, and strength training, you’ll make your body more injury-proof while developing focus that will help you bear down in your next hard workout or race.
Including Alternative Exercises
While yoga is millennia old, many of the yoga poses we practice today were introduced in the last century. This shift has in part been influenced by bodybuilding and gymnastics, and it has developed in symbiosis with other movement modalities such as Joseph Pilates’ system of core exercises. The yoga asanas, or poses, were originally seated postures designed to hold the body still for meditation. Each seated position required, as the Yoga Sutras tells us, elements of sthira and of sukha—that is, elements of strength, especially in the core to hold the spine long, and of flexibility, especially in the hips to keep the lower body relaxed and still. Obviously, this approach helps shore up the body for active movement as well. But don’t discount the psychological and spiritual benefits of the practice. Just like triathlon, yoga and Pilates give us a forum for connection among body, breath, and mind, as well as fertile ground for exploring our understanding of what it means to be alive and in our bodies.
Women, especially those with a history of dance or a current yoga practice, may tend more toward flexibility than strength. But as a triathlete, you need just enough flexibility to move fluidly through your stroke and stride and no more. At some point, flexibility can adversely affect your triathlon performance, as it can make you floppy and inefficient and directly inhibit your power production.
In your yoga practice and core strength and flexibility training, aim to garner freedom of movement and to balance your flexibility with integrated strength. This may mean that you consciously stay away from end-range expressions of stretches, instead keeping your body within the limits of a comfortable stretch and no more. If some poses don’t feel intense, that’s fine. Not every pose or exercise will directly address your personal imbalances or tightnesses, and this is a good thing. Focus on precise alignment and refined execution of the exercises, valuing integration over taking exercises to the extreme.
To develop just enough flexibility through your body and to balance it with integrated strength, consider the ways you move as you swim, bike, and run. For the swim, you need to have a good reach as your arms move out of and into the water, and enough range of motion through the core that you can rotate along the central axis. Your hips need enough flexibility to allow you to balance in the water, and your ankles need to be open enough that you can kick with a smooth whip of the leg. For the bike you need to move smoothly through the pedal stroke without a hitch in your hip, knee, or ankle, as these hitches can contribute to overuse injuries. For the run you need flexibility in the front of the hips and strength in the back of the hips and thighs so you can push off with your glutes and hamstrings. The exercises outlined in this chapter are specially chosen to help strengthen, stretch, and balance your body for injury prevention and better performance in triathlon.
The crescent lunge is a critical exercise both for strength and for flexibility through the hips. It approximates the movement your legs make as you swim, bike, and run. The more balanced and fluid you are in a lunge, the more efficient your movement will be and the more you’ll be able to ward off injury.
For the crescent lunge, start by standing tall. Step your right foot back a few feet, and check that it is not directly behind the left foot but still at hip width, a few inches to the right. Keep your left knee directly over the top of the left ankle, but let it bend as much as feels good. You’ll feel a release in the front of the right hip, especially if you push back through the right heel and lift the right thigh toward the ceiling. Your hands can rest on your hips, come to prayer position, or lift overhead, together, parallel, or in a Y position, as your chest stretches. Hold for 10 breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Warrior III asks you to hold the lines of plank pose while standing on one leg. Thus it builds core strength in addition to stability in the hip and lower leg.
Stand tall, then shift your weight into the left foot and lift your right leg behind you as you lean your pelvis and torso forward. Aim to hold a long line from your foot through your hips and shoulders. Hands can be on the hips, in prayer, or extended off or in front of the shoulders for more challenge. Hold for 10 breaths on each side, and if that’s easy, repeat two or three times.
For a quick dynamic warm-up or strength-building two-pose flow, move back and forth between crescent lunge and warrior III. Try to make the transitions refined, deliberate, and smooth. Taking 10 breaths or more while flowing between the two poses will get your hip muscles firing, wake up your lower legs, and build your focus and balance before your workout.
The Women’s Guide to Triathlon is now available at HumanKinetics.com, at your local bookstore, or at major online bookstores.