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Use yoga for one-stop injury prevention

Fit to be Tried
By: Julie Young Journal Columnist
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Endurance activities are repetitive, linear and utilize a limited range of motion. These ingredients are a recipe for excessive stress on specific muscles, joints and bones. As a result our bodies teeter toward imbalance and manifest asymmetries – common culprits of injury. Yoga (speaking generally rather than specifically about particular disciplines) provides a range of benefits from muscular strength and flexibility to mental stamina and empowerment. The practice trains functional strength through flowing movements and static poses utilizing gravity and body weight for resistance. Yoga employs many single leg standing poses honing balance, strength (major muscle groups and stabilizers), stamina and mental focus. In our endurance pursuits we want each leg to be independently and effectively delivering power. Training single legged postures improves stability and core strength, while also reducing asymmetries. These poses are mentally and physically challenging yet rewarding. Our repetitive endurance activities use the same muscles over and over, strengthening certain muscles, neglecting others. Yoga poses help maintain muscular balance through flexibility, allowing muscles to harmoniously function as units. Improved muscular flexibility facilitates gains in strength, range of motion, mechanics and recovery. A consistent yoga practice elongates musculature facilitating improved blood flow – resulting in better nourished muscles, ligaments and tendons. Endurance activities’ limited range of motion shortens and stiffens muscles. Tight muscles lead to poor body alignment and imbalance. Yoga resolves stiffness and provides an opportunity for us to develop a body awareness to discover and employ a fine balance of muscular suppleness and strength. Joint mobility and range of motion is of equal importance in injury prevention and positively affected by yoga. Properly functioning joints allow proper muscle recruitment contrasting with improper recruitment and tendency toward overuse injuries. Through the many single leg balance poses, yoga heightens body awareness. This translates to efficient controlled movements in our endurance world. In running for example it is a tool to enhance our ability to safely anticipate movement changes, smoother, quicker and with less impact. Ryan Bailey with East Wind Yoga in Auburn says, “Yoga improves the overall consciousness of the body. This mental work and resulting deeper mind-body connection helps endurance athletes stay better connected over long endurance events. This fine tuned awareness helps athletes more efficiently react to what they are feeling.” This heightened awareness helps us tune in to our bodies on a constant basis. I have found this especially valuable, when for example, I increase the intensity running or cycling, and feel my body’s tension increase. Yoga engrains an instantaneous ability to resolve tenseness with relaxation. The practice brings awareness and effectiveness to our breathing — it connects movement to breath, improving circulation and more efficient oxygen delivery to working muscles. Bailey feels the breath work is especially pertinent to athletics. He says, “Yoga teaches us to control and work with breath. We learn the rhythm of breath guides the movement. It also teaches us to breathe through challenging sticking points in our yoga practice and we can effectively extend this to endurance activities. We learn the breath controls how we react — in yoga and in life. “We learn that breath can provide a sense of calm and composure or the opposite effect of fight-flight franticness. When we stay calm — as applied to endurance injury prevention — we stay present and make sound decisions with resulting skillful actions. Consistent yoga acts as an effective recovery and regenerative strategy. Susan Whitaker of Canyon Spirit Yoga in Auburn says, “Yoga instills that value of rest and rejuvenation providing uninterrupted time to slow down, stretch, prioritize restoring the body and connect with the mind. It fills the gaps that may arise from single-minded pursuits, and provides a healthy mental and physical perspective.” Besides the injury prevention benefits of balance, range of motion, flexibility and strength, yoga delivers mental empowerment allowing us to overcome self-imposed physical limitations and improve performance. The yoga practice leaves us with powerful mental mantras that mentally boost us, with the body in tow, over perceived physical hurdles. Yoga offers a mental and physical retreat – providing that rare protected opportunity slow down, and develop awareness. As an endurance athlete – I appreciate the slowness, gentleness and calmness that balance other aspects of my athletic life. I am not necessarily looking for another workout, but relish the complete escape to focus on mind-body connection, breathing and deep relaxed stretching. The trick is to take the benefits off the mat, out the door and into life, activities and athletics. Julie Young was a top U.S. professional cyclist for 12 years and has since transitioned to trail running and cross-country skiing. She is the owner of o2 Fitness and now coaches endurance athletes in the region. Check her out online at www.o2fitness.net.