Yoga from Start to Finish(line)

Last weekend, my friends and I completed the Cohasset Triathlon: an hour and a half (give or take) race featuring an open-water swim, bike, and run.  With 1,100 participants, this race attracts both first-timers and elite racers from across the country.

This was my second triathlon and my training schedule was more … “casual” than your average triathlete.  Highlights included frequently skipping out on spinning classes to roll out my yoga mat instead, or abandoning both in favor of Saturday morning pancakes in bed.  There are so many articles written about yoga as a natural compliment to other workouts (yoga for marathoners! for cross-fitters! for badminton players!) – during the race, I realized first-hand the mental and physical benefits that that yoga can offer, allowing me to finish the race strong, proud, and smiling.

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First Annual Boston Triathlon, August 2012

{We may or may not have earned the right to pose on that podium.}

I won’t go into the many physical benefits of pairing yoga with a training program (strengthening of abdominals to protect the lower back; loosening of tight hip flexors, shoulders, hamstrings; righting imbalances in the body; etc.) but instead discuss several ways in which the principles of yoga can help during race time.

  • Breathe! Spoiler alert: this one is the biggie.  Drop into almost any yoga class, and “inhale, exhale” will be two of the teacher’s most often-used words.  For intense cardio workouts, smooth, deep breathing is crucial for delivering oxygen to our body.  In order to function properly, our muscles require energy, which is gained through the consumption of oxygen. Breathing allows our bodies to intake oxygen and convert blood sugars (glucose) into muscle-feeding energy known as ATP.  Just like any other muscles that can become inflexible, tightness in the muscles between our ribs (intercostals) can limit our breathing into just the top third of the lungs.  Learning to breathe from the diaphragm causes the abdomen to expand and the breath to deepen.  Practicing yoga, Pilates, or breathing exercises (pranayama) can all help you breathe from your diaphragm.  Just as we learn to breathe with intention during an upbeat Vinyasa session or an intense half pigeon pose, taking these breathing techniques on the road will help fill your lungs with deep, revitalizing breaths of oxygen.

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  • Focus. As we practice yoga, and particularly during tricky balancing poses (think: tree pose), it is helpful to gently focus our eyes on a single, unmoving point.  This technique, called setting one’s drishti, allows other distractions to fall away and helps us become stable and balanced.  As David Life explains, “when you restrict your visual focus to one point, your attention isn’t dragged from object to object. In addition, without these distractions, it’s much easier for you to notice the internal wanderings of your attention and maintain balance in mind as well as body.”  I was surprised to discover how helpful this was during the race – by gently focusing my gaze on a landmark ahead of me (mailbox, fire hydrant, whatever!) I noticed that the little voices in my head quieted down and I dropped into a place of steady, focused determination.  Try it out on your next run and let me know what you think!
  • Stay Present.  During my first triathlon, I was avoiding the present moment with every fiber of my being.  I found myself instead dwelling on the past: worrying if my transition times were fast enough, wondering what madness inspired me to even sign up for this torture, cringing at the image of myself like a swamp creature when I stumbled out of the water (and hoping mother didn’t photograph this very non-Kodak moment).  Yet I was simultaneously dreading what was to come: “If my knee hurts this badly now, how am I ever going to make it another four miles? When will this hell be over?!” And, inevitably, “I wonder if there will be any eligible bachelors at the finish line afterwards…”  Then I realized: I am here as a result of many hours of hard work and training, of my desire to accomplish something I thought impossible  And I’m missing the whole experience!  I allowed myself bask in the fact that I was now (literally) steps from becoming triathlete –  the race was finally happening, and here I was, actually doing it! By embracing, rather than avoiding, what was happening, a slow smile spread across my (sweaty) face.
  • Unity of Community.  There are few experiences so inspiring as a triathlon, marathon, or other communal race.  People of all shapes, ages, sizes, and abilities gather together to push themselves and accomplish one common goal: to finish.  It’s all to easy to think only about yourself as you complete the race: “I want to do well. I’m thirsty!  Ugh my feet hurt.  I’m so hot right now.  I’m awesome- go me!” At some point during the race I realized that I was merely 1 out of 1,100 participants (that’s 0.09% by the way), not counting the countless supporters and organizers and volunteers that were also present.  When I started to fade or tire, I would look at the person directly in front of me and silently wish them well.  Maybe they’ve just had a baby, pushing their training to the back-burner.  Perhaps they’re recovering from a knee injury and are working through some serious pain right now.  A lot of athletes had raised charity money for this race; maybe she is one of them?  The less I thought about myself, the easier it was to go on.  Then I could pass that person in front of me and start thinking about the next person! 🙂

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Friends, rocking our tri tats post-race

To summarize, during your next workout (as your legs are shaking and your breath is short and you’re about to give up): relax your shoulders and the muscles of your face.  Stand tall and set your gaze softly on a point in front of you, taking smooth long inhales from the very bottom of your belly.  Don’t think about the miles that lie behind you or before you, but let your attention rest on each breath.  Thank yourself for doing something good for your body.  Know that, eventually, you’ll reach your finish line (whatever that may be): stronger and more able and healthier than you began.

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