Non-running workouts for breakthrough performance, part four: Yoga

The most important pieces of equipment you need for doing yoga are your body and your mind.
Rodney Yee

I resisted yoga for a long time, mostly due to ignorance, intimidation, and fear.  I didn’t understand the benefits and was intimidated by the mystique associated with yoga, and I feared looking or feeling awkward as I struggled through the poses.

Learning the benefits of yoga helped me overcome the intimidation and fear, and I made yoga a regular part of my training program for the 2010 Pikes Peak marathon.  My two yoga sessions per week built core and overall body strength, which helped me perform well on Pikes Peak.

Motivated by my Pikes Peak performance, I increased the volume of yoga in my training program.  I hoped that yoga would help me recover between training sessions.  Soon after, my legs felt fatigue and my running suffered.  Additional research revealed a mismatch between my objective and my yoga program – I was seeking recovery benefits with a series of yoga poses that built leg strength.

Through this learning experience, I discovered some key points about yoga:

  1. The mind-body connection emphasized by yoga can contribute to a breakthrough running performance.
  2. Matching your training objectives with your yoga practice is essential for success

Yoga is a wide topic with rich tradition and mystique.  The aim of this post is to increase your understanding of how yoga can benefit runners and provide suggestions for fitting yoga into your training program.

General Overview

The word “yoga” is from Sanskrit, the language of ancient India.  It means to “yoke,” or forge a union, between the body and mind for the purposes of spiritual enlightenment.  The practice of yoga originated over 5,000 years ago.  Over the years, yoga has evolved into various styles.  Some styles represent modernization of the “ancient” practice to meet the demands of today’s marketplace.

The foundation of yoga is breathing and exercise.  Yoga principles assert that breath is the source of life in the body.  Increased control over breathing improves the health and function of both body and mind.  Yoga takes a holistic approach to the body, emphasizing poses that develop balance and flexibility as opposed to isolating specific muscles.

What Yoga Offers

Regular yoga practice can provide both physical and psychological benefits, including the following:

Strength, flexibility, and overall balance for muscles and connective tissue.
All styles of yoga offer strength, flexibility, and overall balance, but the specific style of yoga you practice may emphasize one of the following aspects.

  • Strength without bulk.  Yoga poses require you to lift or support your body weight.
  • Muscular endurance.  Yoga poses require you to hold poses (keeping muscles contracted) for extended periods of time.
  • Flexibility.  Yoga emphasizes coordination between deep breathing and stretching; deep breathing relaxes muscles (which increases their flexibility).  In addition, yoga requires you to hold stretches for extended periods of time.  This trains stretch reflexes within the muscles to allow for greater lengthening of muscles
  • Overall balance.  Yoga poses and movements between poses require you to use your whole body (as opposed to isolating specific muscles).  Engaging the whole body not only strengthens the major muscle groups, it also strengthens the stabilizing muscle groups and connective tissue.  These areas are typically neglected but are crucial for overall balance.

Psychological Benefits
Most people practice yoga for the physical benefits.  However, the psychological benefits can be even more dramatic.  Research studies (e.g., this one by the American College of Sports Medicine) have demonstrated that the psychological benefits can start shortly after individuals begin to practice.  The psychological benefits only accrue if you practice yoga with the mindfulness and meditation aspects.

  • Reduced stress.  Yoga promotes deep breathing and other relaxation techniques.  These techniques have the lasting effect of reducing stress.
  • Improved focus and concentration.  Because it emphasizes the mind-body connection, yoga includes specific techniques to develop focus and concentration.  These techniques enable you to more effectively tune out distractions and remain focused.
  • Self awareness.  Yoga encourages you to enter a mental state in which you tune out all external thoughts.  Tuning out external thoughts helps develop an increased sense of both your physical and your mental state.

Improved control over breathing
While yoga is not typically considered an aerobic exercise, it does offer some benefits for your energy systems.  If your primary goal is improved aerobic fitness, other activities (besides yoga) may be more appropriate.

  • Control over breathing.  Because it emphasizes deep breathing, yoga can assist with control over breathing at key times during a run or race.
  • Aerobic system training (some styles only).  Most styles of yoga focus on calm, smooth, slow movements, which limits their ability to develop the aerobic system.  However, some styles of yoga (e.g., Power Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga) increase heart rate to the point where aerobic fitness improves.  These styles tend to be more active, reducing the “spiritual” benefits of connecting body and mind.

Fitting it in
Fitting yoga practice in to an already packed calendar can be a challenge.  However, thinking creatively should help you fit yoga into your daily (or weekly) routines, and you may actually find yourself gaining back some time in your day.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Replace a workout.  Replace a current workout with a yoga session.  For example, if you currently stretch every day, consider practicing yoga once or twice a week instead.  Or if you run four or more times a week, consider replacing one or two runs with yoga sessions.  You may find that a yoga session helps more than one of your runs, and you may be able to add intensity to the running workouts that you keep.
  • Add multiple short yoga sessions.  Yoga can provide benefits even in short five minute sessions.  Therefore, consider taking a few five minute “work breaks” where you perform a series of yoga postures.  A quick online search will yield several 5-15 minute yoga breaks that you can do almost anywhere.  You may find that the yoga breaks actually improve your productivity, allowing you to get more done in less time.

Most runners are used to physical, active fast moving workouts.  Yoga’s “mind-body” connection is very different, and it offers a unique package of physical and psychological benefits.  So if you’re seeking a breakthrough performance, give it a try – you may find it’s exactly what you need.

What do you think?  Have you tried yoga?  What have the results been?  Are there any specific yoga styles or poses that you would recommend?  Post a comment and let me know.


Two Sides of the Boston Marathon: Results and Advice for Handling a BQ Miss

The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Bob Dylan

Over a month ago I wrote about two different aspects of the Boston Marathon.  One aspect was the race itself – I noted what made the race so special and wondered what would happen on race day.  The other aspect was the struggle for a BQ (Boston Qualifier).  I highlighted the story of my friend Eric, who was racing that same weekend in Olathe, KS in his ongoing efforts to attain that elusive BQ time.

When I wrote the post in April, I knew the Boston Marathon and my friend Eric’s race in Olathe, KS were connected.  I never anticipated that each race would unfold the way it did.

By now everyone probably knows the Boston Marathon results.

Ideal conditions – temperatures in the upper 40s with 16-21 mph tailwinds on the point-to-point course – helped Boston runners deliver fantastic performances.  The competition was exciting, with the women’s race decided by two seconds and the men’s race decided by four seconds.  Americans performed beautifully.  Below are a few amazing accomplishments from the 2011 Boston Marathon:

  • American Desiree Devila finished 2nd in the women’s race with a personal best of 2:22:38
  • American Kara Goucher finished 5th in the women’s race with a personal best of 2:24:52, less than 7 months after giving birth
  • Geoffrey Mutai won the men’s race in 2:03:02, the fastest marathon time ever (by 58 seconds)
  • Ryan Hall finished 4th in the men’s race with the fastest marathon time ever by an American man, 2:04:58
  • Four men ran times that were faster than the previous Boston Marathon record (2:05:52 set in 2010)

My friend Eric’s fortunes played out that same weekend in Olathe, KS.  While runners in Boston were aided by a 16-21 mph tailwind, runners in Olathe faced an equally stiff 25 mph headwind.  Eric’s blog entry tells the whole story.  In short, the BQ eluded Eric’s grasp again.

My friend Eric’s experience highlights why qualifying for Boston is such a challenge.  You never know what will happen.  Races seem to conspire against you.  The BQ gets into your head – you change your approach to a race with a BQ on the line.  My BQ miss in Philadelphia mirrored Eric’s in Olathe – I couldn’t hold my pace.

Advice for coping with a BQ Miss

Eric’s reflection offers some lessons for runners who recently missed a BQ attempt.

1.  Immediately after the race, avoid declarations or decisions about next steps

Your emotions will be strong immediately after you miss a BQ.  Avoid making statements or decisions about whether (or when) to attempt another BQ while your emotions are so strong.  Take some time, grab something to eat, and enjoy the post-race scene.  If you can’t resist thinking about it, use the time to identify and name the emotions you are feeling and the needs that are driving them.  Just don’t make any declarations or decisions.  There is plenty of time to decide your next steps in the days following your race.

2.  Re-connect with your “big picture” and how running fits in

Qualifying for Boston can take on a life of its own; missing a BQ exaggerates that loss of context.  Pausing to reflect on your “big picture” restores the context and helps soften the sting of missing a BQ.  Each runner has a unique “big picture” – yours could include the progress you’ve made since you started running, the impact of running on your health and life, or the places you have visited through running.  Whatever your “big picture,” specifically connect with it to put the BQ in perspective.

3.  Review the race and realistically assess your fitness relative to a BQ

After the strength of your emotions subsides, review the race to identify what went well and what went poorly.  Was your training leading up to the race effective?  Were you fit enough?  Did your race strategy suit the course, conditions, and your fitness level?  How well did you execute your race strategy?  Were race conditions a factor in the result?  This assessment will help identify areas to adjust as you plan your next BQ attempt (if you choose to make one).

One April weekend, two races influenced by the wind.

Since that April weekend, there have been many more races and many more BQ attempts.  Qualifying for Boston wouldn’t have its legendary mystique if it were easy.  My friend Eric plans to race again, and he’ll get his BQ when the time is right.  And he’ll have earned it.

Then he’ll be hoping for a tailwind when he takes the start in Hopkinton.

What do you think?  Have you missed a BQ?  How did you handle it?  Do you have other advice for coping with a missed BQ?


Non-running workouts for breakthrough performance, Part Three: Strength

What issues do you struggle with in the late stages of a run?  Are you typically out of breath?  Are you “shuffling,” barely able to get your legs off the ground?  Are you hunched over, with your shoulders forward?  Where is the pain and fatigue?

Most distance runners (including me) would answer that strength and the ability to maintain form are challenges late in a run.  Perhaps the pain and fatigue is in your calves, glutes, or hamstrings.  For me, it’s the hip flexors and quads – they don’t move free and easy as they did at the start.

If strength and ability to maintain form are problems for you, adding running-specific strength exercises to your training program will help you achieve a breakthrough.  Running specific strength exercises improve running economy, reduce injury risk, and improve endurance.

I’ve never liked going to the gym or weight room.  I never thought “lifting weights” or building general strength helped.  I’ve always been concerned about adding bulk, which adds weight.

Here’s the key difference between general strength and running specific strength exercises – running-specific strength exercises target “functional running muscles” – the muscles that you actually use when you run.  Many of these exercises target your “core” (abdomen, lower back, butt, hips), but they also extend to your arms, lower legs, even feet.

Perhaps the best aspect of running specific strength exercises is that they don’t require a gym.  Here are some other great things about these exercises:

  • There are a lot of them, so you can choose which work best for you.
  • They don’t take long, so you can fit them into your day.
  • They produce fast results – in 4-6 weeks, you will see improvement.

Running specific strength exercises come in many shapes and sizes.  Some examples are listed below:

  • Pilates.  A system of exercises that emphasizes core strength.
  • Plyometrics.  Often referred to as “jump training,” these drills build power and fast action in lower body muscles.

Beyond these exercises, there are hundreds more that target functional running muscles.  A few places to look for strength exercises include Runners World and Coach Jay Johnson.  I am also in the process of compiling a catalog of strength building exercises for posting on this site.

Creating your short list

Given the variety of running specific strength exercises, it can be difficult to decide which exercises to add to your training program.  Consider the following suggestions.

  • Include your core.  The core is critical for all runners – a strong core improves running efficiency and endurance and reduces injury risk.  Your strength program should definitely include core work.
  • Target weak spots.  Target the areas where you feel fatigue, especially late in runs.
  • Seek balance.  Don’t over-emphasize one area.  A balanced program will help you build strength in all important muscles.

Fitting it in

Most runners don’t have extra time for strength exercises – it’s hard enough to squeeze a run into some days.  Consider these suggestions for fitting strength work into your daily routine.

  • Add strength work as a warm-up or cool-down activity.  Most strength exercises are good for warm-up or cool-down – they gently increase your heart rate and tax your muscles.  If you currently use static stretching before you run, consider replacing your static stretching routine with strength work.
  • Leverage existing waiting or outside time.  Find creative ways to leverage the time you already spend waiting or outside.  Do you take your dog for a walk?  Do you pick up your kids from the bus stop?  It only takes 30 seconds to complete a set of strength exercises.  You may look funny to your neighbors, but the improvements in your running experience could be worthwhile.
  • Replace a run with a strength workout.  Running less may help you run better or faster.  Consider replacing one of your runs with a strength workout.  Replacing one of your “slow run” days with stretching and strength work could improve your performance.

I’ve recently added strength exercises to my training program.  I use them as cool-down activities, performing most of my strength work while I’m outside walking the dog.  Our dog loves to run, and he often runs next to me as I do my plyometric drills.  My wife laughs at me, but that’s a small price to pay for the performance gains I expect.  My plan for the second half of 2011 will likely include even more strength training.  I hope to nail that down in the next month, and I will share it when it’s ready.

What do you think?  Does your training program include strength exercises?  Which ones work best for you?  Got a favorite strength exercise or program to share?  Let me know by posting a comment.  Sign up for the RSS feed or the email subscription.


Non-running workouts for breakthrough performance, Part Two: Stretching

When I was young, stretching was simple.  I’d perform about five exercises in about ten minutes.  I’d bend over to touch my toes, lean against a wall to stretch my calves, pull my foot to my butt to stretch my quads, and then I was off running.

Things have changed since then – today there are as many types of stretching as I did exercises back then.  Each type of stretching has a set of exercises and each type of stretching affects the body differently.  Understanding these differences can help you decide which makes sense for you.

Why should you stretch?

Lots of runners don’t stretch at all, and they seem fine.  Studies have demonstrated that some types of stretching, performed at some times, could harm running performance or cause injury.  Given the body of evidence collected by these studies, why should you incorporate stretching into your training program?

A large body of evidence suggests that the right type of stretching, performed at the right time, can:

  • Increase flexibility and range of motion, which improves performance and reduces injuries
  • Increase blood flow to muscles, which improves the speed and degree of your recovery from workouts

What to do when research demonstrates both negative and positive outcomes from stretching?

The key is to match the type of stretching with the time when you perform it.

The basic types of stretching

Two major types of stretching are commonly available to runners – static and dynamic.  Other types of stretching exist, but static and dynamic are the most common and relevant.

Static Stretching

“Static” indicates lack of movement – stretching a muscle or group of muscles to its farthest point and holding the position for a period of time (usually 15-30 seconds).  Common static stretches include the ones I described above – bending over to touch your toes, leaning against a wall to stretch your calves, or the butterfly to stretch your groin.

The term “passive” stretching is often used interchangeably with “static” stretching.  There is a subtle difference – in passive stretching, you assume a position and hold it with some other part of your body or with an external apparatus.  One passive stretch is putting your foot on the hood of a car and bending over to touch your knee (stretches your hamstring).

Dynamic Stretching

“Dynamic” stretches involve movement.  They consist of controlled body movements that gently take a person to the limits of their range of motion.  Each individual dynamic stretch is held for a brief period of time (up to 5 seconds).  Common dynamic stretches include butt-kicks, walking lunges, and leg lifts.

“Active stretching” is closely related to dynamic stretching.  Active stretching utilizes the physiological concept of “Reciprocal Inhibition.”  In reciprocal inhibition, contracting one muscle causes the opposite (or “cooperating”) muscle to relax.  One example is the biceps – triceps combination.  If you contract your biceps, your triceps relaxes.  Since a relaxed muscle is easier to stretch, active stretching exercises consist of contracting various muscles to help stretch their “cooperating” muscles.  Active Isolated Stretching uses a rope and body positioning to isolate and actively stretch muscles.

When to use what type?

The table below summarizes when to use what type of stretching.

When

Static

Passive

Dynamic

Active

Before training

No

No

Yes

Yes

After training

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Alternate time (not immediately before or after training)

Yes (with warm-up)

Yes

Yes

Yes

 

To sum up my research and experience:

  • Static or passive stretching before a workout is not recommended.  It increases injury risk since muscles are not warm and reduces performance by sapping muscle strength and reducing muscle tendon stiffness.
  • Consider dynamic or active stretching before a workout.  Besides increasing range of motion and flexibility, dynamic or active stretching effectively warms up running-specific muscles.
  • Post-workout stretching can dramatically improve recovery.  Post-workout stretching improves the quality of your next workout, resulting in more breakthrough training sessions.  It also relaxes muscles and makes you feel better!
  • Consider fitting in a stretching routine whenever you have time.  While stretching before and immediately after workouts might be most effective, stretching at any time can improve flexibility and range of motion, reduce injury risk, and make you feel better.

These days, I stretch more often than ever – both before and after a workout (or later in the day if I don’t have time immediately after a workout).  Active Isolated Stretching comprises 95% of my stretching program.  Stretching has made a major contribution to my breakthrough running performances.  On the rare occasion when I can’t stretch after a workout, I feel it the next day – my legs are stiffer and weaker and my performance suffers.

While living in New York City in 2001, I attended an Active Isolated Stretching class offered by Jim and Phil Wharton.  They asserted that lack of flexibility was the root cause of many different physical problems.  They cited leg length discrepancy as an example, suggesting that lack of flexibility could cause what might appear as a leg length discrepancy.  This hit home for me, since another doctor had prescribed orthotics for me due to (you guessed it) a leg length discrepancy.  Stretching helped me eliminate the orthotics.

Stretching is a valuable, almost essential, element of a breakthrough training program.  The right kind of stretching has a major impact on range of motion, flexibility, and injury risk.  If it’s not part of your training program now, you should consider adding it.