“Something I have always understood is that physical activity is key to a calm mind.” -Simon Whitfield, Olympic Gold Medalist
My New Year’s resolution? Have more awareness, in sport and in life in general. Surely, trail-running encourages present-mindedness, but whenever I take a yoga class, I walk away feeling renewed in a different way. I’m going on a bit of a “yoga expedition” this year, a little journey into my self and see what I can bring back and use on the trail.
This time of year, yoga’s a great alternative to slogging out dark, cold morning miles in the woods. I’m excited to incorporate yoga into my ultrarunning training this year as I have this strong sense that it will encourage further performance gains. Just taking four power yoga classes over the last week has influenced my running and teaching in subtle but noticeable ways. In addition to yoga, great sleep, good foods, plenty ‘o water, and omitting daily toxins like sugar, caffeine, and alcohol probably contribute to this feeling of greater equanimity. Simple is beautiful—just hop on your mat, listen to your instructor, and an hour’s over before you know it. Feel great all day, what’s not to love?
My first introduction to yoga came in 2010, about the time I got bit by the ultrarunning bug. Serenditously, I began to draw parallels between the two. On the mat or on the trail, there is no place to hide from yourself. And in order to get the most out of yourself in either context, you have to clear your mind, be present, breathe, and try your best to go with the flow.
My yoga teacher at Three Dog Yoga in Santa Rosa, Anna, was instructing during a power class just last week about the practical nature of yoga. Practical in the sense of being present, in the moment and how that serves us so well, on and off the mat. Yoga, as I understand it, is a practice, the proverbial journey with no destination. Reminds me of Joan Benoit Samuelson’s quote, “There is no finish line.” All that matters is what we’re doing in the moment, just like ultrarunning. Building presence of mind, then, is a skill we can work on and improve. Then we can take that skill and apply it to any area of our lives. For me, I take what I’m learning in yoga right into the classroom, into my coaching, my running, and my other important life roles.
Beyond presence of mind, yoga serves to stretch and strengthen the body. Yoga practice gets us in touch with our breathing. It also stretches and strengthens the mind by asking us to hold many challenging poses, especially challenging for notoriously tight muscled runners. All of these benefits, of course, are practical needs of any endurance athlete.
Candice Burt, 2nd place female at the 1/20/14 HURT 100mi trail run and new Tahoe Rim 200 Race Director, says that yoga changed her life. Here’s what she recently told Ultra Runner Podcast: the day after running 100mi at HURT:
“[Yoga’s] more of a perspective change, slowing down and trying being present in the moment. [It] helps you get to a clearer place. The breathing’s made me really present, it’s really helped me with my running. During the race yesterday, there were a lot of times when I started panicking over how many more miles were left or the next hill I had to climb. When I felt that panic, I would breathe in deep like I did in yoga and that would bring this sense of calm within me. I wouldn’t have been able to bring that calmness out if I hadn’t already practiced it through the yoga poses because a lot of the poses put you under a good deal of stress. You’re body learns how to deal with that, that fear, in the moment.”
Jumping back into ultrarunning from triathlon in 2013, I just ran, All. Year. Long. There wasn’t any strengthening, little stretching, and no sessions specifically attending to focused breathing. By December, I was feeling it. I didn’t just need to take a month off from running, I really wanted to. It’s never just about the body, the mind’s along for the ride too. So, I’m thinking of yoga as my specific mental conditioning training. When I studied sport psychology in graduate school, we were taught sport is 100% mental as well as 100% physical. They are different realms that need to be attended to individually. Surely, this is even more true for ultrarunning. Like I tell my students, the mind is a muscle, you don’t work it out by doing the homework (training) it’s just not gonna be there for you on test (race) day.
I’m always tinkering with my typical training week. I’m a creature of habit and seem to be happiest when I’m engrossed in activities that are most meaningful to me; finding time for quality run training being one example. This year I’m focused on building my two greatest limiters: speed in 50k and 50mi events, and climbing across the board. So, in order to accomodate more intense sessions, I’m dropping my weekly volume a bit. Building for two weeks—versus three—and then taking a recovery week will be another big change. It’s that recovery week that I’m most jazzed about.
I feel this “Two On—One Off” approach to training will keep me healthy while steadily progressing. As is traditional in a run recovery week, I’ll drop the running volume considerably, while maintaining integrity to the most important sessions: two hill sessions and a faster, mid-week road run. I cut the intensity during these sessions by about 40-50% in the recovery week so that I feel like I’m truly recovering while staying sharp. Enter yoga.
Recovery weeks, now, will not only be about recovery from running, but strengthening the body (and mind) to more effectively cope with subsequent run training. I believe yoga can even keep the “flame to train” burning bright. ‘Cause if it’s not fun, we shouldn’t be out there slogging away, right?
It’s gonna be another fun year in the woods, and on the mat! I’ll be writing at least three more follow up posts on yoga’s influence on my ultrarunning training and racing. I have a whole slew of ideas rattling away in my head. Inspiration is everywhere.