Charlotte Johnson for Yoga Medicine® shares how yoga for athletic recovery can help during long-haul endurance sports like multi-day cycling tours.
Yoga at an Endurance Sporting Event
The JoBerg2c is a 9-day mountain biking race from the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, to the coast – 900 kilometers away. Over 800 riders enter this event every year. And this year I joined the recovery team to offer yoga and myofascial release sessions to the riders. It is an incredible learning experience to work with a mountain biker after one long day in the saddle. But to do this nine days in a row requires a different application of yoga and recovery techniques as the athletes’ bodies wear the stress over the course of the race.
The mind of the athlete is key
The long-distance triathlete Sebastian Kienle said; “Your body drives you to the line, but your mind makes you cross it”. I instantly became aware of the role that the mind plays on an endurance race. I would argue that the mind is also what drives you to the line. The athletes who gained control of their minds were clearly having a different experience than the other athletes. Athletes who were invested in the enjoyment and the experience of their sport, rather than solely their performance or ranking, appeared to wear the physical effects of the race better than those who allowed themselves to be weighed down by fears, uncertainty, pain, and performance. In particular, one athlete stood out to me. He was over 60 years old and his sheer enjoyment of mountain biking seemed to keep him (somewhat miraculously) pain-free throughout the race.
So how did I apply yoga? After noticing this, I spent time in every session inviting and guiding the athletes to take control of their experience. I would invite them to mentally recap their day and to think of a few things they were grateful for, such as the things that went right that day. I encouraged them to recall all the reasons why they enjoy their sport. Many of these athletes are riding it for a purpose beyond themselves – for a charity or in memory of loved ones lost. It was helpful to reconnect with these purposes. It was also good to acknowledge that although the race held many factors that were beyond personal control. The one factor that did remain in their control was the choice of how they would respond to adversity or the unexpected.
The immune system of the athlete needs TLC!
In the JoBerg2c, the average athlete spends about 6-8 hours in the saddle daily and therefore, would have anywhere between 12-16 hours of recovery time before getting back in the saddle. However, the body’s recovery rate starts to slow down over the course of nine days as you keep loading the body with stressors without giving it enough time to fully return to homeostasis.
My perception is that from Day 1- 3, the athletes experienced general muscle soreness, cramping, and fatigue. Yet they were able to return to a somewhat rested state between these days. From Days 4-7, the recovery time noticeably slowed and the athletes’ immune systems became compromised. Many athletes picked up head colds and stomach issues. This was also the time period during which I noticed the mental fatigue, resulting in more accidents and errors occurring on the bike.
During this time, I took particular care with addressing the immune system through yoga. Imagine being taken out of the race of your life over a runny nose! During these yoga sessions I focused on boosting circulation, reducing stress, and facilitating relaxation.
These were my main focus points:
- Boosting circulation assists the body in processing toxins faster. To do this, I offered poses that incorporated gentle compressions such as twists, child’s pose, or a modified version of broken toe pose.
- Stress reduction is important because when one is on a bike descending a sheer cliff face, there is a good amount of adrenaline pumping through the body as the sympathetic response kicks in. This sympathetic response is good for keeping one alive and negotiating obstacles on the bike with acuity. However, too much time spent in this heightened state starts to impact the body on multiple levels, including adversely affecting the immune system. I spent time cultivating breath awareness and deepening the breath. The movement of the diaphragm during slower, deeper breathing . massages the vagus nerve, in turn tbreathing.he parasympathetic response which reduces stress.
- Facilitating relaxation when you have a limited amount of time to gain the maximum amount of recovery is important, however, not all relaxations are made the same. This means there are ways to quickly ‘switch on’ the parasympathetic response versus times where you can slowly slide into relaxation, like putting your feet up with a beer in hand. The former being the method of choice when your body has limited recovery time. To ‘switch on’ the parasympathetic response, I offered restorative or yin style postures that made use of props for support. I also incorporated myofascial release techniques into the practice. It is best to try ‘switch on’ the parasympathetic response within the first 2 hours after exercise.
Here’s what I didn’t expect…
I expected a consistent decline after the effects of fatigue kicked in. I expected my exhaustion to compound. Instead around Day 7 or earlier, many athletes had adapted or compensated to reach a strength and resilience plateau. They felt physically strong, mentally capable and were enjoying their sport. Noting how quickly the athletes were able to adapt, I came back to the importance of the mind in an endurance race. It is impossible to ignore the correlations between the strength of the mind (affected by among other factors, the enjoyment of the sport) and an athlete’s recovery rate or their perceived need for recovery.
I also pondered on the effect that nature had on recovery. For nine days we were steeped in the most remote and beautiful landscapes that the South African hinterland has to offer. It made me think of what the author Henry David Thoreau described as “wilderness tonic”. I dug a little deeper on this one and found that, indeed, there is scientific evidence backing the positive effects that being in nature has on the immune system and recovery rate.
You can recover “too much”
By this I mean that in the body’s return to homeostasis, inserting too many recovery methods can, in fact, hinder the process. At the race, there were various recovery options available – physio, sports massage, dry needling, yoga, myofascial release, compression boots, and more! There were athletes that would come off a bad day on the bike feeling cramping, sore and shattered, then work their way through every therapy available. But it’s important to remember that many of these modalities also requires a recovery period for the tissues to respond and adapt so more isn’t always better.
In myofascial release for example, we are triggering an inflammatory response to instigate the healing process that allows the tissues to adapt and recover more quickly. As the body heals, it lays down the collagenous fascial wave in a stronger, more orderly configuration indicative of healthy fascia. However, with deeper, more aggressive work, there is also more inflammation. And thus, more recovery time is needed. When an athlete is low on recovery time, it is very important to mete out the amount of therapies one applies. To take care in this regard, I applied gentle myofascial work, in the initial days of the race. I stayed away from highly inflamed areas of the body (due to over-exertion), such as the legs. And focused on areas of secondary stress such as the quadratus lumborum and semispinalis capitus.
It was important to assess the need of each athlete and for some, I had to prescribe the feet-up-beer-in-hand recovery option as their tissues would not benefit from the additional inflammation. For these athletes, it was also important to reacquaint and reassure them of their body’s ability to adapt and recover because in many cases, the angst around recovery sat within the mind. Many athletes needed to be reminded that their body had a keen sense of its own recovery process and that their success or failure did not hinge on a myofascial release tool or a massage table.
Watching and working with these athletes over nine days shattered many preconceived notions I had about how bodies function in certain conditions. It ultimately reminded me anew of the magic that is the synergies between the mind and body and how important it is to engage all of ourselves in the way we move and heal.
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About the Author
Charlotte Johnson is a yoga and mindfulness teacher based in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed her 200-hour teacher training in 2012. Over the next few years she continued to explore what yoga meant to her and how best to convey yogic teachings and the ways in which it could make for a better life.
In 2017 she started her advanced teacher training with Yoga Medicine. During this time, she also started working more specifically with athletes – using yoga as a supplementary training to assist them in better, more efficient performances.
Alongside this she started working towards establishing mindfulness programs in high schools and tertiary education institutions in Johannesburg. She is passionate about finding the simplest and most accessible forms of yoga and mindfulness to convey and teach, as she believes that the principles of yoga and mindfulness are universal. And as such, everybody should have access to the ways in which engaging in these practices can guide one towards leading a more conscious and alive existence in which you feel good too!