Yoga Practice for Hikers: Benefits of Yoga in Endurance Training…

This is an addendum to the multi-part Backpacking Training series “Hiking and Fitness: Training to go-big” Pt1Pt2 by Bob Doucette at ProactiveOutside:

Any of us who have been out on the trail for more than a few days understand that backpacking is an endurance sport.  Whatever your reasons for being out there, whatever your mindset or perspective regarding the activity, your body understands backpacking as an endurance activity.  Most backpackers, and trainers who work with backpackers, focus on 5 primary fitness aspects: Aerobic Endurance, Anaerobic Endurance, Upper Body Strength, Lower Body Strength and Flexibility.  In his previous posts, Bob has focused on cardio training and weight training as it relates to hiking and backpacking…but I want to talk about the benefits of Yoga.

 

Yoga for Hikers

Yoga Breathing and Aerobic/Anaerobic Endurance

Aerobic exercise is typically lower intensity, higher endurance type work and uses available oxygen in the bloodstream as fuel.  Anaerobic exercise is higher-intensity, but significantly shorter bursts of activity usually recruiting much more overall muscle fiber and feeds primarily on glucose (and glycogen reserves).  Both Aerobic and Anaerobic endurance rely on the body’s ability to access fuel (oxygen and glycogen) more effectively and to use the fuel more efficiently.

Controlled, focused, mindful breathing is an integral part of any Yoga practice.  Yogic breathing teaches us to control our breathing throughout the physical exertion of holding and transitioning between postures.  With regular practice it opens the lungs, chest and diaphragm and deepens our breathing capacity.  In a study of the cardiopulminary effects of Yoga published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2002, it was reported that,

The intense stretching and muscle conditioning associated with attaining and holding yoga postures increases skeletal muscle oxidative capacity and decreases glycogen utilization.

The reason behind this increased efficiency was described here, “The slow breathing rates associated with yoga breathing have been shown to substantially reduce chemoreflex response to hypoxia, probably through the improved oxygen delivery to tissues…” and “The slow increase in lung capacity associated with well-practiced yoga breathing recruits normally unventilated lung and helps to match ventilation to perfusion better, thereby increasing oxygen delivery to highly metabolic tissues (e.g., muscle).

The findings in these studies (referenced below) show that regular Yoga practice, when combined with proper Yogic breathing techniques, increases lung capacity and muscle efficiency.  Allowing your body to not only store and deliver greater amounts of oxygen to the blood stream through more controlled and deliberate breathing, but also reduce the amount of glycogen your body needs in Anaerobic metabolism.  In short, Yoga breathing adds fuel to the fire and your fire burns less fuel.

From her article, Going the Distance, published at YogaJournal.com: Nancy Coulter-Parker says,

” The greater your aerobic and anaerobic endurance, the better able you are to sustain exercise for a prolonged period of time. Improving your endurance can make your cardiovascular and respiratory systems more efficient and decrease both your resting heart rate and stress levels…

…one of the keys to endurance is to better utilize your oxygen intake.”

Clayton Horton, director of Greenpath Yoga Studio in San Francisco and a former triathlete and competitive swimmer suggests,

“Being conscious of the breath allows our body to breathe better.  Conscious breath teaches you to pay attention to the quality of your breath, and you learn to observe and perhaps even manipulate your breathing during physical activities.”

For improving endurance through better breathing, Horton suggests asanas that enhance both range of motion and lung capacity by opening the chest and rib cage. These include Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), as well as Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged Pigeon Pose).

Yoga and Strength Training

Upper and lower body strength is also highly important in endurance training.  Not mentioned, but implied, is the development of a solid core.  We are not talking about muscle development and growth necessarily, too much muscle can be a liability in endurance sports.  Large amounts of muscle mass require large amounts of fuel and are, typically, less efficient.  What we want to develop is the ability to recruit more muscle tissue in each movement.  This delivers more power, with less muscle mass, utilizing less fuel.

Body weight exercises are especially good when it comes to engaging more overall muscle during your workout.  A simple push-up, as most of us know, not only works the chest and triceps but also works the legs, abs, back and shoulders.  Further, performing asymmetrical push-ups throw your balance off and engage even more of your core muscles.  Many Yoga postures are designed specifically to engage multiple muscle groups and fire your stabilizing muscles at the same time.  Holding a typical standing pose like Warrior I or II, will engage almost every muscle in your body and holding the posture challenges the smaller core stabilizing muscles used to maintain your balance.  This whole-body muscle recruitment, combined with the deep breathing, builds stronger, more efficient muscle tissue.

Challenging arm balances and inversion poses are very effective for building muscle strength,” says Yoga Expert Rodney Yee, “because they flex groups of smaller muscles — not just the major muscles you work with a weight machine — to support the body’s weight during the pose.

Holding standing poses such as the warrior poses and triangle pose,” he adds, “is great for strengthening the leg muscles. And in balance poses such as tree pose, one leg has to hold up your entire body. So you’re increasing your strength just by putting your weight on that leg.

When it comes to using yoga to improve muscle strength and endurance, Horton (mentioned above) recommends focusing on any asanas that promote a lengthening of muscles in the body, such as Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), as well as stabilizing and strengthening poses that develop core strength, such as Navasana (Boat Pose).

Yoga and Flexibility and Balance

The idea that Yoga can improve our flexibility is pretty common knowledge.  Even those with no Yoga experience at all would tell you that Yoga can improve flexibility.  Yoga asanas work by safely stretching your muscles, releasing the lactic acid that builds up during intense (Anaerobic) exercise causing stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. In addition, yoga increases the range of motion in joints reducing the risk of injury. Yoga stretches not only stretch your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body including ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles. According to a WebMD article on the Health benefits of Yoga, “…you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time. In one study, participants had up to 35% improvement in flexibility after only eight weeks of yoga.(Personally, I have seen improvements in my flexibility after only a few sessions)

This from an article on Flexibility Training at RunnersWorld.com,

Yoga involves static-active stretching, making it a hybrid of the other forms of stretching. As in static stretching (whose proper technical name is static-passive stretching), you assume and hold positions in which certain muscles are lengthened. Like CR (Contract-relax), yoga also involves isometric contractions, but with a crucial difference: In CR, you contract and relax the same muscle in a coordinated sequence; in yoga, you hold one set of muscles in isometric contractions while relaxing and stretching the muscles opposite them.

Yoga is seen by many as a complete form of exercise. It increases passive and dynamic flexibility as well as balance and coordination…

Balance is a particularly important asset in backpacking and is often overlooked in training.  Good balance out on the trail can be the difference between an innocent stumble and a serious injury.  I’ve seen many hikers/runners take a spill simply due to poor balance.  Many of the standing postures in Yoga are performed on one leg (or some other isometric position) for the purpose of practicing balance.  Yoga also teaches the mental side to maintaining good balance, achieving some standing postures takes great focus and control (Mindfullness).  If you haven’t worked on your balance in a while, try a posture as basic as Vrksasana (Tree Pose)and see how long you can hold the pose.  For most it’s a matter of seconds.  When you feel comfortable balancing in Vrksasana, try to transition directly into one of the more challenging standing poses like Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Extended Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose) or Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose) without letting your raised foot touch the ground.

The amazing thing about Yoga is, for all it’s fitness benefits, it’s also restorative.  Many elite athletes and trainers have incorporated regular Yoga into their fitness training because it helps restore flexibility, speeds muscle recovery, reduces stress and helps prevent injury.  If you haven’t incorporated Yoga into your training, you are missing out on an amazingly fruitful fitness resource.

 

Sources:

  • Article written by JAMES A. RAUB, M.S. for the THE JOURNAL OF ALTERNATIVE AND COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE

CARDIOPULMONARY STATUS: EFFECTS OF HATHA YOGA ON LUNG FUNCTION AND OVERALL CARDIOVASCULAR ENDURANCE IN HEALTHY ADULTS

1) “For example, Joshi et al. (1992) followed lung function in 75 males and females with an average age of 18.5 years during yoga breath-control exercises. After 6 weeks of practice, they reported significant increases in forced vital capacity (FVC), forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1), peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR), maximum voluntary ventilation (MVV), as well as a significant decrease in breathing frequency (fB), and prolongation of breath-holding time.”

2) “Rai and Ram (1993) compared an active Hatha Yoga posture (Virasana or Warrior pose) to chair-sitting and to a resting, supine posture (Savasana) in 10 healthy men, 25 to 37 years of age. The active posture induced a hypermetabolic state, as indicated by increased minute ventilation, heart rate (HR), and oxygen consumption (V.O2), compared to either the chair-sitting or resting posture. In a similar study, the same authors (Rai et al., 1994) compared an active sitting posture (Siddhasana) to chair-sitting and supine relaxation and found the same results, indicating that the yoga “activity” and not the body “posture” was important for cardiovascular “conditioning.””

3) “Telles et al. (2000) reported that a combination of yoga postures interspersed with relaxation improved measures of cardiopulmonary status in 40 male volunteers to a greater degree than relaxation alone. Cyclic meditation (stimulation plus calming), consisting of yoga postures and periods of supine relaxation, was better at decreasing V.O2 and fB, and increasing tidal volume than sessions of Savasana (calming) alone. Konar et al. (2000) reported that the practice of Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) twice daily for 2 weeks significantly reduced resting HR and left ventricular end-diastolic volume in 8 healthy male subjects. Birkel and Edgren (2000) reported that yoga postures, breath control, and relaxation techniques taught to 287 college students (89 men and 198 women) in two 50-minute class meetings for 15 weeks significantly improved FVC of the lungs measured by spirometry. In a similar study, 1 hour of yoga practice each day for 12 weeks significantly improved FVC, FEV1, and PEFR in 60 healthy young women, 17 to 28 years of age (Yadav and Das, 2001).”

4) “Finally, a number of published studies have reported significant improvement in overall cardiovascular endurance of young subjects who were given varying periods of yoga training (months to years) and compared to a similar group who performed other types of exercise.”

  • Going the Distance By Nancy Coulter-Parker
  • Using Yoga To Prevent Injuries And Accelerate Recovery By Sabrina Grotewold Published Feb. 28, 2012

 

Yoga Practice for Hikers: The Importance of Breathing…

As you sit at your computer reading this article, I want you to be conscious of your breathing.  Consciously exhale long and easy through your nose, do not force the breath, just let it escape through your nostrils.  Feel it leave your body.  Then, begin to inhale.  Bring the air in through your nose at the same pace of your exhale, slow and deliberate but not forced.  Now pause for a moment.  Try it again.  Try counting this time as you slowly exhale, try to count slowly to at least 5 or 6.  Then inhale again, use the same count as you did for your exhale.  Repeat this process, and with each breath be mindful and conscious of your breathing.

 

yoga for hikers

Why is the way we breathe important?  Why do we breathe like this?  Practicing breathing in this way demands our focused attention, keeping our minds engaged in the moment.  Mindful, conscious breathing increases physiological awareness.  Focused, mindful breathing also reduces stress, strengthens the respiratory system, energizes your mind and body and focuses the brain on the now.  Breathing is an integral part of Yoga Practice and these breathing techniques, when used properly, can also help us on the trail when fighting fatigue, stress or altitude.

Posture is also important as we practice breathing.  Make sure you are comfortably seated with your spine straight and your arms and shoulders relaxed.  Your head should be balanced and in line with your spine.  Make sure your pelvis is tilted in line with your spine and your weight is evenly distributed and balanced.  Chest out and strong, shoulders relaxed and core solid.  Keeping this posture, continue your breathing practice from above.  Out through the nose (count if you need to), pause, then in through the nose (counting again) and pause.  Repeat.  You should be able to feel your muscles relax with each exhale and energize with each inhale.

Your mind should be on your breathing, noticing the subtle movements in your body as you practice.  If your mind wanders (which it will at first), don’t get frustrated.  Simply refocus, gently, bringing your mind back to the task at hand.  Try this exercise from YogaEverywhere.com:

The Three Breath Practice: By Jillian Pransky

You can practice Three Deep Conscious Breaths anywhere, anytime and as often as you wish. However, when you are just starting out, it can be helpful to follow these few simple steps to enhance the effectiveness of your practice. For more seasoned yoga practitioners, please skip down and begin at #4:

  1. Please stop whatever activity you are involved in so you can give your full attention to the breath. Over time you will be able to consciously breathe in any moment – while you are walking, talking, listening, working, waiting, or even eating, however, in the beginning, it’s good to stop what you’re doing so you can concentrate more easily.
  2. You can sit in a chair or on the ground with your back relaxed, but straight or stand with your weight distributed evenly on each foot.
  3. When you are new to the practice, and if you are in a safe environment, you may close your eyes so your attention is on the breath and not on outside activities and scenery. However, eventually, you actually want to do this practice with your eyes open, aware of your environment. This way, you learn to connect to your breath as you are moving regularly from moment to moment, engaged in the world around you.
  4. Relax and take a deep breath, slowly breathing through your nose, then breathe out again through your nose. Allow your mind to follow your breath in and back out of your body. You can focus on the tip of the nose where the breath enters and leaves or you can mentally follow the breath on its complete path in to and back out of the body.
  5. After you have completely exhaled, allow another natural breath to flow in. Don’t pull or suck the breath in, it will come to you naturally. Once you have a full breath in, exhale again without forcing or pushing the breath out. Allow all of the breath to empty from your lungs without jumping ahead to the next inhale. Simply rest your mind on the breath and feel its effects; observing and sensing. Stay relaxed and allow your awareness of the breath to be soft, not heavy with concentration.
  6. Each inhalation and exhalation is one cycle. Do three cycles and allow your mind to rest fully on the breath. You may notice that your mind wanders even after the first breath. When you notice that the mind has tripped out to your to-do-list, dissecting a past conversation, or balancing your check book, just acknowledge that you’ve been distracted and gently guide your mind back to your breath. The attitude in which you guide yourself back to the breath is KEY. So when you find yourself tripping out, just be humored, and with the warmth you’d offer your best friend, guide your mind back to the flow of your next breath. (We tend to go where we feel welcomed, to relax and expand more when we are not bullied.)
  7. After getting the hang of paying attention to Three Conscious Breaths bring the practice into your every day life as often as you can. You skip parts 1-3 and jump right to 4-6. Use this Three Breath Pause through out your day in any moment, when you are walking to your office, eating lunch, in a conversation with a friend, working on your computer, waiting on a line, stuck in traffic, when ever. You will find this practice transforming your day. And, eventually, you will find the “Pause” more accessible to you in those harder moments, like when you’ve just been insulted, or your child or parent is pushing your buttons, or anytime you feel your anger or irritation building.

Proper Breathing is not only an important part of your Yoga Practice, it’s a great way to reduce stress, quiet the mind and control the body.  It brings you fully into the moment, allowing you to completely connect with the present.  Whether it’s Yoga Practice, a short hike, a quiet moment outside or an afternoon at a breathtaking vista…mindful, conscious breathing can put you in the right mindset for a deeper, more meaningful experience.