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 Downward Dog vs. The Cobra Pose…

We all love our outdoor pursuits, but hiking and backpacking can put unique strain on your body.  The forward bending posture and, often, prolonged uphill climbing creates stress in the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.  Carrying a pack, even of light weight, puts strain on the upper back, shoulders and neck.  Then there’s the usual fatigue in the calves, ankles and arches of the feet that will happen to anyone who is on their feet for long periods of time.  There are two basic Yoga Asanas (Poses) that will specifically help stretch and strengthen all of these muscle groups to help reduce the risk of injury.

Both asanas are found in the Sun Salutation sequence.  If you followed my previous Yoga Practice for Hikers article you are already familiar with the Downward-Facing Dog and the Cobra Pose as they are both an integral part of that sequence.

The Downward-Facing Dog

Downward-Facing Dog Pose...

Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) puts focus on strengthening the upper back while also stretching the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands.  Holding this pose and moving through this pose also work to strengthen the arms and legs.  It is also said to be beneficial for digestion and relieves headaches, back ache, insomnia and fatigue.  For our purposes, we will be focused on the muscle contraction in the upper back at the apex of the pose, and getting as much of a stretch as is comfortable in the hamstrings, calves and arches while maintaining a tight core.

The Cobra Pose

Cobra Pose...

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) is used to strengthen the spine and stretch out the chest, lungs, shoulders and abdomen.  At the deepest stretch in this pose it will also firm the glutes and stretch your quads.  Proper deep breathing in this pose will help to stretch and open the chest.  Cobra is supposed to stimulate the digestive organs, help relieve stress and fatigue, sooth the sciatic nerve and be therapeutic for Asthma.  We will be focused on keeping shoulders back and chest out, pushing the hips to the floor to strengthen the glutes and get a good stretch in the quads.

Alternate: The Upward-Facing Dog

Upward-Facing Dog Pose...

If you want to add focus to strengthening the arms and wrists, we can replace the Cobra Pose with Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana).  The benefits and muscles affected are similar but the Upward-Facing Dog requires pushing up and forward, with the hands firmly planted, using the arms, shoulders and upper back to hold the position.  There is a tendency to “hang” on the shoulders in this pose, which compresses the neck and lowers the chest.  Be mindful of your posture here, shoulders should be drawn back toward the tailbone lengthening the neck.  Head should be straight, looking forward, or slightly bent back.

Putting it to practice…

Now I’ll walk you through the sequence.  For those of you who have done Hindu Push-ups, this will be very similar.  As always, you should start in a relaxed position (either seated or standing) and practice proper Yoga breathing until your mind is calm, focused and present.  You can actually use the beginning of the Sun Salutation sequence to get into position:

  1. When ready, bring your palms together at your chest, thumbs resting against your sternum (Mountain Pose). Exhale.
  2. Inhale and raise your arms stretched above your head, shoulders back and pelvis forward (slight backward bend in your spine) (Forward Salute Pose).
  3. Exhale and bend your knees slightly, bending at the waist and keeping your back straight, lower your hands to touch the mat on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  4. Inhale and move your right foot back, knee touching the floor (Lunge).
  5. In pause between breaths, move your left foot back, both knees on the floor (or into Plank Position – THIS IS OUR STARTING POSITION).
  6. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your feet and your heals toward the ground (Downward Dog Position).  Focus on knitting your shoulder blades together, upper back tight, chest out, shoulders back and arms straight.  Keep your neck in line with your torso (spine straight).  Feel the full stretch in your glutes, hamstrings, calves and arches.  Do NOT force the stretch beyond what is comfortable.  The pose should not hurt.  You may hold this pose for several breaths if you like, but continue proper, controlled breathing with your core strong.
  7. Exhale and slowly lower your chest and nose to within an inch or two of the mat, your hands firmly planted and elbows in close to the body (Chaturanga or Four-Limbed Staff Pose).  Your knees may touch the mat if you prefer.  You can pause at this position briefly or you can glide through this pose and straight in to Cobra Pose.  If you will be moving into Upward-Facing Dog instead of Cobra, keep your legs straight here and do not let your knees touch the floor.
  8. Inhale and lower pelvis while pushing the chest up, arms supporting the posture and shoulders back (Cobra Position).  Focus on knitting the shoulder blades again with your chest out and shoulders back.  Don’t worry about forcing your back to arch uncomfortably, but focus more on keeping your shoulders back, head up, and pushing your hips to the ground.  The arch should be held using the back muscles, not by pushing with your arms (unless you are using Forward-Facing Dog here).  Feel the stretch in your quads.  If you are comfortable with it, roll off the balls of your feet and point your toes.  This will move you forward a little and deepen the stretch.  Breathe deeply in this position opening the chest and lungs.
  9. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your thighs again and your heals toward the floor returning to Downward Dog Position.  Repeat steps 6 through 8.

To come out of the exercise, reverse steps 1 through 5 until you are back in Mountain Pose.  This sequence is as much a strength training exercise as it is a stretch and I treat it as I would push-ups (Hindu Push-ups).  So, for pre-hike stretch I would maybe do 15 or 20 of these to warm up.  If your breathing becomes too forced and erratic, you are working too hard…reduce the reps or slow down.  Remember to maintain controlled movements, slower is better.  You should not be throwing your body into any of these postures, you should move into them naturally.  As you practice, the postures will feel more natural and comfortable as your strength and flexibility improve.