Yoga, Pilates and Stretching for the Endurance Athlete

Yoga Poses

Many endurance athletes have incorporated yoga, Pilates and stretching into their exercise routines. While there are many benefits to using these techniques, there are also some potential pitfalls. Here are some basic descriptions of each practice to help you decide what best suits your needs.

All About Yoga

Yoga is a vast practice that incorporates many variations on an ancient tradition. The origins of yoga come from India, and are part of an overall way of health and wellness known as Ayurveda. While there may be some spiritual component in some yoga classes, there are many variations and ways of practice to choose from. There is truly something for everyone.

Depending on where you live, you may have several types of yoga to choose from or a limited selection. Here are some different types to look for:

  • Iyengar focuses on bodily alignment, and emphasizes holding poses over long periods. It encourages the use of props such as yoga blankets, blocks and straps in order to bring the body into alignment.
  • Vinyasa tends to be a more vigorous style of yoga based on the performance of a series of poses called Sun Salutations, in which movement is matched to the breath.
  • Hatha is generally slow-paced and gentle, and provides a good introduction to basic yoga poses.
  • Power Yoga or Ashtanga is a fast-paced, intense style of yoga. A set series of poses is performed, always in the same order. There is constant movement from one pose to the next.
  • Restorative Yoga is meant to promote recovery and relaxation, and it uses very slow movement or sustained poses. It also encourages the use of props such as yoga blankets, blocks and straps.
  • Bikram or Hot Yoga is practiced in a 95- to 100-degree room. It is thought to promote more flexibility and cleansing by way of heavy sweating, and uses a set series of 26 general poses.
  • It’s best to try out different classes and decide what feels right. It is also beneficial to choose your classes based on how they fit into your training program — whether you’re using it for recovery or as a hard workout.

Pilates 101

Pilates focuses on functional movement that arises from the core. Developed as a way to train ballet dancers in the 1920s, creator Joseph Pilates invented this method of progressively complex exercises that begin with basic floor exercises and progress to working on special equipment. Modern Pilates may vary depending on the instructor’s knowledge and availability of genuine Pilates equipment. Generally, classes will be either on the floor with a mat or on equipment. There is great value to both approaches.

It’s most important that you are working within your capabilities and being progressed to more complex exercises at an appropriate rate. Learning how to move properly from your core is a great asset for your performance and overall health, and is something most people need to improve. Because of the complex nature of using core muscles properly, I always recommend beginning with private instruction to be sure you’re doing the movements correctly. Once you have a good understanding of how to activate your core properly, it’s fine to work in a group environment. If you jump into a group class prematurely, you’re likely to do it wrong (even though you think you’re doing it right) and you may continue to reinforce poor core function.

Clearing Up the Stretching Confusion

If you were to ask 10 people the best way to stretch, you would likely get 10 different answers. Over the years, there have been a lot of recommendations and conflicting research, and it’s hard to know what to believe. More recently, there have been some innovative and effective techniques that have changed the way athletes think about stretching.

To understand the effect of different types of stretching, it’s important to know how muscles react to the two basic techniques:

Passive: This traditional way of stretching will actually weaken a muscle, and has limited effect on overall improvement of range of motion (ROM). This type of stretch is defined by holding a stretch for a prolonged period without any muscular activation. You will get limited improvement in ROM because there is a natural protective mechanism in muscles that prevents injury, called stretch reflexes. There are applications for passive stretching to correct imbalances, but it is important to be strategic when you do this type of stretching.

Active: There are several methods of active stretching, each designed to trick the body into increasing ROM by overriding the body’s stretch mechanism. This is done by using active muscle contraction strategically to increase the stretch. Active isolated stretching (AIS) and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) fall into this category, and are much more effective and functional than passive stretching. With both AIS and PNF techniques, there is a muscle activation of the muscle to be stretched and then relaxation, followed by either a passive increase of ROM or activating the opposing muscle to increase ROM.

Regular stretching is important to optimize your performance, aid recovery, and maintain muscle balance. Targeting trouble spots and maintaining a consistent routine will yield the best results. If you find it difficult to do a wide variety of stretches daily, it will still go a long way if you squeeze in a few each day. This will add up over time, as there is a cumulative effect to stretching.

Integrating yoga, Pilates and stretching into your routine can be very rewarding. They all have the potential to take your training and racing to the next level, not to mention improve your general health and posture. As always, be cautious about over-training and prioritize your workouts depending on your goals, training phase and the time of year.

Tim Monaco is a multi-sport coach, licensed massage therapist, corrective exercise specialist, holistic lifestyle coach, and certified metabolic typing advisor from Bend, OR.  Tim is a former professional triathlete who has won Vineman Ironman, Buffalo Springs Lake 70.3 and numerous ultra marathons, and has completed 15 international Ironman events. You can contact him at (541) 948-7018 or