Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Competitive Yoga

Everybody makes New Year's resolutions. Given the number of minor but still debilitating injuries I've gone through in the last year my most "major" resolution was to try and do some form of stretching at least 150 days this year. That works out to about every other day, so it seemed like an achievable goal. I did Yoga about 50 percent of the days in November and December (modified due to a torn oblique), it was feeling good, but I wanted to feel "looser" and perhaps also prevent some of the soft (and not so soft) tissue injuries I've been having. I blame these injuries directly on getting older--I'm as motivated and fired up as ever, but my body just doesn't do as well with rapid sport switches and sudden random movements as it used to. I'd really noticed that my comfortable range of motion was decreasing; it stands to reason that a better range of motion in my muscles, and putting my body into weird positions more regularly, might result in fewer injuries or at least a more comfortable feeling.

I'm wired as tightly as an ostrich; I've always done some form of irregular and often injury-causing stretching over the years, but the reality is that my range of motion was still decreasing. Yoga helps fight my natural stiffness when I do it regularly, but Yoga can also be really damaging. Yoga instructors usually have no clue how to deal with competitive athletes or the male ego in their students. When I walk into a class and flop the mat down I'm just NOT there to get in touch with my inner chillness, I'm in there to bust a cap on my stiff ass, know what I mean? The problem with this attitude is that it results in "competitive yoga," which results in injuries. Touch my toes? Yeah, so I can't do that normally but the flabby-assed punter on the next mat is touching his head to his knee so I'll just try harder... Oops, that was the sound of hamstring ripping... Eventually I figured out that Yoga wasn't competitive, but I watch guys in classes do exactly what I've just described a lot. Yoga instructors should start their classes by saying, "If you're an athlete the next hour needs a mental adjustment. It's not like the weight room, where the goal is to lift the heaviest weight you can and try as hard as you can. If you use that approach today you WILL be injured, perhaps seriously. There are people in this room who can do what you will likely never be able to do unless you also practice Yoga regularly for years. So just work gently with your range of motion or you will be injured. A stretch should feel good, like yawning, not like a jack is forcing your body into a new position. Forcing your body in Yoga will only result in injuries, which will make you stiffer, not more flexible. Regular gentle practice will help you gain flexibility and strength through a range of motion, which may make you a better athlete. Going hard at Yoga once a week will only result in INJURY. So mellow out, do NOT push into pain, just practice regularly with a relaxed and smooth attitude and you might not get hurt. Guys, this means YOU. Clear?" Most Yoga instructors seem to think their students don't try hard enough, and will urge "Push into the position, relax into it, push a little farther" and similar rhetoric that any decent athlete will respond to with effort to the point of injury... It only took me three years and a lot of injuries to figure the above out, maybe you learned the lesson faster. I've done fits and bursts of Yoga for the last three years, it's still helped once I mellowed out a bit, but I don't think I'm seeing good gains because I wasn't regular about it. So 150 days of Yoga this year or bust!

It's day 42 of the year and I've hit the mat 22 days despite four weeks of travel of chaotic travel (travel is always chaotic, but add in an eight-month old, some competitions and some foreign countries and it's total chaos). I've done yoga in the business lounge of several airports, in the hallways of hotels early in the morning, and on a nasty tile floor in Mexico. I have a basic routine that takes 25 minutes at a bare minimum, and 45 if I work with it a bit. The first five minutes involve no "stretching," just moving through my range of motion and generating heat. That's another beef I have with most Yoga classes--you walk in from a -10 day and immediately start stretching while totally cold. Super-bendy young female yoga instructors just don't realize that for a lot of male athletes sitting cross-legged on the floor for five minutes IS a serious stretch, or that "gently bending forward and placing your hands toward the floor while contracting your inner Bunny" is a MAJOR stretch. I don't need to contemplate my navel in a painful position for five minutes at the beginning of a Yoga class, I need to get the blood moving... Yoga classes where I live are scheduled for people with regular schedules, which I don't have, so it's important that I do it on my own most of the time. I don't have to think much with my routine, just relax, feel the poses and the motions and do it. The results are slow but definitely there even after only a few months--I can touch my toes easily when I'm warmed up, and my messed up left hip has opened about an inch. I feel looser while climbing, and even just walking down the street. If you're under 30 and female that's probably less than impressive, but for a 40-year old high-mileage male athlete I'm digging it. I find my yoga days are also a little better mentally too, which is a bonus...

A half hour every other day of Yoga is achievable, we'll see what the results are at the end of the year. Because for me results count more than anything, the rest is just justification and excuses for non-performance. To quote Fugazi, "Function is the key." I want to function better.


Neal said...

Fascinating to read Will.
It's funny but I'm normally very flexible (late 20's) but went to touch my toes recently and got as far as my shins! Serious shock, and mainly down to taking up a lot more running that I used to. I know I've had to make time now every day to fit in some stretching. It's not something I enjoyed at first, but definitely feel better for it once it's done. You never know I might actually get to enjoy it :)

On a side note, I actually have been down the road of an injury from yoga. But not for the reason you specify. The yoga instructor recognised I was very active and so had decent flexibility so came over and leaned on my chest as rolled back with my feet under my legs. Out a centimetre long tear in the tendon in the front of my knee and put me out of leg-related activity for over 18 months. I wanted to punch her afterwards.

Great to hear of you doing it in airports, etc. also - definitely makes me feel less ridiculous for doing it now myself.

Neal (Ireland)

OB said...

More breath, less ambition is the mantra uttered by the most savvy instructor at the studio I attend. Absolutely true.

What started out as casual class attendance has turned into five times a week, and practice on my own. My knees are shit, and using a block or phone book under my ass in some poses is just the thing to gently stretch without risking further injury.

I wake up in the morning with sore hamstrings and hip flexors rather than "muscle" soreness from conventional working out.

The breath control, meditation, and focus is a byproduct that helps greatly with daily conflict coping, and focuses mental energy for future ambitions.

Glad you're digging it. Me too.

Kim Graves said...

Hi Will,

Good post – thanks.

For me too it’s all been a function of aging. I noticed almost to the day that I turned 40 that I just didn’t heal as fast as when I was younger. What would have been a minor tweak that I could simply sleep off overnight became a six week or longer injury often demanding physical therapy to resolve.

I just assumed that I wasn’t in good enough shape for rock and alpine climbing. So I started doing yoga thinking if I was more flexible and could strengthen the opposing muscles and structures used in climbing that I’d be less injury prone. I did yoga up to 5 days a week for a couple of years, but kept being injured by the yoga as well – first a shoulder injury and then a serious neck injury. And this while taking Ashtanga from one of the most accomplished teachers in NYC.

It wasn’t until I stopped taking yoga that I learned that Ashtanga was originally meant for 13 year old boys not 45 year old men.

I then tried Crossfit - which if anything was worse. While I got into great shape while I was able to do it, I kept getting seriously injured that would keep me out for months at a time. The last injury – tennis elbow in BOTH elbows has kept me out of action for almost a year now.

I think there are several things going on here. One is that I just don’t feel when the injury is happening until it’s too late – during exercise you get those endorphins going and you feel great. I remember the elation I felt the first time I did a head stand. Or the first time I swung a kettlebell – what a rush. The time I got the tennis elbows: the Crossfit gym had just gotten a Concept II rowing machine. The chief instructor was giving me private lesions as I was recovering from a shoulder injury. We spend a half hour going though the correct form and then he said “let’s do a workout.” Maybe it was a 1500m row – I can’t remember – but I do remember him saying that 3 minutes was a good time. So I went full-tilt-boogie and got a 3:40. I was elated. It felt great to work that hard. It felt great to have my body respond in that way. Until the next morning when I woke up and couldn’t use either of my arms! The irony is that I feel great while I get injured.

The second issue for me is the competition thing: both with others and most insidiously with myself. In yoga class you’re surrounded by these young beautiful men and women – I was at least 20 years older than any of the students and 10 years older than the instructor. They were doing really beautiful things – things that I couldn’t do but wanted to. My instructor loved me. She was very encouraging getting me to come three days a week, then four, then five. It took me months to realize that I needed more recovery time. In Crossfit, completion is the norm – everything is timed or counted and scores are posted. It’s almost impossible to opt out of that. While I wasn’t the oldest in the gym I was up there and I was getting scores that were comparable with the kids. My cardiologist was actually shocked at the amount of work I was able to do on my biannual stress test – max heart rate for someone my age is “around” 170 while I was going strong at 200.

But just because I can work that hard doesn’t mean I should. I’ve come to realize that what this is all about is the denial of my own mortality. I’m 51 years old, not 25 even if I can work like a 25 year old. The amount of testosterone I produce is lower so I don’t heal like I used to. It’s been a very hard lesson for me to learn that the adventures I had when I was 25 are not the ones available to me now - I'll never climb 12's but maybe 10b is good enough or even 8's. ;-)

Will Gadd said...

Neal said, "On a side note, I actually have been down the road of an injury from yoga. But not for the reason you specify. The yoga instructor recognised I was very active and so had decent flexibility so came over and leaned on my chest as rolled back with my feet under my legs. Out a centimetre long tear in the tendon in the front of my knee and put me out of leg-related activity for over 18 months. I wanted to punch her afterwards."

That's exactly what I'm talking about--a lot of Yoga instructors are wildly out of touch with normal humans... Airport exercise rocks.

OB said, "More breath, less ambition." That's the kind of statement that, while true, means absolutely nothing to a competitive athlete just starting out in Yoga. My mind would reply, "Yeah, right, breathing, bunch of wussy Yoga punters, I'm gonna throw down! I'm going to get catatonic in the class nap afterwards, you just watch this." Or something like that, grin...

Kim--I think older (and I mean over 30) people in our society used to be expected to roll over and start dying peacefully instead of staying active and healthy. Agreed on Yoga and Crossfit, the trick is in letting go of the ego and looking for results. Crossfit is great for all-around base fitness, but it too has the potential to rip hell out of a body. I know at least three people who have had their shoulders rebuilt due at least partially to CF (and many more with much higher fitness). I also think the lower testosterone thing is relevant, but we should also theoretically be able to train smarter. Theoretically...

And you can too climb 5.12, you just have to climb hundreds of 5.10s and 5.11s and train by climbing, not by doing Yoga or CF. I only have so many training hours in a week; any training is better than not, but focusing those hours to get results is what it's all about...



PS--and next time you're doing yoga in an airport and some bulbous individual stuffed into a suit eyes you up disdainfully as he chomps a bag of chips and an XL coke, just think, "You're going to look even more like you in a week. I'm going to feel a lot better in 30 minutes, and likely be happier and healthier next week..." I get those looks, it's just motivation for me. I also look at it as a subtle jab at the seriousness and general plasticness of air travel. Having more fun is always the best revenge on negative people...

Kim Graves said...

Hi Will,

Do you mind a follow up question?

You said: “we should also theoretically be able to train smarter. Theoretically...”

This is exactly my whole problem as I age. I know how to train as a young man, but not as an aging one. As I indicated before, my body doesn’t tell me when I’m hurting myself. Maybe it’s because I have a very high pain tolerance – whatever. But the effect is that I don’t know what it means to “take it easy.”

You said something a while ago – maybe when you were working on the Yam – about being on the fine line between being in really good shape and being injured. As an athlete, that’s the line you want to be at. The problem with aging is that if I go over that line I’m out long enough to loss my base fitness and then I start over again working up until I go over that line again and injure.

The issue for me is that it’s hard to know where that line is – it gets lower every year – and so how to stay on the active side of the line becomes problematic. That’s why I said maybe I should be satisfied with climbing 8’s. :-o

So my question is, how do you train smarter? How do you know where that line is? Is listening to your body an actual skill you can learn even if you have high pain tolerance?

Any insights you could provide would be much appreciated.

Best, Kim

Anonymous said...

Will, didn't read the post yet :-) but i challange you to a yoga showdown next monday night at the Yoga lounge. Beers and burgers afterward? It starts at 5:00pm and usually runs for an hour and a half but we can bail before the 'sleeping pose' at the end it'll only take an hour and 15 minutes.

L said...

One word...


I tried yoga and honestly, becoming a tree trunk and getting in touch with my inner bunny was just not my cup of tea.

Pilates was developed for rehab. Its does AMAZING things for your core strength and flexibility... And none of the melting into the mat stuff. You warm up, you work out (but you don't really think you are working out till you try to get out of bed the next day and realize EVERY MUSCLE HURTS!) and you streeeetch.... It cured a few hamstring issues that had been brewing for me after I started racing track bikes (read: got stiff) and I have not had a back tweak or twinge since.

It also appeals to the "sporty" nature in me. I accidentally walked into what I thought was an athletic clothing store the other day only to realize once well inside that it was a YOGA clothing store. I started to feel a bit of nausea welling up, but managed to escape to the North Face store around the corner before I vomited ;)


Butch said...

I'm seconding the pilates vote. I have tried this a few times and when I can arrange for it to be cheap and local, I will do more of it.

The instructor said an interesting thing to me: Male athletes who do this [pilates] have problems "finding" certain muscles to do the work. Instead they rely on already-developed (but not appropriate) other muscle groups. And many of them tend to be out of alignment, or not very stretchy.

When I saw her, she watched me do a few of the things and then she said "running, biking and climbing, maybe ex-swimmming?"

Pilates would probably be your style-- you can tailor it to exactly what you need, and it's amazing for both strength and balancing of muscle groups. It's also amazingly difficult-- a good teacher can work muscles you had no idea existed...which is the point, I guess.


Unknown said...

Bones, missed the session but I'm in next time!

Pilates: heard a lot about this, might have a go at it, thanks for adding to the push for it.

Kim: I think my absolute highest standard in any one sport can be as high (technically, pure strength, however we measure standards in sport) as it ever was. What I can't do is get to the standard with my old program of doing multiple sports and then switching every season. I used to be able to get into pretty close to peak rock fitness after about three months of training and climbing (coming from kayaking). What I find now is that rapid switches just can't be rapid anymore. So staying on the right side of the injury/performance curve is really more about building a big enough base before going super hard.

The flip side is that I think I'm also more susceptible to over-use injuries. My elbow feels great now. The ART got rid of the inflammation and major structural problems I think, but I couldn't get it strong until I did other sports for a while (kayaking, paragliding, skiing). I think the big error I made with my elbow was going hard at climbing for most of a year straight, with no month or longer periods of kayaking, paragliding, etc.

That sounds contradictory, but part of not getting injured is to have a big base, but also take time off your sport...

Good luck!

L said...

I find the same thing...

That's why I like to say 'multisport' when someone asks me what kind of 'athlete' I am... "oh, you mean triathlons?" Well, I did those too...

A long long time ago I used to run marathons... and I ran my knees almost into the ground. I got to a point where I could hardly walk up a flight of stairs, and I hadn't even turned 24. So I hit up the local sports med knee specialist for some advice. His advice... Get on a bike. RIDE! Your knees are way out of balance. lift weights... he drew me a picture, showed me what exactly what I was doing, and what I needed to do.

So I did that... Added some swimming because my arms were whimpy... And guess what... In a matter of a few weeks... No more knee pain... no injections, no braces, no surgery, no nothing...

and did pretty good on the local tri circuit to boot ;)

Got into climbing... Then added fitness comp training. I got bored with the fitness pretty quick because of the silliness of it all, but took the weight training routine to heart and still do a modified version to this day.

Broke my tibial plateau in a skiing incident, so then all of a sudden running was no longer my primary form of cardio endurance, as i"m now limited to 10k max training runs and 1/2 marathon absolute MAX and not very often or I pay dearly and increase my need for a hemi knee replacement by the time i'm 40. That sucked cause I find few things as monotonous as road riding on the bike. That's when I found track racing (Velodrome). Woohooo! Bicycle riding thats NOT boring (I'm not coordinated enough for mt bike riding)

etc...etc...etc... every year or three, something hits the airwaves that just catches me. This past year it was things with canopies... skydive, BASE (well, I have a long way to go before that) and Kiteboard... ya, that'll get me started...

In all this, I found the same thing you describe... the broad base of activities helps me avoid overuse injuries, but stay 'strong' in the 'off' season. And better yet?! I'm never bored... And during the overlap in the seasons, boy oh boy do I have a lot of fun :) "wanna go catch a movie?!" NO WAY! I've got STUFF to DO that does not involve SITTING on my duff around coughing people for 2 hrs... Movies are something to watch when traveling between point a and b to do cool stuff!