The Shape of Your Life
Improve your flexibility with the third installment in our interactive training plan.
RUNNING BUILDS endurance. It also transforms your hamstrings into inflexible steel rods. Just ask any seasoned marathoner to lie on his back and lift a straight leg 90 degrees to the sky. Fat chance. And it's not just the road warriors who've been literally bent out of shape. Mountain biking puts a padlock on your hip flexors, weight lifting bows your shoulders forward, and over time, too much climbing will tighten your forearms like over-torqued piano wires.
"People think that training gets you in shape. Training gets you out of shape," says Beryl Bender Birch, an East Hampton, N.Y.-based yoga instructor and author of two books on Ashtanga—aka power yoga. "Because their range of motion is so shut down, a lot of weight lifters can't access the strength they've spent so much time developing. Other athletes are in perfect cardiovascular shape for their chosen sport but they may be nanoseconds away from exploding somewhere."
Birch believes you have to be soft to be hard, flexible to be strong. It's a mantra she settled on several years ago after teaching a class to the U.S. Nordic Ski Team and discovering that, even after their first, easy yoga session, the best endurance athletes in the world were so sore in the shoulders, back, and quads that they had to call in sick the next day.
Nordic skiers aren't the only ones who've found flexibility enlightenment: 18 million Americans—from hippie chicks to NFL linemen—now practice yoga, and three-quarters of all U.S. health clubs offer classes. Still, many of the elite competitors Birch works with take a little convincing. "Most athletes worry that if they start undoing the tightness they will lose performance," she says. "In fact, it's the opposite. Becoming more flexible enables you to push the envelope further."
Birch's counsel is especially applicable to those of you who have been diligently following Outside's five-month Shape of Your Life fitness plan. By now, strength training combined with two months of pounding the trail have increased your endurance, but likely rendered you as flexible as a certain flat-headed monster with bolts sticking out of his neck. In this, the third month of the program, you'll counteract this effect by learning the easy-to-incorporate set of Ashtanga yoga sequences pictured on these pages. Combining classic stretching poses with deliberate breathing techniques, Ashtanga, a 2,000-year-old Indian tradition, increases flexibility and builds eccentric strength—the kind you need to decelerate while, say, chugging down a trail. You'll also benefit from performing multiple joint movements (like the sun salutation, see next page) through all three planes of motion—front-to-back, side-to-side, and rotational—which will help fortify your core.