Rich RollJust the other day I was having dinner with an old swimming buddy of mine, Mark Henderson, a former world record holder and Olympic Gold Medalist at the Atlanta Games. In other words, a phenomenal athlete.

Sure, we talked about swimming. Then our conversation turned (quite unexpectedly) to yoga. Mark had begun practicing recently and was amazed by the results–increased strength, presence of mind and improved sleep, to name a few. The list goes on. Almost simultaneously, we spurted out the same lament: “Why didn’t we do this when we were competing!?”

In truth, I wish I had discovered yoga during my prime swimming years in the 1980’s. There is no doubt in my mind that it would have made me a much better athlete, not to mention human being. Thankfully, I discovered it many years later. And it has improved my life in amazing and unpredictable ways – not just with respect to my career as a middle-aged ultra-distance triathlete, but in countless areas of my life.

In my opinion, EVERY athlete has the potential to enhance his or her ability by adopting a consistent yoga practice. I’d go so far as to say that if you’re not practicing yoga, you’re competing at a disadvantage and missing an opportunity to enhance peak performance.

Here are a few benefits I have reaped:

Yoga Athletes

Athletic ability is a matter of mind, body and soul. Yoga enhances all three.

Improved Strength: Routine and consistent practice of the various yoga asanas (poses or postures) has helped me build strength and improve lean muscle mass. These gains have enhanced core body stability and significantly impeded overuse injury by strengthening the supportive muscles surrounding the more utilized muscles, creating a more balanced and optimally functional overall strength.

Balance: As a swimmer, I have always been rather flexible, but my balance is historically horrible. Through a consistent yoga practice, my coordination and balance have improved immensely. Why is this important? Better balance and coordination means enhanced control over how I move my body, which in turn leads to better technique, form and performance.

Flexibility: Yoga invariably improves joint and muscular flexibility, which is crucial to the body’s overall structural soundness.  This translates to greater range of motion, and increase in the performance latitude for a particular movement.  For example, a swimmer with supple shoulder and hip joints is able to capture and pull more water. The result is more forward movement per stroke as well as enhanced muscular economy. The more I work to maintain my flexibility (something that wanes with age), the less likely I am to suffer an overuse injury.

Mental Control: Most people, particularly athletes, tend to think of yoga as a great “workout” – a means to tighten the core, flatten the stomach and tone that butt. But the true benefits come at the end of class when it’s time for savasana (corpse pose), the meditative portion of the practice.

From a traditionalist point of view, the series of physically challenging yoga asanas were originally designed for a specific purpose that has nothing to do with the strength or flexibility. They were conceived and organized as a means to prepare the mind and body to reap maximum benefit from the important meditation that follows.  To clean mental house, center focus and promote serenity by silencing the endless and seemingly unmanageable mental chatter that undermines the expression of our “best self” within.

Finding UltraWhat does this have to do with athletic performance? Everything. What distinguishes the Olympic champion from the also-ran? The mind. The guy or girl who wins typically knows he/she is going to win. Unrestrained by fear, free from negative thought patterns, and laser focused. They visualize success so completely that it literally becomes a foregone conclusion.

Much like a muscle, the mind can be trained. And consistent practice of the asanas when followed up with proper savasana is the best way I have found to improve my sleep, reduce stress, quell negative mental chatter, and manage my own fears.

I Met My Wife In Yoga:  14 years ago I met my wife in a yoga class. We’ve been together ever since. She has been instrumental in making me a better man and a better athlete. So there you go. Don’t underestimate the extent to which yoga can change your life–you just never know.

Rich is a two-time top finisher at the Ultraman World Championships. His inspirational memoir FINDING ULTRA: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself is available on Amazon.com. For more on Rich visit www.RichRoll.com

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