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Bikram Yoga made me a better athlete

For most endurance athletes, the number 26 means one thing: The number of miles in a marathon. But when I decided to take on triathlons in an effort to preserve my knees and protect my body from the pounding I gave it through a lifetime of running, the opposite happened. I was sore all over because I was using muscles and straining joints that I had never worked before. My shoulders hurt from swimming. My back hurt from biking. I had nagging aches and pains all the time.

Then I found real magic behind the number 26. A Bikram yoga class is a 26-posture series designed to scientifically warm and stretch muscles, ligaments and tendons in the order in which they should be stretched. “An athlete can expect to work every muscle in the body from the neck down with an emphasis on the body core,” said Elaina Zorensky, co-owner of Bikram Yoga Tempe. “In addition, all ligaments, tendons, joints, glands and organs will be strengthened and rejuvenated.” As someone who never stretched a day in his life, I was petrified to try yoga. And as an Italian originally from New York, I knew my buddies would be merciless in their taunting.

In the words of my best friend, Don: “Do you have a special skirt that you wear to yoga?” But I went. And I picked Bikram because I thought the heated room – the studio is heated to a minimum of 105 degrees with a minimum of 40 percent humidity – would help loosen my tight muscles. And it worked. In the three years since I started practicing yoga regularly, I haven’t had a single training related injury, my body recovers faster, my core is stronger than it’s ever been, my speed improved. But most importantly, I never get sore.

Professional triathlete David Glover has said there are three primary reasons why endurance sports athletes should consider practicing yoga: Increased flexibility. Multisport athletes need a full range of motion in order to be more efficient in their movements. One of the best things Bikram does is improve the mobility of arms and shoulders, which helped my swim stroke.

Improved core and stabilizer muscle strength. Because we maintain the same positions for extended periods of time – five or six hours hunched over during the 112-mile Ironman bike leg or running upright for three or four hours during a marathon – we need a strong core and strong joints to support our bodies.

Both of the above will help reduce the likelihood of overuse injuries. Consistency in training is a key success factor in endurance sports, Glover said, and it’s difficult to be consistent when you’re sore or injured. When training for Ironman last year, I factored Bikram into my training schedule and considered it every bit as important as my long runs and 100-mile bike rides. During the 90-minutes classes, I will sweat out as much as 10 pounds, so don’t think Bikram is a warmup. It’s a workout.

“Bikram yoga is incredibly beneficial for endurance athletes,” Zorensky said. “One 90-minute session will work the entire body from the inside out and regular practice helps one improve focus, determination and endurance. It helps to teach one to remain calm in challenging, stressful situations. Furthermore, at the beginning and end of each Bikram yoga session, a breathing exercise floods the body with fresh oxygen, teaches proper deep breathing, and improves lung capacity.” But Zorensky stressed that you don’t have to be an athlete to benefit from Bikram.

“Bikram yoga is for everybody,” she said. “If one is inflexible, can’t touch their toes, or maybe can’t even see them, they are an excellent candidate for yoga. Bikram yoga is a beginning yoga series that is a great, non-impact way to tone and strengthen the body as well as to increase flexibility.”

Want to try it? Here are some things to remember:

1. Wear something cool and comfortable. The room is heated, so be prepared to sweat… a lot. I made the mistake of wearing running shorts and a cotton T-shirt to my first few classes. Women should wear shorts and a sports bra or tank top with a built-in bra. Men should wear swimming trunks or workout shorts.

2. Drink plenty of water throughout the day so you are well hydrated before class. And bring a big plastic bottle of water to drink during class. Also avoid eating for a couple hours before the class starts.

3. You’ll need a yoga mat and large towel. If you don’t have them, they are available at the studio to rent or buy.

4. It is normal to feel dizzy or lightheaded during your first class. So listen to your body. Don’t be afraid to sit down or sit out a posture if you need to.

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Michael Gossie

About Michael Gossie

Michael Gossie is an award-winning journalist who has earned more than 50 awards for writing, editing and design. He studied economics at Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y., and put his entrepreneurial spirit to work in 2007, using a 200-year-old family recipe to launch an Italian sauce company. He is a competitive marathon runner, Ironman triathlete and is most proud of being the founding president of the Steuben Arc Foundation in Upstate New York, which serves individuals with developmental disabilities, including his sister.