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How Yin Yoga Helped Me Win Ironman

by Hana Sykorova

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It had been over two years since my last Ironman (the 2013 World Championship in Kona, Hawaii), when I pondered the idea of signing up for another Ironman, this time in Nice, France.

I checked online and registration was still open. I heard this race usually sells out late, so I decided to wait to send in the payment. It's not that I am indecisive, it's that signing up for an Ironman requires a serious commitment and a radical change in lifestyle to be fit that also impacts those around you.

The next six months or so are centered around prioritizing your workouts, nutrition and adequate sleep over everything else. That equates to roughly 15-20 weekly hours of training (yes, that's like a part-time job), never mind the additional recuperation time of naps, massage or yoga sessions that you should count in also, but that most don't, as the training time commitment is already overwhelming.

We prefer to be in denial about how much time this Ironman project actually sucks up.

ironman winner

Of course, you don't tell your boss that something other than your work/career is now your priority, or that you're lacking motivation when falling asleep during meetings. You just somehow figure out how to sneak out of the office to make it to your evening swim practice when it's expected of you to be working late.

You accept that your non-triathlon friends consider you lame when you leave a party before it has properly started and you say goodbye to fun weekends with friends in lieu of completing about half your weekly prescribed training load over the weekend instead.

As I had already left the corporate world at this point, I had more flexibility on when to complete my workouts, not having to lose my social life completely. Yet, any late nights out would still not be conducive to optimum performance at the Ironman compared to going to bed at the same time every night; a somewhat boring decision in the eyes of your partner and friends.


How I found Yin Yoga

people doing stretching on mats

At this point, I had just finished the 2015 season with a win at Ironman Silverman 70.3 (half Ironman), qualifying for the following year's World Championship in Australia. It was off-season and I was taking it easy, no structured training and a lot of yoga. Also in part to deepen my skills as a newly certified yoga teacher.

One of those days I wanted to take a Power Vinyasa class and also took my boyfriend Enrique with me to our local Yoga Tree Studio in San Francisco, where we were spending our time.

We arrived at the studio and as we put our names down, we saw the class was called Yin & Inner Yoga. “ What is that?” I asked the receptionist. “I thought we came for Vinyasa.”

women doing warrior pose in park

Turns out I checked the schedule incorrectly. “ It's a passive kind of yoga, it's meditative. You should try it, you might like it” the receptionist nudged us on.

My first instinct was to say no, I want a workout, I want active, not passive. Then, remembering what we learned in our yoga teacher training, I changed my mind. According to Ayurveda, in order to bring ourselves into balance, we should do activities that are the opposite of our natural tendency. As a Pita-Vata dosha (body type), the fire present in Pita makes me want to always be on the go, having difficulty to slow down or take breaks. Following this tendency can create more fire, bringing me off my natural balance.

yin yoga class

Restorative practices are the Yin to my natural Yang, active nature. This was what I actually needed! Maybe it was no coincidence I misread the schedule. “ Ok, let's do it, we are already here” – I told Enrique.

And was I in for a treat! It felt as transformative, or more, as my first yoga class more than 15 years ago! From the very beginning, the soothing voice of the teacher giving you permission to simply let go, starting the class laying down, comfy with your blankets and bolster, being fully mindful of every part of your body.

My breath and emotions made me realize how seldom we actually take time to slow down, how rarely we dedicate ourselves an hour and a half to be gentle with ourselves while being awake.

woman doing stretching yoga pose

The postures we were holding for several minutes felt exactly like what my body needed after the triathlon season, finishing the class significantly more aligned. I felt as if I had gotten a massage, yet different.

The entire evening after the class I felt much more aware of my emotions and what was even more surprising to me was the quality of sleep that I got that night. It was deep, uninterrupted, and although I was already a good sleeper, I considered this sleep to be of another dimension.

It was the improved alignment in the body that went beyond the muscles, it was the calm mind and the unblocked flow of energy that I later studied to be some of the reasons to keep us in a deeper state of sleep.


The importance of the fascia


I learned we were allowing the fascia to be stretched, which is a connective tissue in the body that has only gotten proper attention in scientific research in the last two decades. The fascia requires a longer time to stretch and is present all over the body. If it's tight, it can cause skeletal misalignments that may result in joint pain, headaches and even depression. As our muscles, joints, and cells live inside this connective tissue, when it is tight, it can prevent the rest of the muscles from releasing stress.

Some have said a session of Yin Yoga offers benefits similar to acupuncture and a feeling of greater calm and order in the body.

I told myself the next day that implementing this practice into my Ironman training regimen was a must, and I decided to develop the skills to teach it also. 

people doing yoga

I started studying online and practicing with family members. But when we moved to Playa del Carmen in Mexico, where there were no Yin Yoga classes, I was offered a teaching post at a local donation-based studio called Kava Casa. I taught Yin Yoga at my oceanfront yoga studio, where I now also run yoga retreats.

Two months later, I had finally signed up for Ironman, Nice and had to quickly ramp up my training as I had taken too much time off without specific triathlon training. Having neglected the voluminous training in winter, I was really pushing it to be ready for the race in June. 

people running to water

When I approached the world champion Sebastian Kienle's coach to take me on, he thought we still had time for me to train to "enjoy the race", but not necessarily be able to qualify for the World Championship in Kona again. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I had to be realistic and train in a way that would not injure my body.

As I could not attend Yin Yoga classes in Playa del Carmen (as there were none other than the one I offered), or in France, where we moved to next, where the closest class was in Nice, 30 minutes from Grasse where we lived, I became my own teacher and guinea pig.

Each day, before going to bed, I took the time to spend at least 20-30 minutes with Yin Yoga postures. This is a relatively short time that allowed me to only get into 2-4 poses. But the effects were profound. It helped me unwind from my long sessions of training. I felt that any nagging tightness and beginning injuries in various parts of the body were being nipped in the bud.

As race day approached, the training got longer and pre-race nerve jitters started to kick in. These Yin Yoga sessions brought me calmness, put me back into the present moment, helped me meditate and visualize the race going well. It reduced the overwhelm that any Ironman brings, no matter which number it is (and for me this would be the 5th).

I had less energy for active yoga classes and was happy to stay on my yoga path with the Yin practice. The more nervous I got, the more I reached for this tool, particularly paying attention to it during race week when a lot of things tend to go wrong. 


The big day


ironman bike

The big day finally arrived and I found myself at the starting line without an injury, which is already a huge step in the right direction for any Ironman.

I was feeling calm, I just wanted to enjoy the day as my coach had told me. Not having any great expectations given my late start to the training.

When I crossed the finish line not really knowing how I did it, someone in the VIP tent told me that I’d won my age group. I could not believe it!

Reflecting back, I strongly believe that paying more attention to my recovery with practices like yoga and meditation, leading me to better sleep and a stronger recovery, was my key to success during my preparation.

Ironman is an endurance event, an event of attrition, that requires overall wellness of the entire being. You have to feel good on a physical, mental, emotional, energetic and spiritual level.

Even though success is normally linked to the training volume you put in, I believe the quality of each workout due to training on a better-recovered body plays an important role. Sometimes, choosing yoga over a workout was the smarter choice for me. And I made that choice by being more in tune with my body, through the practice of yoga, without any guilt or regret, trusting that my intuitive inner voice guided me in the right direction.

Despite my late start to training and my coach's assessment of being somewhat undertrained, my overall health and lack of injury or burnout were the factors that allowed me to win. I had been on the podium in my full Ironman events before, but this was my first time being on the very top and it couldn’t have been more special.

Curious to try Yin Yoga? Join Hana on her retreats and transform your life forever.

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