Yoga for Athletes

yogis war 2

Yoga is very advantageous to all athletes and should be incorporated into everyone’s weekly workout routine. To learn more about all of the great benefits of a consistent yoga practice, see my blog post Why Every Athlete Should do Yoga. The sequence below will help strengthen and stretch your under and over utilized muscles as well as increase your joint and muscular flexibility, mental focus and balance. Spend as much time in each posture taking as many breaks as needed. Its not about forcing your body into each pose.  Ease into the stretch and back off when you start to feel any discomfort or pain.

Cat/Cow Stretches

Stretches: lower spine, hips, back and core

Benefits: opens chest, warms up the spine, relieves lower back pain and sciatica

How to: Start by kneeling on hands and knees. Align shoulders directly over the wrists and hips over the knees. As you inhale, lift your chest and tailbone to the ceiling while lowering your belly to the floor (cow pose). On your exhale, press your palms firmly into the floor as you round your spine drawing your navel in and taking your chin to your chest (cat pose). Repeat this back and forth motion between cat and cow pose as many times you would like and then return to a neutral spine.

Cow pose Cat pose

puppy finalPuppy Stretch

Stretches: spine and shoulders

Benefits: opens chest, strengthens and stretches arms, hips and upper back, relieves symptoms of stress and insomnia

How to: From your hands and knees position, begin to walk your hands towards the front of your mat. Keep your hips stacked over your knees. Drop your forehead to the floor and place a blanket or block underneath for more support. Let your neck relax but keep the arms active by lifting elbows away from the floor. To feel a nice stretch in your spine, press your hands more firmly into the mat stretching through your arms while pulling your hips back toward your heels. Stay for about a minute or so and then walk your hands back towards your legs, lift your chest and rest sitting on your shins.

Forearm Plank

Stretches: Shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches

Benefits: strengthens arms, legs and core

How to: Start on hands and knees tucking toes and stepping feet to the back of your mat. Lower down to forearms one at a time. Press inner forearms and elbows firmly against the floor. Pull shoulder blades onto the back, plug shoulders into socket, pull your frontal ribs in and keep your neck long. Press your thighs toward the ceiling but resist tailbone toward the floor and press heels towards the back of your mat. Stay as long as you can, resting when you need to. To modify this pose, lower the knees to the mat. Stay for a few breaths and then lower shins onto the mat and rest your hips on your heels.

Forearm plank Modified forearm plank

Standing Forward Fold

Stretches: hamstrings, calves, hips

Benefits: strengthens thighs and knees, calms the mind helping to relieve stress, reduces fatigue, and relieves headaches and insomnia

How to: From standing, as you exhale, bend forward from your hips keeping length in your spine and a soft bend in your knees. If possible, bring your fingertips to the ground or bend your elbows taking your hands to the opposite elbow. You can also use a water bottle, helmet or block to bring the ground a little closer to you. Stay for a minute or so and then bring your hands to your hips and lift your torso returning to a standing position.

Modified FF Standing ff

 

Low Lunge with back knee down

Stretches: Psoas (hip flexor) in back leg, hips

Benefits: Strengthens quads and glutes

How to: From a standing forward fold, step your left foot back as far as it will go and lower the knee to the ground. Keeping the right ankle and knee in line with each other, slide the left knee back enough to where you feel a comfortable stretch in your thigh and groin on that leg. Bring your hands to your right thigh and lift your torso upright. Allow your shoulders to stay relaxed and slowly start to extend your arms overhead. If this feels like too much, bring your hands back to your thigh or take your palms together in front of your heart. Stay here for a few breaths and then slowly release the hands down framing the right foot, tuck back toes under and return to your standing forward fold.

Low lunge Low lunge mod

Half Splits

Stretches: hamstrings, calves, hips, low backHalf Splits

Benefits: Strengthens hamstrings, relieves sciatica

How to: From the low lunge position, place on the ground on either side of the front foot. Begin to shift your hips towards the back heel. Flex the front foot so only the heel of the foot is on the ground. For a deeper stretch, walk hands forward and lift your chest. Modifications to this pose would be to take hands to your hips or blocks. Stay for a few breaths and then slowly switch sides.

Low lunge twist

Stretches: psoas (hip flexor) and hips

Benefits: strengthens quads and glutes, improves digestion and elimination, and relieves sciatica

How to: From the low lunge with left leg forward, place both hands on the ground between left foot. Press right hand into the ground and extend your left arm towards the ceiling opening your chest. You might stay here for a few breaths, then tuck your back toes and lift your knee taking this stretch a little deeper. Keep pressing the ground away with your right hand and draw your shoulder into socket with the right shoulder over the right wrist. Send your left hip back and lift your right thigh up. Breathe here for a few breaths and return to your standing forward fold.

Low lunge twistLow lunge twist full

Boat Pose

Stretches: spine, lower back and hamstrings

Benefits: strengthens core muscles, improves digestions, stimulates kidneys and thyroid, and strengthens lower back muscles

How to: From sitting, place feet and knees together as you bend your knees. Hold the back of your things, lengthen spine and slowly start to lean back without collapsing into your abdomen. Slowly lift your feet a few inches from the floor while engaging your core and lifting your chest. You can start to work towards lifting your shins a little higher taking them parallel to the ground and extend your arms forward. Stay as long as you like and slowly lower feet back to the ground.

Boat tabletop Mod boat

Seated Twist

Stretches: Shoulders, hamstrings, spine and hipsSeated twist

Benefits: massages abdominal organs, relieves backache and hip pain and strengthens spine

How to: From sitting, extend legs in front of you. Start to bend left knee and walk your left foot towards as close to your left sitting bone as possible. Keep right leg engaged and active and flex your right foot, pointing your toes back towards your hips. With an exhalation, rotate to the left and wrap right arm around your right thigh. Press left hand into the floor next to your left hip and lift your torso, keeping spine long. With your inhalations see if you can sit up a little taller and as you exhale, take your twist deeper. Stay for 5-10 breaths and slowly unwind returning to center extending your left leg.

After you’ve completed all of the postures, spend some time lying on your back, quieting your mind and resting your body.

savasana cropped

Why Every Athlete Should Do Yoga

As a yoga instructor, I get approached all the time by my cycling and running friends with questions about yoga. It seems that a majority of people are interested in the health benefits of yoga but are not convinced of how it will help them in their sport. They are more concerned with the fact that they are not flexible and are too intimated to give yoga a try, often times just dealing with any aches or pains in their bodies. For a lot of athletes who have intense training schedules, finding the time to incorporate yoga into their already busy day is often challenging. However, not much time is needed and the benefits to the athlete’s performance make it just as important as any other element of their training plan. Yoga is the perfect complement to any competitive athlete’s training and I think it is safe to say that without it, you are putting yourself at a huge disadvantage and missing an opportunity to enhance your performance and reach your full potential.

Yoga has become more popular over the past decade and is now being recognized in the professional sport realm for its ability to aid in injury prevention and provide the athlete with the strength and flexibility needed to perform in their particular sport. Athletes such as Shaquille O’ Neal and LeBron James (legendary basketball players), Ray Lewis (linebacker for Baltimore Ravens), Mike Kryzewski (legendary Duke and USA national team basketball coach, Vernon Davis (tight end for San Francisco 4ers), Blake Griffin (forward for LA Clippers) and Tom Brady (Quarterback for New England Patriots) are just a few who have added yoga into their training regimen.

I personally started practicing yoga at a time when I was training for multiple half-marathons and competing in duathlons. I was running and cycling 5-6 days a week and felt yoga would be the perfect addition and would be great for cross training. Yoga was a complete game changer and I have been hooked ever since. Here are some of the many benefits that athletes can expect to experience by incorporating yoga into their weekly workout routines:

1. Improved Strength: With a routine and consistent practice, yoga is able to strengthen the athlete’s under-utilized muscle groups. With specific focus of these muscle groups, these supportive muscles are able to be strengthened enough to help aid in injury prevention and provide more power to the athlete during training and competition. Core strength is one of the most important, overlooked areas for most athletes. Since this area is the body’s center of gravity, it provides the foundation for all movement within the body. This can aid in lower back pain relief and add speed to the athletes sport by allowing the whole body to move in unison while exerting less energy. This will also improve posture and contribute to overall health.

2. Mental Control: Athletes have the amazing ability to push their bodies to the limits and although the physical benefits of yoga are huge, the mental control one can gain is nothing in comparison. There are times in the practice where the student must hold a pose and be completely still, while utilizing the strength of the muscles involved in the pose. This is when the mind starts to wander and it starts to flood the brain with thoughts, feelings or emotions that we just don’t want to deal with. This comes up even more so in the final posture, savasana, where the student finishes up their practice by lying on their back and resting for a few minutes. This should be a time of complete relaxation and stillness but for some, this is the most challenging part of the entire practice. Although an athlete can suffer physically during competition, the moment they are asked to be still is really when the hard work begins. If an athlete can get past the mental barriers holding them back in their practice, they will be that much stronger come competition time, giving them an advantage over their opponents.

3. Improved Flexibility: For most people this is the most well-known benefit of yoga and the one thing that prevents most people from ever stepping onto a yoga mat. Most think that their lack of flexibility will prevent them from ever being able to do yoga. You may not have any flexibility at all, but with a consistent practice, that will be a thing of the past. Stretching works to improves the joint and muscular flexibility. This is another excellent aid in injury prevention. Most athletes experience repetitive motions in their sport. The more we do those repetitive motions without stretching (and strengthening) the muscles, the greater the risk for injury to occur. Common overuse injuries include those involving the illiotibial band (IT band), knee, hamstrings, hip flexors, shoulders and lower back. These injuries often times are due to poor core strength, misalignment and lack of flexibility. Yoga helps to alleviate these issues in order to minimize and/or prevent injuries from occurring and sidelining the athlete. If injured, the athlete will be able to recover much quicker than they would have without yoga. Simple stretching before and after a workout is not enough. Most athletes are typically stretching the same muscles in the same direction every time. Yoga works the muscles and joints through all ranges of motion and not only targets the big muscle groups but the smaller ones as well which aid to support the primary muscles used in the athletes sport.

4. Balance: Balance postures can correct muscle imbalance and poor body mechanics. Better balance means more coordination, which will allow the athlete to have better control of their body. This will help with technique and form in their sport.

Now that you know some of the benefits of yoga, it’s time to start incorporating it into your weekly workout routine. If you don’t know where to get started, look for studios near your home or work, many offer various classes throughout the day for a small fee. If a public setting is not your thing, there are multiple websites that offer videos (some at a fee) and these can be tailored to your preference for length, level and style of yoga. Two of my favorites are http://www.yogaglo.com and http://www.yogavibes.com. There are numerous books and magazines that provide guidance on yoga postures and you can find them at your local library or amazon.com. If you know of any yoga instructors, reach out to them. Many offer private lessons and this is a great way to get on-one-on interaction with an instructor who can customize a yoga practice for your body, sport, any injuries you may have and where you are at in your training. Ideally, during your peak season, your yoga practice will be more about recovering the body and stretching the muscles that are being used repetitively. The off season is when more of the strength building and vigorous practice comes into play. This is where having those private lessons becomes advantageous. Everything is tailored specifically to you. Whatever method you chose, be prepared for all the positive changes to come. Most importantly, have fun and don’t take it too serious.

Fall Into a Reset

Ahhhh, November. I have missed you terribly. Fall is my absolute favorite time of year. The turning of the leaves, cooler temperatures, scarfs and boots, hot teas and lattes, sitting around the fire, cuddling on the couch under a mountain of blankets, it all makes me giddy with excitement just thinking about it. One thing I really look forward to every year is the time change, the end of daylight savings. I think that setting our clocks back and shorter days is nature’s way of forcing us to slow down and take more time to ourselves.

With the holidays right around the corner, my intention this month is to truly slow way down. To spend more time laying on the couch cuddled up with a good book instead of lacing up my running shoes and pounding the pavement, to cook more meals instead of going out and to go to bed earlier and give myself more rest. I intend to say “no” more often than I say “yes” to plans with others. Most importantly, I plan to take care of myself by hitting the pause button and completely resetting.

We are all extremely busy these days. We live in a fast paced society and we are constantly putting pressure on ourselves to do more and more. It seems that our to-do lists are getting longer and our calendars are filing up quickly. However, you will be of no use to anyone if you don’t stop what you are doing and spend some time relaxing your mind and body. If you notice that you feel guilty about taking time for yourself, then you probably need it much more than you realize. You shouldn’t have a single bit of guilt for carving out time to yourself. Your physical and mental health are more important than any errand, workout or social gathering.

Spend time meditating or take a restorative yoga class.

Read a book.

Drink a cup of tea next to the fireplace.

Start a journal.

Take a bubble bath.

Stay in your pajamas all day long watching movies on the couch.

Pour a glass of wine and light a bunch of candles. 

Listen to relaxing music and diffuse essential oils. (I recommend chamomile, lavender or frankincense.)

 DO WHATEVER YOU HAVE TO DO TO SLOW DOWN AND RECHARGE.

 RELAX, RESET, RENEW

Take care of yourself.