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.