Why Every Athlete Should Practice Yoga

Why Every Athlete Should Practice Yoga

As an athlete (professional or amateur), by now you should know the importance of looking after your body.

If you don’t know, well now you do.

Recovery protocols are as important as any weight you lift, hill you run, or skill you improve.

When most athletes or workout fanatics are asked whether yoga is part of their exercise routine, many will say they don’t have the time or feel its unnecessary – Why?

It comes down to being misinformed or uneducated.

A lot of athletes (more so amateurs) still aren’t aware of how important stretching and breathing is and how it plays in with their performance.

Yoga for athletes can bring an added edge to the performance of everyone from amateurs striving to improve their lives, to professionals competing against elite athletes.

EVERY athlete – irrespective of sport or discipline – has the potential to enhance his or her ability by adopting a consistent yoga practice.

Many professionals would go so far as to say if you’re not practicing yoga, you’re competing at a disadvantage and missing an opportunity to enhance peak performance.

A well-rounded yoga practice includes dynamic flexibility training, core stabilisation, strengthening and balance work.

By focusing on these vital elements, yoga can help an athlete by:
  • Aiding muscle recovery
  • Preventing injuries
  • Reducing stress, increase focus and relieve tension
  • Strengthening underused muscles
  • Building up your core
  • Improving your sleep

If you are serious about your performance then recovery and building on your development should be at the forefront.

Still unsure about yoga? We spoke with a professional to break it down further.

An expert’s opinion

Exercise Right thought there would be no better person to provide an insight into the benefits of yoga than Accredited Exercise Physiologist at Inform Health & Fitness Solutions, Jacinta Brinsley.

Jacinta combines her clinical exercise prescription with a holistic mind-body approach. She is currently completing a PhD exploring the benefits of mindfulness combined with movement (e.g., yoga) on mental and physical health. As such, her prescription has a strong focus on biomechanics, alignment, yoga and mental health.

We asked Jacinta why every athlete should try yoga.

Why every athlete should practice yoga:

Do you think all athletes should incorporate yoga into their training to help improve their performance?

Definitely.

Depending what their sport is will depend on what kind of yoga they will benefit most from.

Styles of yoga that I would consider to be moderate to high intensity forms of exercise, such as vinyasa, power yoga, bikram, ashtanga and hot yoga, focus on control, stability and strength through range of motion which can be incredibly beneficial for athletes.

However, it can put a decent demand on the neuromuscular system, so more light-moderate forms of yoga such as hatha and Iyengar, which are typically slower in nature, require longer holds but are less strenuous from a cardiorespiratory perspective might be more suitable.

Then there’s yin yoga, which sits in its own camp. It focuses on the connective tissue of the body, namely the fascia – a spider-web like tissue made primarily of collagen (think dense elastic) – that encases every muscle and organ in your body. Rather than using our muscles to get us into a shape, we allow our body to assume its natural position based on the state of our tissues, relax our muscles and let gravity work its magic.

When we get an injury, it’s this tissue that reduces our range of motion and makes us feel tight and restricted. Applying sustained tensile stress, like holding a forward fold for 3 minutes in yin yoga, stimulates the remodelling of our fascia to an organised format so that your body slides and glides from the inside.

“The mental and psychological benefits are huge”

In addition to the physiological and bio-chemical benefits, we can’t forget the mental and psychological benefits – perhaps what yoga is most known for!

Spending 60 minutes with your awareness solely on your internal experience can have incredible effects on our emotional awareness and regularity, stress management, body awareness as well as helping us train our mind to focus and resist distraction.

Quite often you’re prompted to use the breath as an anchor for your mind and perhaps even consciously deepen the inhalation and exhalation, subsequently slowing the rate of your breathing. This is one of the most effective ways to stimulate our vagus nerve.

The vagus nerve can be thought of as a dial between our body and our nervous system – when we’re stressed (mentally), we breathe more quickly, ready to run away or fight. It’s via our vagus nerve that our state of mind triggers our breathing to change. What’s really cool is that we actually can take over and have conscious control of our breathing!

So, if we are feeling stressed but we choose to breathe deeply and slowly, we send a signal via the vagus nerve to the brain saying ‘actually, I think everything is okay’.

By reducing the stress response, we help to reduce the amount of stress hormones in the body, reduce our inflammation, improve our blood sugar regulation, keep our blood pressure healthy and a whole range of other benefits! Amazing huh?

Yoga is incredibly special in that it’s one of the only movement modalities in the West that really focuses on breathing and control of the breath while also encouraging a high level of physical and mental awareness.

These benefits can be derived from any form of yoga as most types of yoga we come across in western culture comprise of movement, breathing techniques, mindfulness and sometimes meditative practices.

Can yoga enhance athletic performance?

Yoga can be used as a dynamic warm-up to get the joints and muscles moving before training as well as waking up the major support structures of the body: the spine and core, which work together to stabilise the rest of the body.

Yoga can also be used as a cool-down to massage those tender tissues from the inside out.

Practicing yoga may also contribute to your recovery, offering important preventative effects for asymmetries, tight spots, weak spots, neuromuscular blind spots and so on.

I would recommend discussing with your coach and considering the type of yoga and frequency of practice in your load management.

Is yoga the key to injury prevention in sports?

I think a lot of factors go into injury prevention, it’s never one thing alone.

The benefit that yoga offers (particularly to athletes) is movement variation in a pretty safe format.

As athletes, our bodies practice certain movements and sequences hundreds of thousands of times and our body adapts to those. When you think of tight hip flexors for example, you might think of a cyclist? Your body is extremely intelligent and moulds to what postures and movements you spend the most amount of time in.

Yoga offers a little balance, some counter-movements and postures. A little antidote to repetitive strains.

With no additional load, it’s just your body moving itself through its available range of motion, having to use strength to work against restriction/tightness. As with anything though, it can be done poorly and always carries some risk of injury.

Never do too much, too soon and always listen to your body!

Top tips for an athlete wanting to try yoga

1. Think about what yoga is best suited for you.

Choose a type of yoga that feels beneficial for addressing areas you need to strengthen (active mobility, passive mobility/connective tissue health, strength, proprioception, coordination, mental health).

2. Find the right teacher.

Find a good teacher, and preferably one who understands a little about working with athletes. Especially if you’re working with some previous or current injuries, modifications are your medicine.

3. Consistency is key.

The amount of times per week will depend on the individual but try to find the right dose for you and your body. When it comes to the mental health benefits, research data tells us that frequency is more important than the duration of the sessions.

Speak with a professional

Everyone has individual traits and abilities and if you’re new to exercise and sport it can be tough to know where to start safely.

Accredited exercise professionals are university-qualified who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to improve health, fitness, well-being, performance, and assist in the prevention of chronic conditions.

To find an accredited exercise professional near you, click here.

The Nike Run Club gives you the guidance, inspiration and innovation you need to become a better athlete. Join Nike Run Club to reach your goals and have fun along the way. Download to get started.

Written by Exercise Right. We have partnered with Nike Australia Pty Ltd for this article series. The views expressed in this article, unless otherwise cited, are exclusively those of the author, Exercise & Sports Science Australia (ESSA). ESSA is a professional organisation committed to establishing, promoting and defending the career paths of tertiary trained exercise and sports science practitioners.

Nike had no role in the collection, analysis, or interpretation of data or research or the writing of this article.

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