Key Benefits of Yoga for Athletes
Yoga is really starting to make a mark in the world of sports. Have you noticed that there is a growing number of professional teams, athletes, and coaches that recognize yoga as a fundamental part of their training? Using yoga as a supplement to your sports specific training boosts athletic performance on so many levels. Essentially, it improves the overall physical and mental state of your body, allowing you to get even more from your training. Sport-specific training, and participation in your sport, consistently develop certain areas, while other areas remain underdeveloped. By using yoga to address these imbalances and restore balance, you give yourself the opportunity to move better, generate more power, and prevent overuse injuries. Yoga can provide both physical and mental benefits, including increased strength and lung capacity on the physical side and enhanced focus in the mental arena. Yoga allows athletes to become more aware of what is happening in their bodies so that they can better identify potential problems and prevent injury.
Flexibility is not a requirement of Yoga. If you are a good athlete, your body should be tight in the right areas. That tightness is a result of your training and is what helps you generate the right amount of power and strength. Yoga is not only ‘yoga’ if you can contort yourself into some magnificent expression of a pose, in fact, as an athlete, going too deep into a pose can be counterproductive. So, regardless of if you can touch your toes or not, the benefits of yoga for athletes still exist. As you will see below, the benefits are vast, and hopefully they bring a greater understanding of why yoga is quickly becoming an integral part of the sports world.
Professional and college athletes are always looking for a way to enhance their performance and many are turning to yoga to give them an edge over their competitors. So now that we know this, why wouldn’t we set them up for success starting with high school & middle school athletes!
Develop Deep, Relaxed Breathing
If you participate competitively in sport or simply join the occasional fun run on a whim, you are aware of the impact breathing can have on performance. Deep, relaxed breathing is the foundation of reducing performance anxiety and improving concentration. Yoga practice will help you develop a habit of breathing correctly by integrating the mind-body connection. Athletes can benefit from this combination of skills training.
Use for Cross Training
Yoga is a great low-impact way to cross train. Cross training is necessary for athletes who do the same sport or exercise routine year-round. Adding new exercises can help reduce injury, relieve training boredom, add variety, and help you recover from hard aerobic or strength workouts. Yoga can be done at a high or low intensity and there are hundreds of postures that can provide a workout for any athletic need.
A consistent yoga practice can enhance core strength and stability. Various poses target muscle groups that are often under-utilized in other exercises, such as running, cycling, and swimming. By strengthening these neglected muscles, you provide more support to your major muscle groups. Improving the strength of both big and small muscles allows them to function at their optimal level and enhance your exercise performance.
Sport-specific repetitive movements also have the consequence of continuing to strengthen certain muscles while others remain underdeveloped. This creates muscular imbalances, which in time can be a precursor for aches and pains, poor range of motion, and even injury. So, while your sport can indeed make you strong, it develops strength only in areas that are required by your sport. On the other hand, a yoga practice that is tailored for your sport and addresses your undeveloped muscles, can restore balance back in your body by promoting full body strength.
Yoga poses are all about building core strength. The slow, focused movements require a strong midsection, and the isometric contractions of many exercises will add a new form of resistance training to your typical machine-based workouts.
Balance and coordination are essential for improving exercise performance and prevention of injuries. Flowing through yoga poses enhances balance and coordination, as well as concentration. By improving balance, you can reduce the risk of falls and improve technique when exercising, leading to better performance overall.
Incorporating balancing poses in yoga helps to strengthen the many stabilizing muscles that serve to protect your body. Improving your overall balance can also bring confidence to your movements, reduce falls, improve recovery from stumbles, prevent injuries and develop greater control of the way you move your body.
Yoga is a perfect way to incorporate balance exercises into your training routine. Balance exercises are often overlooked by athletes but are one of the most effective ways to correct muscle imbalance or body mechanic problems. With most sports and weight training routines, you tend to perform repetitive motions that develop some muscle groups while others are ignored. Yoga can fix these imbalances.
In addition to poses that challenge strength and balance, a complete yoga practice includes poses to increase flexibility. Joint and muscle flexibility play a key role in range of motion. A greater arc of motion allows more force to be exerted during exercise movements like a golf swing, swimming stroke, or a baseball pitch.
The repetitive movements involved in performing a sport concentrates tension in specific areas of your body, which reduces your range of motion and your ability to move and perform with the greatest efficiency. Yoga can help to reduce the impact of that repetition by focusing on those overused muscles and releasing excessive tension. Maintaining flexibility in areas that are prone to holding tension improves ease of movement, meaning you can maneuver your body in ways that are most effective for generating strength and power.
Increase Flexibility and Range of Motion. Yoga routines incorporate slow, steady flexibility exercise that is ideal for athletes. Frequent yoga training may increase flexibility and range of motion while relieving muscle tension. Whether you are a runner or a golfer, improved range of motion can often help improve performance.
- Mental Focus
Yoga acknowledges the importance of mental training alongside physical training. Even if meditation is not for you, yoga includes various other techniques that can help improve mental focus for sport or exercise. For example, many yoga poses are most successful when breathing matches movement. This can be beneficial for endurance athletes like runners, cyclists, or swimmers.
Yoga is a great addition to any exercise regimen and has many benefits for improving exercise performance. It is unique in that athletes of all ages or experience can start a regimen at their own pace – and reap the benefits. So, step out of your comfort zone and onto the mat today!
Yoga asanas are poses that help bring your attention to, and achieve, proper alignment. This helps improve performance by promoting efficiency of movement and thus the ability to generate more power. The combination of strength, flexibility, and proper body mechanics allows your body to move, recruit muscles, and transmit force in the most efficient way.
A well-paced yoga practice must be approached in the same way as any endurance sport; with a focus on breath and the ability to properly pace yourself. Breathing and maneuvering your body around into several different poses that demand balance and strength improves your body’s respiratory capacity, improves your circulation, and teaches you how to conserve energy by becoming more efficient with your movements. Overall, this will help you pace yourself appropriately for the long haul.
- Injury prevention
Injury prevention not only allows you to keep performing your sport now, but it also extends the amount of time that you are able to enjoy it, and participate in it, in the future. The strength, flexibility, and improved body mechanics that you gain from a consistent yoga practice help maintain a healthy body, including healthy joints, which are common injury sites from repetitive sports movements. Nothing derails performance like an injury can. So, doing what you can to stay injury free puts you in a place where you can continue to keep progressing in your sport without any unnecessary diversions.
- Mental Resilience
Having a strong, focused, and resilient mind is invaluable to an athlete, and can make the difference between success and failure. With athletes constantly training to push their physical limits to the max, it is often the one with greatest mental strength that perseveres. Learning to stay focused and composed as you step outside your comfort zone is a valuable skill as an athlete, especially when the pressure and stakes are high. New poses, uncomfortable sensations, and resolving to still be in all aspects of a yoga practice that help build mental toughness and sets you up to excel when faced with a challenge.
As an athlete it can be easy to focus all your efforts on ‘doing’ and ‘pushing’ to reach that new level of peak performance, and therefore struggle to allow time for rest and recovery. Even though you likely understand the benefits and importance of recovery, taking time to rest and be still can be almost unbearable for those who just always want to be on the go. Yoga is an excellent tool for both passive and active recovery. It can relieve physical and mental stress, gently release tension, and give your body and enjoyable break from the demands of your sport. Sports require an enormous number of repetitive contractions, which makes a slow-paced or restorative practice a great way to restore balance by countering all that contraction with expansion. In addition, a consistent yoga practice can improve your circulation and lymphatic flow, which means that it can speed up the time it takes for your body heal and recover from your last training session.
- Body Awareness/Proprioception
Athletes know how important it is to be completely in tune with their body. It is important for you to know when it is time to pick up the pace, slow down, rest, or even take a step back when something is not feeling right. Since a big part of yoga is learning how to stay present throughout your practice, a consistent practice can improve your understanding of your body. With a heightened awareness of your body, you will begin to pick up on its cues and learn how to move with more efficiency. This can help you determine the appropriate level of effort you need to execute a particular move, preventing you from overusing or underusing energy, as well as steer you away from injury.
Control of breath. Control of movement. Control of mind. Yoga helps with essentially every aspect of control. Control of your breath, and pairing it correctly with your movements, improves your efficiency, oxygen intake, oxygen output, muscle function, and reduces muscle fatigue. Control of movement results from improved mind-body connection. Yoga strengthens your neural pathways, allowing you to better connect your brain to your muscles. Control of mind is developed from yoga’s objective to stay present and focused, while proper breathing patterns help keep your mind at ease.
- Stress Relief/Relaxation
The demands of performing a sport, regardless of if for pleasure or competition, is stressful on your body. Your body is working hard to help get you to that peak performance level. Sport demands a lot from your heart, muscles, bones, joints, mind, and more, and just like your phone needs a restart occasionally, so does your body. A yoga practice can be used to balance that stress with some well needed relaxation. Not to mention the anxiety and pressure that comes along with competition sports! Yoga can help you better manage your response to stressful situations and flush those stress hormones from your body.
- Improved Energy
Sports are both physically and mentally demanding. A dynamic yoga practice can be structured to stimulate the nervous system and provide you with a boost of energy, or a slower paced practice can provide a well needed break for your mind so you can return to your sport feeling refreshed, invigorated, and motivated.
- Muscle Function
One thing that makes yoga more than just stretching is the emphasized focus on breath, and intentionally pairing your movements with breath. This breath-movement connection helps strengthen your body awareness, and as a result, how you move your body, by keeping you present and in the moment. Your breath is always occurring in the present, so by focusing on your breath as you move, you give yourself the opportunity to stay present throughout the movement. This allows you to be more mindful and intentional of muscle recruitment, body positioning, alignment and establish better breathing patterns.
Several academic studies have highlighted what yoga can do for athletes. Here are a few with some link's to research found on practicing yoga:
- Improved VO2 max (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise).
- Improved flexibility and balance.
- Reduced stress and can keep child athletes mentally and physically fit.
- Improved basketball performance.
- Increased efficiency among short-track speed skaters.
Another study demonstrated that using diaphragmatic pranayama (breathing) exercises in yoga reduced exercise-induced oxidative stress in athletes.