Yoga for Athletes
Yoga is often considered a means of gaining more flexibility. Doctors and physiotherapists can be heard recommending it to athletes who display limited range of motion or are prone to injury. Yoga truly is so much more than a stretching exercise and I will touch on those points in the next segments. But if a yoga practice is initially only a time to stretch out then at least that’s a start! Most athletes are specialists. They practice their sport nearly year-round or year round and their complementary training i.e dry-land or conditioning is primarily based on the same movements. They get stronger, faster and better at the movements they need to master in order to excel in their sport. Essentially they are creating patterns of movement that are consistently the same. And with competition being fierce there is little time to rest. This leads to compensation, overuse and injury.
Youth organized sports do not emphasize enough the importance of recovery. If you ask any young athlete how often their trainers or coaches cool them down and guide them through a stretch after a practice or training session you will likely encounter blank stares. When we are young we think that our body will continue to function as it is forever. I can’t tell you how many 13 year olds I teach that can’t even come close to touching their toes. What does the future hold for them if they continue to neglect the importance of lengthening the muscles they spend most of their time shortening? “I’m not a dancer, I’m an athlete. I don’t need to be flexible” I often hear from athletes “I don’t need flexibility to be good at my sport”.
Perhaps it’s the image of a gymnast or a dancer with their legs behind their head when we think of the word ‘Flexibility’ that gives them this mindset. If we use the idea of range of motion instead of flexibility it may help to get the point across that overuse and misuse of the body leads to reduced range of motion. This means less power in movements whether it is running, skating, swimming etc. Not only in sport-specific movements but even in training. Think of a squatting position. If an athlete has very tight hips they cannot get as deep as they should while maintaining proper alignment and will not be able to perform a squat properly without putting strain on another part of the body like the back or the knees. Never mind trying to add weight to this squatter!
What about becoming too flexible? There are situations where athletes can be hyper-mobile. Usually females and young male athletes can by hyper-mobile through various joints like the hips, elbows, shoulders and knees. These athletes are just as likely to cause injury to themselves if they don’t learn to strengthen the muscles surrounding the joint to keep it within a reasonable range of motion. The beauty of yoga is that it has something to offer all body types! Most types of yoga do not just emphasize flexibility. There is an element of functional strength that is unlike any weighted exercise, this helps bring the body back into balance. The underutilized muscles from training repeatedly the same way are now being activated in your yoga practice. Improved core strength is a great side effect of a regular practice (the importance of core strength is another blog post in and of itself!). Simple balancing postures can throw off the strongest of Hercules’ at first but over time the body learns how to stabilize; coordination and proprioception improves thus leading to improved control, technique and more efficient movements in all endeavours. When athletes start a yoga practice they often find it much more difficult than they expected. Their bodies aren’t used to moving in this way and if they let their EGO get in the way they may opt to pass and revert to what they know best. If they stick it out for several weeks (or it may even take months depending on how tight and scarred they may be) they will start to see big changes taking place. Movements that were once restricted or forced with be done with much more ease and grace. Yes I said “grace”! Not necessarily like a ballerina, think of an agile hockey player gliding quickly on the ice!! Improved range of motion leads to more speed and power.
Yoga will make you a better athlete. But don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself and notice how you feel and how everything changes.