Yoga For Athletes—Unlock Your Athletic Potential

Yoga For Athletes

“In my opinion, EVERY athlete – irrespective of sport or discipline – has the potential to enhance his or her ability by adopting a consistent yoga practice. I’d go so far as to say that if you’re not practicing yoga, you’re competing at a disadvantage and missing an opportunity to enhance peak performance.”

Rich Roll, ultra-endurance athlete 

I started practising yoga in 2009. At the time, I was a newly-certified NASM Personal Trainer and I was exercising all the time. I ran, boxed, trained multiple times a day at the gym and taught private clients as well as group classes. I stumbled across yoga when I first arrived in Mexico and it fast became a regular part of my training program. It’s likely the only thing that kept me from burning out.

As much as I loved how yoga made me feel, I did hit some early roadblocks. With the amount of time I was already dedicating to working out, I struggled to get to more than one or two classes a week, and when I practised online to save time, I found that the sessions were discouragingly hit or miss. It’s hard to know what a “heart-opening” class is going to do for you anatomically or if it’s your fourth or fifth chakra that you need to align. So, as a result of my frustration and that of my clients and friends, I resolved to design a comprehensive yoga system, specifically for athletes.

YOGA VS YOGA FOR ATHLETES

The difference between Yoga for Athletic Performance and Recovery (Yoga For Athletes) and traditional yoga lies primarily in its scope. Our goals are to move well, dial in our focus and release deeply-held tension and not, unfortunately, to reach enlightenment. We have races to win, after all! This evolved form of non-spiritual yoga, that includes functional movement and draws on the relatively new wisdom of biomechanics and sports psychology, has been adopted across almost all professional sports, from rugby to boxing and triathlon to motocross.

HOW LONG IS A TYPICAL SESSION?

In developing Yoga 15 for athletes, one of my first priorities was to tackle the issue of time. This was actually fairly easy to achieve. Yoga works best if practiced with consistency—so a short session every day will give you sustained benefits, whereas practicing for 90 minutes once a week may only benefit you for the period of time directly following the class. This is because, unfortunately, we cannot store recovery—we have to keep it continually topped up. 

After much experimentation, I discovered that 15 minutes was the minimum effective dose—the shortest amount of time possible to practice a warm-up, targeted session and cool down. By breaking a full class into its component parts and separating out the spiritual aspects, I was able to deal with the issues both of time and consistency. 

When it comes to yoga, little and often is the key.

BREAKING DOWN YOGA FOR ATHLETES

Yoga 15 is a comprehensive training system that covers the yin and yang of performance: movement mastery and effective recovery. Let’s break these two aspects down.

MOVEMENT

“You need to do yoga to be strong, fast, and physical. It will help you stay loose and get the most out of your body.”

Takeo Spikes, former NFL linebacker 

Although yoga is known primarily for improving flexibility, we actually train a number of different skills and techniques on the mat. We stretch, strengthen, increase mobility and challenge our balance. We hold poses for several minutes and transition dynamically between postures. We move in all planes of motion and target muscles from multiple different angles. We stand, sit, lie down and stand on our heads. We sequence poses intelligently and rarely target muscles in isolation. We focus on motor control, agility and body awareness. And perhaps most importantly, prioritise skilful use of the breath.

1. CORRECTING MUSCULAR IMBALANCES

“Our bodies do not always age symmetrically.”

Nick DiNubile, MD

Our bodies are adaptation machines that remodel, highly effectively, to the activities that we do the most frequently. Unfortunately, this can be a particular issue for athletes. Over time, we become maximally efficient at the relatively narrow range of movements and postures that define our sport. Swimmers and surfers develop disproportionately strong shoulders, cyclists and runners often become quad-dominant and tennis players and golfers develop the musculature to generate power much more so on one side than the other. Unfortunately, these adaptations come at a cost that starts to show up after many years of training. We develop muscular imbalances that lead to uneven wear and tear on the body, causing recurring pain and, many times, result in injury.

Something that I recognised early on in my own practice was yoga’s ability to heal pain and correct compensatory movement patterns. On the mat, we offer counterposes to the postures that are typical of each sport, strengthening muscles that are weak and releasing tension in those that are over-worked. If you’re diligent and consistent in practising the appropriate yoga poses and sequences, you can bring your body back into balance and restore lost ranges of motion. This, in turn, will increase your resilience and decrease your likelihood of injury. 

2. IMPROVING BODY AWARENESS

“A champion is in a serious relationship with his body.”

Aubrey Marcus, ONNIT Academy

When we slow it down, paying close attention to alignment, muscular engagement and the breath, we develop a greater awareness of what is going on inside our bodies (interoception)—how we move, where our restrictions lie and how good we are at positioning ourselves in space (proprioception). By practising this skill of tuning into subtle sensations, we’re better able to detect misalignments, locate missing movement angles and fine-tune our motor control.

It’s not hard to see how this skill transfers directly to your sport. Heightened body awareness allows you to focus on the integration of smaller muscle groups to improve your stability and adjust your posture, it gives you the ability to move into greater ranges of movement without causing yourself an injury, and highlights the specific areas that you need to work on. And an enhanced appreciation for sensations of weakness or fatigue helps you to determine whether you should train harder or pull back. This is a recurring feature of yoga for athletes. On the mat, we practise skills including breathing, balance and precise motor control in a low-pressure environment, so that we can access them unconsciously in the heat of training and competition. 

3. MOVING WITH CONTROL

“Body control at its simplest is the ability to perform an action with precision and accuracy, along with a sensation of ease, with no wasted energy.”

Jarlo Ilano, PT

Correcting muscular imbalances, restoring healthy range of motion and enhancing your body awareness allows you to move with greater precision and control. You’ll find that your coordination improves and your reaction speeds increase. Furthermore, in yoga, you’re able to refine the quality of your movement and alignment in a way that just isn’t possible when you’re moving fast, often in an extreme environment. By slowing down and focusing on appropriate muscle integration and engagement you’ll start to regain mastery over your movement.  

The result of consistent practice is a smoothness and fluidity in your sport. You’re able to integrate your body to work as a whole by paying attention not only to the prime movers but also the smaller stabiliser muscles that are working hard to put your body safely, just where you want it. And flow into ranges of motion that were previously unavailable or forced you into compensatory patterns. The key is to practise a variety of sequences and commit to consistency so that you continue to improve and expand the scope of what you’re capable of. 

RECOVERY

“Every time you work out, balance your system with some recovery so you don’t degrade your performance through burnout or injury.”

Mark Divine, former Navy SEAL

The primary determiner of performance is how well you can recover from training and go hard the next day. Effective recovery means:

  • Fewer injuries.
  • Reduced soreness.
  • More training days.
  • Better conditioning.
  • Lower rate of burnout.

The more recovered you are going into a workout, the harder you’ll be able to train and the greater the fitness gains that you’ll be able to achieve. It’s just not possible to dig deep unless you’re properly rested. Here’s a simple equation: 

Training Intensity + Depth of Recovery = Performance Gains

There’s a balance to this too. Too much of one of these inputs and not enough of the other will lead either to falling short or burning out. A consistent yoga practice allows you to effectively action the training stimulus, thereby maximising your gains. If you’re going to put in all that training, you want to make sure that you get the greatest return on your investment. Here are some ways that yoga for athletes supports your recovery.

1. PAIN RELIEF

“Pain is typically a good thing as it can help us identify something in our lives that is not good for our long term health.”

Dr Mercola

Pain is both a physiological and a psychological experience that can be difficult to untangle. One of my first students—Charley, who now works alongside me, suffered chronic and debilitating back pain caused by an early obsession with mountain biking and a lack of tools for recovery. I remember, before I started practicing yoga, that often he couldn’t even get out of bed, the pain was so severe. And when we were on long drives, the discomfort was so excruciating that we’d have to stop every couple of hours so that he could stretch it out. 

Some of the poses that I first showed him gave him immediate relief and together, over time, we worked on a program that has kept him pain-free ever since. At 39, Charley is riding his fastest times ever and is competing in a National Enduro MTB race next month. During the entirety of his training so far, he’s experienced zero stiffness in his legs and no pain in his lower back. It’s not that he’s delaying the effects of ageing, he’s genuinely getting better and better as an athlete every day. And since he’s able to put in 6 days of hard training instead of 3, his Strava times are going through the roof!

2. INJURY PREVENTION

“Yoga is somewhat hard to quantify in terms of benefits because you see them in all the injuries you don’t get.”

Kareem Abdul Jabbar, NBA Hall of Famer

During yoga teacher training, we’re not taught specifically about post-injury care and yoga is by no means a substitute for professional medical attention. However, some of the most robust research into the effectiveness of yoga is in its treatment of lower back pain and other similar conditions that are caused by the repetitive movement patterns typical of athletic training. For athletes, injuries can start showing up at a young age and continue to stack on top of each other. The rigorous demands of training and competition place huge demands on the body. If you’re training hard, your ankles, knees, hips, lower back, shoulders and neck are going to take a beating and injuries, from repetitive motion and imbalances in your biomechanics, come with the territory. 

Yoga reduces your risk of injury by balancing stability with flexibility. In Yoga 15, we have dedicated stability sessions for every part of the body and the same goes for flexibility. Two other key factors here are body awareness—taking inventory of your body as you practise, and ensuring proper mobility at every joint. It all comes back to movement. In yoga, we systematically ensure that every part of your body is moving well—that you’re balanced in strength, flexibility, and range of motion, through all planes of movement. This allows you to be fully prepared at all times, even for the highest intensity and longest duration exercise. 

3. THE BREATH

“When the breath wanders the mind also is unsteady. But when the breath is calmed the mind too will be still, and the yogi achieves long life. Therefore, one should learn to control the breath.”

Hatha Yoga Pradipika

Something that the yogis aced was breathing—in a way that hasn’t been paralleled or superseded in 5000 years. They couldn’t tell you why they worked or the mechanisms of action but they did establish techniques that are as effective today as they’ve always been. 

When it comes to effective recovery, there are three primary breathing techniques that athletes can incorporate into their training.

  1. Standalone breath control practices (pranayama). Box Breathing, for example, is a down-regulating technique designed to “calm the fluctuations of the mind”. It’s also known as Four-Square Breath, as the inhalations, exhalations and retention (kumbhaka) at the top and bottom of each breath are equal in length. The ratio between all four parts is 1:1. This breathing practice has its roots in sama vritti, Sanskrit for equal breathing. For athletes, a technique like this is invaluable to practise before competition to settle the nerves, to increase lung capacity and reduce your overall stress levels.
  2. Synchronising breath and movement (vinyasa). The pattern for breathing in yoga is fairly intuitive—we inhale as we open the body up and extend the spine and exhale as we contract the body and twist the spine. We also inhale to prepare for movement and exhale as we transition into the next pose. A deep focus on the breath leads to increased respiratory efficiency, improved focus and greater mental clarity. Furthermore, on the mat, we use the breath as a barometer of appropriate effort, a transferable skill that can help you to train smarter and avoid injury and burnout.
  3. Extending the breath to release deeply-held tension (visama vrtti). In yoga, as we come into static poses, we focus on extending our exhalations. For the nervous system to allow for the release of tightness, it must be relaxed. So if you hold your breath and try to muscle your way into a stretch, you’ll trigger your body’s innate reflex reaction which prevents the muscle from lengthening, in order to protect it from damage. So as we come into the deeper postures, we soften the belly and start to draw out the length of our exhalations. This technique is particularly effective if your muscles are incredibly tight or you’re suffering from pain caused by muscular imbalances.

SETTING UP A YOGA FOR ATHLETES PROGRAM

Setting up the perfect yoga program may take some experimentation, as all athletes have different strengths, weaknesses, preferences and schedules. But here are some basic principles that we can start from. 

  • An almost everyday practice is ideal.
  • We need to incorporate a variety of sequences. 
  • Bolting yoga onto an existing training program will help you to stay consistent.

What’s great about yoga, is that with just a few basic tools, you can design your own customised program. You know which poses are the most effective for you, where your weaknesses lie and how often and at what time of day you get the best results. You really can become your own body mechanic very simply. I break down Yoga 15 into 5 distinct skills and these become the building blocks of your program.

5 YOGA FOR ATHLETES FOUNDATIONAL SKILLS

  1. Strength
  2. Balance
  3. Mobility
  4. Flexibility
  5. Recovery

Each of these skills has an ideal practice time:

  • Strength and Balance sequences are great to practise alone or to prepare the body for exercise. 
  • Flexibility and Recovery sequences are ideal directly after exercise or in the evening. 
  • Mobility sequences are faster-paced and therefore more suitable for the morning or pre-workout. 

The key with the Flexibility and Recovery routines is to rotate a number of them to ensure that all muscles are restored from multiple different angles and in a variety of different combinations. The Mobility, Strength and Balance videos increase in difficulty to build progression into your training. You might be surprised to discover how hard yoga can be. It’s certainly not for the faint-hearted. 

DESIGNING YOUR PROGRAM

As the sessions are only 15 minutes long, it’s easy to customise your program to keep you injury-free and continuously progressing towards the attainment of your goals. Start gently and aim to get more ambitious from there. The most effective sequences initially are going to focus on hip openers and thoracic spine mobility poses but you can then start to look at the ankles, knees, shoulders and wrists before moving into more challenging sequences that require advanced balance and strength skills and the combination of more complex poses. 

Alternatively, you can follow a program to ensure that you’re covering all your bases. At Yoga 15, there are a number of ways to do this. You can select by sport—currently, running, weightlifting, surfing, swimming, cycling, martial arts, golfing or rowing, skill—balance, strength, mobility, flexibility or recovery, or choose by level of difficulty, anatomy, time of day or to ease existing pain.

DON’T GET LEFT BEHIND

As extreme explorer, Sir Robert Swan, the first man to have trekked to both the North and South Poles, carrying roughly 350 pounds of kit over 1600-miles, recently said:

“I have few regrets in my life, but one is not having tried yoga sooner.” 

Please let me know if you have any questions about the new and exciting field of yoga for athletes. And if you’d like some help designing a program that is right for you.

4 comments

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  • Great article. The Jabbar quote to me sums up the benefit the bet. Excellent discussion on the various elements and benefits. I’m glad you took this road in life and built this program. Thank you!

    • Thank you Doug! I realised in writing this article that I have been immersing myself in this topic for over 10 years—and loved every minute of it.

  • Abi,
    You elegantly and with ease and flow, hit it out of the park!!
    All of my athletes, friends and relatives, will be sent this link!!
    The one little tid bit, I would suggest, is that we are all athletes, and Everyone on this planet would benefit from your 15 minutes of salvation!!