Yoga as a Cross Training alternative.
Cross training refers to additional training and exercise performed by athletes, other than that of their primary sport. This supplementary programme builds strength in under utilised muscles and offers an athlete variety to prevent boredom and burnout.
Yoga is a system which integrates body, breath and mind. It's origins are historically religious and can be found both in Hinduism and Buddhism, and whilst of great interest to me personally, this is not normally the primary interest of athletes working with yoga. When I work with sportsmen and women, I aim to show how mindful movement, proactive work with the breath, and how the strength and flexibility aspects of the yoga postures will benefit all athletes. The boons of yoga for the athlete include: injury prevention, rehabilitation, greater overall fitness, active recovery, diaphragmatic breathing, enhanced motivation, lower stress and a more mindful approach to your training programme.
Most sports injuries fall into three types.
Inadequate recovery. Yoga can offer an active recovery system and a meaningful training session each week that allows overworked muscles comparative rest, whilst still continuing to build on your overall fitness base. The relaxation at the end of class reaffirms the importance of rest for recovery time, a real challenge for many athletes.
Biomechanical irregularities. Yoga cannot make a short leg longer, but it can help to build awareness of what a balanced body feels like. It works well alongside chiropractic adjustment in keeping a body aligned. Participants find that their overall balance, body awareness and agility normally improve, all of which are invaluable in sport.
Muscular imbalances. A regular yoga practice works to bring each joint in the body into balance and to provide strength to support each joint and enough flexibility to ensure that the optimum movement of the joint can be utilised. A yoga practice will slowly bring the irregularities that individual sports create, back into balance. There are concerns that yoga can push the muscles beyond their functional range of movement and compromise joint stability. For this reason isometric stretches are recommended and the avoidance of practices like yin yoga that involve long holds of postures and little internal structural support.
When an overuse injury does occur, yoga can be a safe place to maintain fitness and to also look at correcting the cause of the injury. When pain persists, the biopsychosocial benefits of yoga will help to calm the sympathetic nervous system and will in turn address the far more complex issues that exist to perpetuate pain, such as fear, anxiety and perception.
In Indiana University, participants in a fitness study were measured over the course of 6 months, at four different time points to measure multidimensional health changes and were compared against each other and a control group (no participation in yoga classes or practice). The results of the study identify that ashtanga and hatha yoga does decrease blood pressure, resting heart rate, improve flexibility, increase muscle strength, and decrease overall stress levels, which supports findings in current literature. The buzz-phrase of ‘core strength’ has been used in training programmes for last decade. Yoga will strengthen the muscles in your back, trunk and glutes to give you the stability to improve the power of your movements and your gait. Recent studies though, have shown that there is little benefit to an athlete’s VO2 max. (Clay. C. The Metabolic Cost of Hatha Yoga. 2005)
Athletes that have a purposeful yoga practice see how it benefits their mental state in ways that include, enhanced coping mechanisms, self efficacy and more buoyant moods. The concentration and mindfulness that a yoga practice promotes encourages sportspersons to be motivated and focused. Regular attendance on your mat promotes balance throughout life as well as in the body. Having a place where athletes can step outside their competitive nature is healthy for the individual and everyone connected to that person. Fundamentally, it is the mind that is the key difference between longevity and success in your sport or not. Yoga is a fine tool with which to fine tune this organ, thereby ensuring your ongoing commitment and attention on your training.
Yoga is about learning to pay attention and focus your energy. It's about learning to block out everything and focus on one thing, whether you're shooting a free throw, or stepping up to bat, or standing on the starting line in a marathon, or riding in the Tour de France. (Yoga teacher Beryl Bender Birch)
Finally, it is worth noting the word ‘practice’ which is littered through this piece. Yoga is to be practiced on a regular basis for its benefits to be felt. In the same way runners wouldn’t be surprised that my 5km time has plateaued in the past year due to a lack of commitment, the same goes of your yoga. To build new muscle, lengthen tight areas and develop your mindfulness takes time. So this winter, why not give yoga a try. Find a class, run by a properly trained teacher, who has at least a 500 hr training behind them and who has interests beyond their mat in the sporting arena; ideally someone who has a specialisation in yoga for sportspersons, and give it a go. Top sportsmen and women are reaping its rewards, Darren Barker is quoted to say that his yoga was a vital ingredient in his preparation of his world title fight. United’s Ryan Giggs would rather unroll his mat than go and party and Jessica Ennis has a regular Ashtanga practice.