7 ways yoga improves sports performance
1. Injury prevention
If you train hard in any given sport, at some point you will have experienced an injury. Injuries are caused by repetitive movements, imbalances in our biomechanics, pushing our bodies beyond their limits or sometimes from accidents, mistakes or contact with other players.
The coaching staff of NRL team the Manly Sea Eagles, for example, recognise the ability that yoga has to prevent injuries. After incorporating recovery yoga into their training this season, they reported their lowest ever soft tissue injury rate. How does this work? Tight, taut muscles are not able to generate power or absorb shock, so we used recovery yoga within 48 hours of a game, to re-lengthen muscles, alleviate soreness and create more suppleness. The football players’ bodies were then able to get back to training quicker and cope better with the demands of the game.
Another way that yoga assists injury prevention is that each time we get onto the mat, we tune into our body and check what is going on at that particular time. This allows us to notice areas of tightness, or twinges that may indicate something is not quite as it should be. Equipped with this knowledge, we can take action to prevent a full-blown injury occurring.
Similarly, there are nerve reflexes within our body that are designed specifically to stop us from hurting ourselves. Our body is constantly communicating with us, but we have to learn to listen. If we can distinguish whether the sensation indicates we’re moving deeper into a pose than we’ve been before, or we’re about to do damage – we can choose to keep going, or to back off in order to prevent injury.
2. Increases Body & Spatial Awareness:
Yoga increases your awareness of your body and mind. Each time we get on the mat, we tune in with what is going on with our body in this moment, on this particular day. We take on the role of observer and get to know our bodies better – what do we need to strengthen, lengthen, loosen? Is there an imbalance between the left and right side of our body? What pose helps when my hips/shoulders/glutes are tight?
Practicing yoga also improves your spatial awareness, which in turn improves your posture and alignment. This can benefit you in a whole range of movements, for example in CrossFit it would improve your lifting technique and allow you to lift heavier loads.
3. Increases flexibility
Yoga improves flexibility and allows you to explore your full range of motion, whilst maintaining healthy joints.
By the time we’re an adult, our tissues have lost a shocking 15% of their moisture content and muscles start to stick to each other. Stretching stimulates the production of tissue lubricants and therefore slows down the dehydration.
Yoga is highly effective at improving flexibility. The reason for this is twofold: it works on increasing the elasticity of muscle fibres and connective tissues (ligaments, tendons and fascia), but also on the involuntary nervous system, otherwise known as the “stretch reflex”. Every muscle fibre has a network of sensors called muscle spindles. These sense how far and fast the muscle fibres are lengthening. When the stretch comes too fast, or goes too far, the muscle spindles fires an urgent neurological “SOS”, which triggers an immediate and protective muscle contraction. When we incorporate passive stretches into our yoga practice, we trigger the stretch reflex but in a less abrupt way. The improvement to our flexibility comes through slow conditioning of the muscle spindles, training them to tolerate more tension before it sends out the “SOS” and our body throws on the brakes.
4. Improves balance and stability
The physical nature of yoga poses will improve your ability to balance and also create greater stability in your body. As we balance in a pose we steady our gaze and start to still our mind. Getting our physical body and mind to work together, improves our ability to stay balanced and stable – useful skills for any sport.
5. Increases breathe awareness and efficiency
The breath is the vehicle for oxygen to enter the body. Oxygen provides the fuel that runs our body, converting food and liquid into energy. We also cleanse the body through the breath, eliminating waste and toxins. So if we can get it working efficiently, we will have more fuel and less toxins.
Yoga increases your awareness of your breath and teaches you how to control it. This is an incredibly powerful tool to have up your sleeve because it:
Calms the nervous system – this results in lower stress levels. When you feel stressed your heart beats quicker, and when the heartrates reaches 175 beats a minute and beyond, your fine motor skills start to diminish and you’re more likely to make mistakes. The breath is the bridge between the mind and the body, so slowing it down calms the nervous system, slows the heartrate and ensures you make better decisions and perform at your best. A calm nervous system also results in stronger immunity, so you’ll less likely to get sick.
Increases your power - You can tap into this secret weapon during your training. Try doing a push up while holding your breathe…not fun. Now, try again but take a big inhale through the nose as you lower to the ground, then exhale strongly as you push up, using the power of your breathe to assist you. Heaps easier! Or, try it while on the rowing machine – firstly hold your breathe, then breathe normally and lastly as you pull towards you, make an explosive exhale. POW!
Pace & Rhythm - If you are doing long aerobic workouts, focusing on your breathe will help you to find a consistent pace and rhythm. Try it the next time you’re busting out a long set of burpees. The breath also brings you into the present moment which is extremely advantageous during long workouts or triathlons which are mentally challenging.
6. Increased focus and concentration
In yoga we practice quietening and controlling the mind. We use the breath to quieten the mind, to move from a state of stress or confusion, to clarity and focus. We also use mindfulness techniques whereby rather than allowing our thoughts to drift off to analyse the past, or project into the future, we practice coming back to the present moment. When we are fully present, we can focus more intently on the situation that is in front of us – so we can concentrate on winning the game, or acing our workout.
7. Rest and Relaxation
In the same way we have to train our muscles and mind to switch on, we also need to train them to switch off. At the end of a yoga practice once we have released the tension from the body, it’s time to do the same with our minds. The final pose is ‘savasana’ where we allow ourselves to enter into a deeply relaxed state. Rest is the best medicine, it balances out high intensity workouts, calms your nervous system and even improves sleep. Ultimately, it is rest that will allows your muscle tissues to heal and rebuild so you are ready to perform.