Yoga has never been a regular part of my training regime. I’ve always prioritised fitness and strength based sessions for sport specific based training or Pilates due to my Physio background and Clinical Pilates Instructor experience.
Whilst these components are important for an athlete yoga really does have a lot to offer the general active person and athletes. It is very easy for athletes to become too focused on their training sessions which involve high intensity running, sprinting, weight lifting etc., and sometimes we can become too focused on these things and overtrain. It can become quite obsessive, addictive in nature and absolutely diabolical if you miss a session. Have you ever missed a few days of training and actually felt super light and much faster on your next run though? I know this has certainly happened to me and the reasons are obvious but I think sometimes we need to be reminded.
The body needs a rest and time to adapt. If you continuously push your body with minimal rest days your body will hit a point that it won’t train properly anyway making it hard for any gains to be made and leaving your body in a state of physical and hormonal stress. With any program whether it’s running or strength training for your basketball you need small taper weeks so that your body can actually adapt and make the changes to become stronger.
What is the Hormonal Stress?
Cortisol is the name of the hormone that is released in your body due to an acute stress to try and help reduce the pressure and boost immune function to protect the body. However, it’s important that the body relaxes afterwards and returns to its normal state otherwise chronically high levels of cortisol can lead to negative effects on the body.
These are thought to include:
- Decreased bone density – In athletes can lead to stress fractures with the high load
- Decrease in muscle tissue
- Lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body
- Reduced exercise capacity
- High blood pressure
Normally exercise helps to reduce cortisol and stress however if you are overtraining or you are also a student/work in a high stress environment you are at more risk of causing this chronically elevated cortisol state. Trying to train whilst you are sick, feeling sluggish and or injured is far from ideal for any athlete.
How Can Yoga Help:
Along with an appropriate training schedule with periodisation to allow the body time to adapt Yoga can be the perfect activity to do on a “rest day”. Not only does it help in flexibility and core strength but there is lots of evidence in its role in reducing high levels of cortisol and actually working as an anti-depressant.
Other methods of reducing stress on the body cannot be ignored such as adequate sleep, healthy diet and managing other stressors on the body such as work or student life.
Flexibility – Make no mistake, yoga definitely helps with flexibility. This can certainly cross over into your training as a muscle can’t function properly if it is too tight. The time spent actually holding a pose or repeating it means your muscles have more of a chance to actually increase in flexibility meaning it is much more effective than just stretching for five minutes after a run. I have certainly noticed feeling much looser through the hips especially due to the hip flexor and adductor (groin) stretching which made running the next day feel AMAZING!
Reduce Injury – Many soft tissue injuries are often related to preceding tight muscles so it would make sense improving your flexibility through these muscles would help in reducing muscle strains. There are many other injuries that can also be caused by tight muscles pulling on the bone that they insert into such as runners knee where the ITB pulls on the insertion on the outside of the knee.
Core and balance – By holding poses on one leg, one arm or even just a warrior lunge the deep core muscles have to work to help stabilise the body. Core strength is well known for its importance across most sports whether it is to help your balance in landing in netball, to steady your shot and hit more accurately in tennis or be able to stand your ground on the football field.
Balance also strengthens your ankle stabilising muscles which can be super beneficial in preventing ankle sprains. (For more info read my blog “Ultimate Guide for Ankle Sprains”).
Improve upper back (Thoracic) mobility – Yoga involves a lot of extension and rotation of the upper back which is an area that is crucial to keep mobile for proper loading of your spine. If this area becomes stiff and rigid from lots of training and no release or lots of stress and sitting with studying or work it can lead to injury. For example, if you can’t extend and rotate your upper back enough in a tennis serve or bowling in cricket you are not only more inefficient but are at a higher risk of either straining these muscles and joints or overusing your shoulder or lower back to create the power leading to injury. Yoga is a great way to reduce any upper back stiffness.
Mindfulness & Meditation – Whether it is high performance stress in sport or work deadlines, taking some time out to relax or meditate can make the world of difference. Most yoga classes finish with some element of this which might just be lying on the floor with your eyes shut. It can make all the difference.
Who should be careful of yoga?
Whilst as a physio I think yoga is great, there are some people that I will advise to be very careful of yoga as it is not necessarily suited to them. People who are naturally hypermobile or double jointed need to be extremely careful. This may be you if you have dislocated your kneecap without trauma for example or have clicking “loose” hips or elbows and thumbs that hyperextend. More of a strength based focus such as Pilates would be much more suited as more flexibility is not ideal for these people.
The other people I advise to be careful are patients with an acute disc bulge or disc type pain in their back. More core strength is important but lots of bending is not ideal in the acute stages at least. Building up your core strength in Pilates or with a physio independently and gradually returning to Yoga is much safer.
All in all Yoga is great and is a perfect way to help athletes ensure that they are not over training with the other added benefits as well. Happy finding your Zen