One of the principles of ‘yoga for athletes’ is that yoga helps to balance, or counter, some of the stresses that training puts on your body.
Every sport has particular demands it places on the body, with different loads and/or movement patterns applied to various muscle groups.
Typically this results in certain muscle groups becoming tighter and stronger, while others become relatively weak or underemployed. Over time this will create some form of imbalance in the body, and chances are it will sooner or later manifest as an injury.
Taking triathlon as this month’s focus sport, this column illustrates how yoga poses can be specifically used to help balance the training effects of each discipline. I’ve selected just three poses, from potentially hundreds that could be useful for these three disciplines, as examples.
There is of course plenty of crossover, and any single pose can be beneficial to many different sports; but these few examples may help give you a better understanding of how yoga can become a valuable part of your training programme to help keep you in balance and injury-free.
Why this pose for swimmers? Balanced shoulder support is crucial for swimmers, and locust pose is an excellent shoulder and back strengthener.
How to do it: Lie face down with your arms extended back along your sides. Slide your shoulder blades down the back, engaging the muscles through the back of the body to lift your chest and legs directly up off the floor.
Lift into the pose on an inhalation, then exhale back down, repeating for four rounds of breath. Take a break, then inhale into the pose again and hold and extend into the pose for several (5-8) breaths. Rest, then repeat for three further holds.
Tips: Activate the legs and encourage the chest to open by imagining that someone is gently pulling your fingers and toes back away from you. Keep the neck relaxed and gaze just slightly forward.
With hours upon hours rounding the body forwards over a bike and pedalling the legs, the most obvious yoga poses for cyclist are those which open the hip flexors and front of the body. (See April’s Fitness Journal article for illustrations of Supported Fish pose and Crescent Lunge – both in my ‘top five’ yoga poses for athletes).
Less obvious, but still really important, is a cyclist’s core and back strength, to support the spine and to deliver power through the pedal stroke.
Why this pose for cyclists? Back muscles can become overstretched and weak through cycling, and a strong core will help protect your back. Strengthening your core will help you develop a stronger and more efficient pedal stroke, as the core is where the push to the pedals begins.
How to do it: Boat pose is essentially making a ‘V’ with your upper body and thighs. Start seated with your knees bent in front of you and feet on the floor.
Lean the upper body back, keeping long through the spine, lifting the chest, engaging the core, and drawing the shoulder blades towards each other.
Find a balance point on the sitting bones, and take the arms out in front, palms facing inwards.
Dial the intensity of the pose up or down by varying the position of the legs – feet on the floor for lowest intensity, to straight legs for highest intensity (shins parallel to floor is a good mid-point).
Hold for five (long, slow) breaths, then relax for three breaths. Repeat for three to five times in total.
Tips: In my expereince this is the pose where people most often look ‘angry’ in yoga – due to the tendency to work it too hard through the shoulders and upper back, and forgetting to breath (hence looking strained in the face).
Check that your face and breath remain soft, and feel the integrity of the pose coming more from your core strength rather than the more superficial (outer) muscles.
There is a near-limitless library of yoga poses that will help balance your body from running. Lunges, hamstring stretches and hip releases will all be near the top of the list, but don’t forget to give some attention to your core, back and lower legs; and your feet and ankles, which are your foundation and connection with your running surface.
Why this pose for runners? Dancer pose gives a deep stretch for the hip flexors, opens the chest and shoulders, puts the spine in extension, stretches the hamstrings, works on stability through the ankles and feet, and improves balance – hitting several important points for runners in one pose.
How to do it: Begin as though doing a standing quadriceps stretch. Gradually push your foot back into your hand, and lean your body forwards, reaching out through the fingers.
As you push your foot back into your hand you will be stretching the hip and opening the shoulder and chest. Hold for 30 seconds, then change sides.
Tips: Finetune this pose by checking the following: Even weight distribution and support through the standing foot and ankle. Aim to keep the chest, hips and pelvis even side to side.
Keep the raised leg in line with the body (not moving out wide). Lift your chest and keep your face and breath soft. Extend more fully into the pose with practice.
Sarah MacDonald is New Zealand’s only certified Yoga for Athletes instructor.
She specialises in helping athletes maintain physical balance and mental focus. Sarah has worked with athletes of all levels, from school students through to some of New Zealand’s most elite athletes, including Olympians and world champions. www.balanceyoga.co.nz
Photos by Peter Bryant | www.shoot.kiwi
Model: Triathlete and open water swimmer Penny Hayes.