Yoga for athletes – A winning yoga strategy

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Switched on athletes around the world, and across Waikato, are harnessing the power of yoga to improve performance, reduce injury and enhance recovery.

But, just like in sport, successfully using yoga to improve your performance comes down to the right strategy.

To bring yoga into a structured training programme, the goal is to ensure that the yoga you do complements your training. The last thing you want to do is randomly insert intense yoga sessions into your training programme at the wrong time. At best this can be unproductive; at worst you may be risking injury.

SophieMeThe rule of inverse proportion
Your yoga practice should be designed to support where you are at in your training cycle. This can vary over the course of a week, a few months, a season or a year. The general principle athletes should work on is that the intensity of the yoga you do should be applied in inverse proportion to the intensity of your training.

To illustrate how to implement this, we can break down a season of training into three major phases: the base phase, where you are working on base fitness – perhaps longer training of lower intensity; the build phase, where you are actively working harder and becoming stronger and/or faster; and finally the peak or competition phase, where you are looking to pull out your best, most intense performances.

Through these cycles your yoga focus adapts to support your training.

Base phase: Yoga focus – strength
During your base phase when you are working at lighter intensity, your yoga practice can be more like a physical workout, building strength and stamina. Your yoga may incorporate plenty of strong standing poses and some more challenging strength poses. Yoga can help you build core strength and more strength in the muscles your sport demands the most from.

Build phase: Yoga focus – flexibility
As your training intensity and load increases you will be demanding more from your key muscle groups. Your muscles may be getting stronger, but tighter. Yoga can help balance that training intensity by helping you maintain muscular balance between the major muscles you use and smaller supporting ones that can become comparatively weak and under-employed. Yoga at this stage helps maintain a healthy range of motion in muscles and joints, actively reducing the chance of strains and overuse injuries.

Peak phase: Yoga focus – mental focus and recovery
Your peak phase is the business end of sport – the competition season. At this stage you are not looking to yoga for another ‘workout’ session. Instead it becomes more of a ‘work-in’, with priority on active recovery and mental focus. You know the saying that ‘sport can be won or lost with the top two inches’? This is when yoga can help you get the mental edge over your competition. Mental focus, breathing exercises and restorative poses will speed your recovery, and enhance your ability to shut out distractions and see the goal clearly on competition day.

Smart yogi athletes
You don’t have to look far these days to find top level athletes actively benefitting from a regular yoga practice. Rower Sophie MacKenzie, one of our own world champions training in Waikato, is a fine example.

Sophie’s training schedule would not be complete without a regular yoga practice and, as she explains, it doesn’t have to take a huge amount of time. “I definitely feel the benefits of doing yoga as regularly as I can. Often that can be just 15 minutes in the morning before going out training. That is enough to wake up my back and help me get moving.”

While in the big picture you can change the intensity of a yoga practice over the course of a season or year that can also change during the week, as Sophie describes.
She’ll often have a longer yoga session perhaps at the start of a week, but adapt that to more restorative sessions if she’s getting tired as the week progresses.

“If my legs are sore and I’m feeling tired I will make my yoga more restful, including simple poses like legs up the wall. I find using yoga for recovery is more effective that just lying on the couch. I feel a lot more relaxed, and calmer with the enforced mental and physical rest time.”

Sophie has also experienced first-hand how yoga breathing exercises have helped reduce the risk of injury related to rib pains she was having – an early indicator of rib stress fractures, a common rowing injury.

“I didn’t have good functional use of my muscles, but with breathing exercises I have been able to relax them a lot more and, together with my physio, have noticed measurable improvements.”

When yoga is strategically brought in to your training programme, you too can maximise the benefits it can deliver. Done right, you will find yoga will help you in your sporting endeavours by keeping your body in balance, reducing the chance of injury, and keeping you mentally focused.

Sarah MacDonald of Balance Yoga is New Zealand’s only Certified Yoga for Athletes instructor. Based in Cambridge, Sarah can work with athletes from any sport at any level. www.balanceyoga.co.nz
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