OCT 2015 - HEALTH & FITNESS
Yoga for Athletes
By Michele Pearsall
My favorite population to teach is the athlete, not only because I know they have some kinesthetic awareness, but also because athletes can benefit in so many ways. However, often when I invite athletes to come to my yoga class they respond, “I’m not flexible” or “I can’t focus or go slow,” I smile and respond, “That is why you need yoga.”
Running has many benefits, however it creates physical imbalances that lead to inefficiencies and injuries. Yoga can help by stretching what is tight, strengthening what is weak, and improving the essential stabilizers of the body. Some areas that runners need help releasing are the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, hip flexors, back and shoulders. Poses that stretch these muscle groups, and strengthen the comparatively weaker hip abductors and rotators, create more balance in the lower body. This balance relieves some of the most common complaints of runners, including pain in the iliotibial band, knees and lower back.
Many runners become used to injury and develop a high pain tolerance. Often they continue to run even when in pain and ignore an injury. This is where the benefits of awareness come in. Yoga teaches runners how to tell the difference between “good” pain and “bad” pain by bringing awareness to the different sensations in challenging poses. Rather than blocking out the sensations, participants learn to pay attention.
Yoga can improve runners’ performance by increasing physical endurance, core strength, range of motion and proprioception. But other training methods can also improve these physical skills. Yoga has the training edge of running performance in energy management.
Snow sports like cross country skiing, downhill skiing and snowboarding allow you to descend and traverse on a variety of terrain, snow conditions and trails. You’re navigating a slippery surface that offers little resistance to slow you down, so you need a heightened sense of balance, along with focused strength in your core, back and legs.
Yoga sequences that focus on honing your balance and strengthening the key muscle groups that you use in snow sports – the quadriceps, glutes, ankles, abdominals and back. If you’re a regular skier, doing these poses throughout the season will enhance your experience on the slopes. A pre-ski season yoga practice can help prepare these muscle groups for a more enjoyable early season.
Yoga’s gentle backbends ease the spine from the flexed cycling position into extension as can chest openers from a rounded shoulder position. Postures such as bridge pose open the front of the body, stretching the pectoral muscles that shorten over time while riding. Because cyclists move in a forward-only or sagittal plane of motion and strive for upper body stillness. This often leads to tightness in the stabilizing muscles of the outer hips as well as the IT band. Lateral, or sideways movements like “triangle” pose provide a deep stretch. Along with upper body flexion and tight shoulders and chest lower backs can become fatigued and or tight.
For lower back relief, sinking into extended child’s pose, post-ride will ease out the lower back (and shoulder) muscles. Typically people in general as well as cyclists have a weak link between the lower thoracic vertebrae and the upper lumbar vertebra. Adding some strengthening postures like “locust” in between rides to strengthen the lumbar region, an area vulnerable to injury in the cycling stance. A strong core is vital for posture, power, injury prevention and comfort. Most road cyclists have weak abdominals in comparison with their back muscles. Imbalance can trigger low back issues or cause a tired rider to slump in the saddle, placing pressure on the wrists and hands.
Paddlers are often in a forward flexed position, straining the back and torso, as well as hips and sacroiliac joints. Shoulders are can be overloaded when they find themselves in vulnerable positions “out of the paddler’s box,” such as in a high brace. Wrists and elbows may become sore as the shoulders are stressed, thereby taxing other joints.
To address one weakness, you must address the others as the body is one large integrated system. For example, if your hamstrings are tight, this can cause pain in your pelvis. If your lower back is weak, this can affect your pelvis and in turn your hips, knees and even ankles. A weak lower back can even lead to postural malalignment and result in shoulder pain or discomfort. A strict yoga regimen can address these issues, offering increased strength and muscular endurance while reducing the risk of injury and restoring balance.
While yoga can benefit the athlete’s physical body, it is only a small part of the benefits of yoga. Yoga connects the mind and the body, it brings us to the present moment. With Vinyasa flow yoga that I teach, the movements are connected to the breath, and diaphragmatic breathing is used. Yoga can also assist with rehabbing of overuse injuries or traumatic injuries caused by a fall, such as one I had a few years ago on ice while cross country skiing. I suffered from adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder), which through slow and increased duration of yoga postures, I became pain free and had range of motion returned after a few months.
While there are many benefits for athletes and non-athletes in yoga, it is important that when practicing yoga the instructor is trained, and is following exercise science-based techniques with a focus on alignment. An example that could cause overuse issues include “scooping” in Chaturanga to up-dog, rather than shifting forward, shoulders ahead of wrists slightly and then lifting with the chest and core, causing potential rotator cuff injuries. Make sure that as in any physical activity, there is a building of body heat or a warm-up before holding deep stretches, and of course never push through pain – a lesson that can be applied to all athletes.
Michele Pearsall (email@example.com) teaches yoga, stress management, and health and fitness at SUNY Adirondack in Queensbury, and Solstice Yoga at Tannery Pond Community Center in North Creek. She has an MS in Community Health Education, 200-hour registered yoga teacher, ACE certified personal trainer, and Level II PSIA ski instructor.