Are you working out ultra-hard to get the best results possible? Or do you feel that you’re doing everything you can and just not getting ahead? Perhaps it’s time to look at yoga to enhance your performance. Adding yoga to your routine if you’re training hard for fitness or an athletic event has a bucket-load of benefits. Certainly flexibility is one of them, but you may not be aware that there’s plenty more advantages to yoga. Let’s have a look at some of them now.
Yoga poses require a lot of balance. When your balance improves, you improve your economy of movement. So whether you’re walking, running, dancing or playing a competitive sport, with improved balance you will be able to spend less energy organising your body to react the way that you need it to. Better balance, therefore, prevents injuries and improves agility, speed and performance.
Arguably, when left to our own devices, balance exercises are probably the first exercises we tend to discard. By including yoga classes in your weekly routine, you’re guaranteed to get your required dose of these beneficial exercises.
Those of you that have already experienced yoga will know first-hand that yoga practice is not simply a series of mindless stretches. Many asanas (or poses) are carefully held from just a few seconds to much longer, forcing your body to gain real functional strength. By ‘functional’, we mean useful strength that has a purpose for movement or activities, rather than simply gaining muscle size and power – which does not always translate to benefit in either athletic or day-to-day activities.
For example, holding a difficult position without the use of gym equipment requires several muscles to work synergistically, rather than just a prime mover performing all the work. Postural muscles have to be engaged, your proprioception and balance is improved, and greater economy of movement is achieved. This type of exercise gives profoundly different results than pumping out bicep reps or hamstring curls. The added benefit here is that often the primary mover or other muscles will be lengthened, further allowing underdeveloped muscles to perform their job, creating a more balanced, and highly functional form of strength.
So why, you may wonder, is flexibility so important? Arguably, too much flexibility is not a good thing, as it can weaken muscles. Anything can be taken to the extreme. Flexibility is an important part of fitness, generally speaking though, for several reasons.
Range of movement (ROM) is increased in the muscles and joints when you are flexible. When there is a better ROM, the athlete or avid exerciser can perform better (reach higher, twist further, stride longer). For example, if a swimmer has flexible shoulder joints and torso muscles, particularly the obliques, they can rotate their torso, and elevate their arm more. This flexibility enables them to pull through a greater amount of water with more power as well as with improved muscular efficiency. If a runner increases flexibility in her or his hips and iliopsoases, the greater ROM will enable them to stride further, increasing movement efficiency.
Although injury prevention comes about as a by-product of increased flexibility and strength, the topic is important enough to warrant its own blog space. A stronger body is a more robust one, giving greater protection to joints, tendons and ligaments. Tight muscles put extra tension on tendons, creating more friction and more potential for inflammation and injury. Any runner will tell you that simply by stretching out your calf muscles more frequently you will reduce the chance of Achilles tendinitis.
The beauty of yoga is that it takes things one step further, concentrating not just on one isolated muscle but on large body areas. For instance, if we look at the idea of reducing the chances of Achilles tendinitis, when performing the commonly known “downward dog” pose several muscles are addressed. The lower back is stretched out. Muscles around the hips and pelvis are lengthened, along with the hamstrings. The gastrocnemius and soleus are stretched, and even the fascia under the feet are given some attention. Elongating all these muscle groups have a positive effect on reducing the tension in the back of the legs and heels, drastically reducing the stress to the tendons – particularly the Achilles.
Other classic examples of the types of injuries that are less likely to occur with regular yoga stretches include knee bursitis, tennis elbow, golfer’s elbow, shin splints, hamstring tears (through propulsive movement) and many types of back injury.
Again, when these holistic stretching exercises are performed, muscles are also being strengthened. It’s the perfect injury prevention formula – providing you don’t push things to the extreme.
As well as all the physical benefits of yoga, it also boasts another very strong benefit – improved mind control. While performing a sequence of asanas in class, you are forced to focus on your body and breathing and very little else. Your brain has no chance to wander, which increases mental clarity. At the end of a yoga class people move into a meditative segment called Savasana. During Savasana, the yoga student has to lie very still and focus only on their breathing. Arguably this is one of the most important parts of the class and it is said that the asanas in the body of the session are intentionally designed to prepare the mind and body for the Savasana at the end of the class. Jumping up and skipping out the room at this time is not advisable!
In Savasana, you are training your brain to quieten and control any impulses that come into your mind. It’s a way of “cleaning house”, becoming centred and more focused.
So why is this important for an athlete? The mind has more control over us than we think, and can often have a negative influence on us. Most people will have negative thought patterns which affect not only their belief systems but even muscle memory and pain thresholds. Better mind control also helps with discipline, keeping fear at bay, and enables you to visualise success.
Practising yoga can help you attain a more relaxed and focused mind and you will also be able to sleep better, reduce stress, and increase your energy levels – all of which are vital for the athlete in training.
Sage Institute of Fitness – it’s more than a job, it’s a rewarding career.
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