Yoga may be the ultimate cross-training for your athletic endeavors. Professional athletes in virtually every sport have taken up a regular yoga practice to increase endurance, energy economization, and overall enjoyment in their training. If you’re ready for a cutting edge in your training and on race day, read below for 8 ways cross-training with a regular yoga practice will improve your athletic performance:
1. Strengthens underused muscles: Athletes engage the exact same muscles in the exact same way pretty much each time they work out. Imbalances in the body through repetitive overuse will cause the body to compensate and tug uncomfortably on ligaments, joints, and the entire skeletal system. Before a regular yoga practice, running long distances would cause trigger a dull ache in my hip. Through yoga, I was able to overcome the brick wall I had encountered in my mileage. Yoga poses challenge muscles by demanding total engagement and deep stabilization, often in muscles we rarely consciously engage in our favorite workout. Balanced muscle strength promotes injury-prevention and will improve your athletic performance.
2. Greater lung capacity: Your muscles and brain need oxygen to perform. Yoga asks that you take bigger, deeper breaths and often includes pranayama or breathing exercises to further increase lung strength and capacity. A strong diaphragm and sturdy lung walls let you pump the air through your body more efficiently and thoroughly. Also, deep yoga stretches, backbends, and twists open your chest muscles and thus improve capacity to take in even more air to be used by our muscles. Using smooth, conscious, slow breaths to get more oxygen steadily into your body during an athletic endeavor stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system and will give you a competitive edge against those who struggle with deep breathing over long periods of time.
3. Improves core strength: Tai Chi principles teach us that the core is the center axis of the body and the appendages simply rotate around it. The core is the steel that carries us forward. Physiologically, the more strength you have through the entire core (including deep abdominals, lower back and obliques), you benefit by better protection for your lower back, more lift and push in your legs, and more stability, power and balance throughout the entire trunk. In addition, equally strengthening the front and back core improves posture and balance, allowing for greater breath capacity and energy economization.
4. Longer, more efficient muscles: Yoga decreases muscle tightness and builds longer muscles. Longer, leaner muscles mean more endurance – they simply do not fatigue as quickly. Long muscle fibers do take longer to build, but they are the long-lasting energy source for athletes. Besides fueling, muscles shorten to perform work, so a longer muscle has more area to contract, allowing for more work to be done before being completely used up. Additionally, longer muscles give more shock absorption and therefore better protect the joints, which can be important if your sport of choice is high-impact. Compete with more endurance now and continue strong athletic performance well in your old age.
5. Better energy economization: Being efficient in athletic activity means putting 100% of your valuable energy towards your performance. Athletes can fall into a subconscious habit of wasting energy, often stemming from tight muscles and joints. A regular yoga practice will loosen muscles and open hips, helping to save energy. Danny Dryer of ChiRunning writes, “Because you’re feeling tired doesn’t necessarily mean you’re at your physical limit. You could be doing something that is causing you to work harder than you need to.” On the bike, for instance, cyclists find less side-to-side hip rocking in the saddle when they have open hips, so each pedal stroke moves them forward efficiently and smoothly instead of correcting or stabilizing a cross-movement. Next time you’re on the bike or on a long run, try to take some cues from your yoga teacher: soften shoulders down away from ears, keep facial muscles soft, engage your core gently, unclench your hands, and keep your breath full, steady and smooth.
6. Increased body awareness: On the yoga mat you learn how to really feel your body move. You feel muscle hug bone, feel the way the feet anchor and the body balances, feel the breath guide where and how the body should move. Ultimately we become aware of how right it feels to be in natural body alignment. Yoga teaches us to be aware of every sensation in the body, to become our own body’s expert. Baron Baptiste teaches how a well-developed body intuition and awareness can prevent athletic injuries: “As you develop a greater understanding of the body and how it works, you become able to listen and respond to messages the body sends you. This is especially important in running [or other endurance sports], where the body produces a lot of endorphins. These ‘feel good’ chemicals also double as nature’s painkillers, which can mask pain and the onset of injury or illness. Without developed body intuition, it’s easier to ignore the body’s signals.” With good body awareness, aided and developed through a regular yoga practice, you can easily tell when something is not quite right in a workout and modify to keep your body high-performing and safe.
7. Greater mental endurance: Calming the mind and body to be in the present moment – no matter how challenging the activity – is a huge lesson that yoga teaches athletes. Relax your shoulders, slow your breath, sense your body, and know your inner resolve and strength. Remembering these things will pedal you up the next hill or help you endure that extra mile. Neuroscientist Alex Korb explains, “Yoga works not because the poses are relaxing, but because they are stressful. It is your attempts to remain calm during this stress that create yoga’s greatest neurobiological benefit. Over time you will start to retrain your automatic stress reaction, and replace it with one more conducive to happiness and overall well-being.” When our mind and bodies aren’t freaking out in a workout or difficult endurance feat, we have a chance to feel the pleasure of the moment.
8. Quicker recovery: Post-workout, athletes often have sore, energy-depleted muscles. A few yoga poses after a workout can make the difference between rearing to go again the next day versus a three-day bout of muscle stiffness. Try Downward-Facing Dog pose, Half Pigeon, Frog, Big Toe pose, and some Spinal Twists on the floor. When you feel like cinder blocks have replaced your feet, try Legs-Up-the-Wall pose for 2-3 minutes, which drains blood from the legs so that when you stand up the legs are flooded with freshly oxygenated blood and improved circulation. With regular stretching after a workout, you can speed up your recovery time and prevent buildup of scar tissue. Allowing your body to fully recover between intense workouts is smart training, and by making that recovery time quicker, you can be a healthier, higher-performing athlete.
Related: Check our our upcoming YogaDates For Athletes event, coming this Fall.
What do you struggle with most as an athlete? Have you noticed a difference in your athletic performance since adding yoga into your training? Any favorite post-workout tips? Share your experience below in the comments.
Sarah Weight, RYT is a registered yoga teacher teaching throughout Denver, Colorado. She holds local Yoga For Runners and Yoga For Cyclists workshops and is the owner of the not-for-profit yoga-based fitness organization Prana Fitness. Prana Fitness leads free community group runs, cycling rides, and free community yoga classes. On Friday, July 27th Sarah is teaching a donation-based Yoga On The River event for Root Yoga Center at Commons Park in downtown Denver.