Many athletes are reluctant to try yoga. They believe they are not flexible enough or that yoga is just holding static poses for long periods of time and meditating. While some styles of yoga are more restorative and do involve holding static stretches and poses, Vinyassa yoga or power yoga is more of a dynamic flow of yoga poses. Vinyassa yoga is also a style that incorporates more of a work out into the practice by incorporating core work and balance that every endurance athlete needs.
Although yoga does increase muscle flexibility and joint mobility, you do not need to be flexible to start. Yoga is a judge free environment. You block out any worries or stressors by focusing on yourself. The mat becomes your place to peer within. This environment is nurturing and accepting without the stress of performance. The benefits experienced with yoga are different for everyone which makes each individual’s experience unique.
The physical benefits of yoga include flexibility, mobility, strength, biomechanical balance, improved breathing and an energized body.
Flexibility and Mobility
Increased flexibility and mobility is seen in the lower extremities, especially those nagging hip flexors, hamstrings, quads and gastrocnemius/soleus muscles. Good ankle flexibility and mobility will reduce chances of Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. Most runners are unaware they have decreased ankle mobility due to tight ankle musculature. Swimmers especially need good ankle mobility for their kick. Poses like half pigeon and happy baby are both great hip opener poses for endurance athletes. Upper extremity flexibility and joint mobility is also important, especially in the shoulders and neck. Runners and cyclists tend to tense their upper trap while swimmers need adequate shoulder mobility to perform good technique with their stroke. Yoga also relieves tension in the lower back and obliques.
By performing yoga in bare feet, one benefits by increasing intrinsic foot musculature and removes the stability assistance of shoes. Increased intrinsic foot strength decreases your chances of developing plantar fasciitis and assists with the pounding your feet and ankles take with running and endurance sports. All variations of planks are a component of a Vinyassa yoga practice. Planks help to increase core and abdominal strength. Additionally, planks help alleviate or decrease low back pain. A stronger core assists with better posture throughout the day and while running. A strong core also assists with less weight impact on the lower extremities and decreased risk of injury. Overly tight muscles are also weak muscles.
Most runners benefit by addressing the posterior chain which is typically weak. Several of the poses are challenging and require you to hold your body weight for a period of time to increase your upper and lower extremity strength. As your strength increases, all poses can adjust for progression.
Balance poses are incorporated throughout the Vinyassa sequence. This increases balance, strength and proprioception. This gives the student a chance to be still and focus on the pose and their breathing in order to maintain their balance. Proprioception training is achieved through the balancing poses, weight bearing poses, changing body positions and the repetitive flow of poses. Visual, vestibular and auditory systems are also trained while the sensory system is being soothed. In order to hold and maintain certain poses, some muscles need to stretch while others need to contract. This is known as finding one’s muscle equilibrium.
Breathing is a major part of yoga. Endurance athletes who regularly practice yoga, experience an improvement in both breathing and lung capacity. This increase in breathing and lung capacity further delivers more oxygen to the muscles. The improved breathing also carries over to improved stress and anxiety management. More oxygen to the brain further stimulates the brain and increases concentration and memory.
Yoga leaves the body feeling cleansed, relaxed, and energized. It increases self-esteem, creates a better sense of vitality and well-being and encourages a positive outlook on life.
Felstead, C. (2014). Yoga for Runners. Champaigne, IL. Human Kinetics.
Lauren Wentz is a physical therapist and an accomplished athlete.
A Virginia Tech graduate, Lauren holds her Crossfit Level 1 certification, is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), and practices in sports medicine and pediatrics.
Lauren is also a certified yoga instructor and teaches at Yoga on Main in Butler PA.
Currently, Lauren is working at the Children’s Institute as she furthers her education. She is pursuing knowledge in adapted physical activity with a goal of working with mobility impaired/Paralympic athletes.
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