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What's the Secret Behind Yoga that Is Helping Some of the World's Best Athletes?

by Luke Sainsbury

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In recent years yoga has been creeping into the world of sport and I want to look at why. Ryan Giggs brought to the world’s attention the use of yoga for sports performance in the later years of his career. In his mid to late 30’s, when most football players are retiring from the game, he was getting better and better. He put this down to yoga, and later, he even published his exercise routine.

This got me thinking, is yoga physical, mental or spiritual? What is it about the practice that helps him and other athletes?

Maria Sharapova created a viral yoga commercial in 2010. She stated that not only did yoga help her physically but it also helped her achieve the right mindset to be successful on court. Golfer Natalie Gulbis is another sports person who is an advocate of yoga and practices daily to assist her golf training. After her Olympic win, snowboarder Jamie Anderson credited a large portion of her success to her rigorous yoga regime.

So, it’s obvious that yoga helps them in all aspects of their game. Right now, let’s look at how the physical attributes developed by doing yoga can help sports performance. Yoga helps to develop great flexibility, core strength and an overall balance between the left and right sides of the body.

I think there is a lot of confusion regarding flexibility within the sports world. It is well-documented that being flexible can reduce the chance of muscle strains, however, there needs to be a level of stability around the joints to prevent injuries. This is very much sport-specific and really needs specialists leading the work in this area, otherwise, when over-stretched, muscles can tear.

yoga flexibility

Is there anything else that flexibility can help with in sports performance? Well, this is where the benefits of flexibility are somewhat less researched. Flexibility is known to have an effect on the elastic energy stored in the human joints. The more flexible, the better we can use this elastic energy.

Let’s use this simple exercise as an example: stand up and bend your knees, hold the pose for 5 seconds and jump reaching as high as you can. Now, bend your knees to the same position, but this time jump immediately without the 5-second delay. If we compare the height achieved in both jumps, I think it’s safe to assume the second jump is going to produce more power.

yoga gym

An initial downward movement produces more power in the upward movement than when there is no downward movement at the beginning of the jump. Why does a counter movement create more power? Well, this is the body utilizing elastic energy. The more flexible we are, the better the body utilizes this energy and the greater the power output.

You might think that the more flexibility in a soccer player, the greater the ability to swing a leg back when kicking a ball, and therefore a greater range of movement creating more power. It makes sense at first, but surprisingly, this is not the case. In fact, if the player would only gain range of motion, the total opposite would happen; the technique would be affected and the chances for a pass or shot to go wrong would increase. So how does flexibility improve technique? I’ll explain in a bit […]

If you think about golf, putting requires a much shorter swing of the golf club than driving off the tee. With a much shorter swing comes much more accuracy, as evidenced by the fact golfers get the ball in the hole much more from the putting green than they do from the tee. The shorter the swing, the more controlled the movement and the better the outcome.

soccer and yoga

Going back to the soccer example, let’s say a player wants to pass the ball 30 meters away to a teammate. To kick the ball that far, the player might normally need a 90-degree backswing to generate the power; if only he was more flexible, the elastic energy in his joints would exponentially increase. Hence, instead of needing a 90-degree backswing, he would only need a 60-degree back swing to kick the ball the same distance. Flexibility would help him to make good use of the elastic energy that’s stored in his body and the pass would be more accurate. The reduced range of motion means the less complex the movement, making it easier to perform with a lower probability of mistakes.

Think back to the golf player, imagine they could use their putter and putting motion to get the ball onto the green from the tee. There would be a lot more holes-in-one, that’s for sure! Yoga can increase flexibility and this can be used to improve athletic performance. That’s why it’s not surprising the use of yoga is becoming more widespread in the world of sports

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