This Is Exactly How Yoga Can Enhance Sports Performance
Sports & Activity
A regular yoga practice prevents injury, enhances muscle function, and combats stress — three key components of sports performance.
Yoga helps to promote mental and physical relaxation, but that’s not the only benefit it provides. In fact, yoga can be a beneficial component of any cross-training routine for athletes, and it can enhance performance in other sports as well.
Research has suggested that yoga improves flexibility, balance, coordination, and lung function. It can also help athletes effectively manage stress, an often forgotten but key contributor to recovery and performance.
Yoga has a reputation for being slow. Which, in part, is true. However, there are many types of yoga, from the slower-paced yin yoga, or restorative yoga, to a fast-paced calorie burner like power yoga, vinyasa, or Bikram hot yoga.
On the slower end, you’ll be working on balance by holding poses for longer and connecting deeply to your breath. It may seem easy from the outside, but when you’re holding a one-legged utthita hasta padangusthasana (extended hand-to-big-toe pose) for 10 breaths, your body will be shaking as your hip flexors open and your glutes activate to keep you upright. These types of yoga build core strength, which is invaluable to any sport.
A faster yoga flow builds stamina and endurance, a great way to improve cardiovascular fitness. You fluidly work through movements that focus on lengthening the muscles and alleviating toughness or restriction at the tendon or joint. For this reason, many consider yoga essential to their training and it's accessible even to yoga newbies.
Yoga's ability to help with balance and core strength, while also building stamina and endurance is, in part, why most well-rounded athletes incorporate a yoga session or two into their training — on and off-season.
What Sports Benefit from a Yoga Practice?
Successful soccer players have mastered the art of continuous movement in different directions, while maintaining balance. Extending your hip flexors beyond a normal range of motion (ROM) as you leap out to tackle requires core strength, coordination and balance, an important skill in soccer. Otherwise, you’d fall over. Yoga can help soccer players (or footballers) achieve and refine this skill.
In a 2016 study published in the International Journal of Yoga, researchers asked a group of college soccer players to add in two yoga sessions per week to their regular training for 10 weeks. The researchers reported improvements in flexibility and balance and an increase in joint mobility and ROM.
That’s why world-class soccer players have revealed their love for yoga, praising its ability to work hamstrings, groin, quads, calves, glutes, lower back, neck, sides and core. Yoga can also help to prevent injuries, especially as athletes age.
Legendary basketball player LeBron James has advocated for yoga as a way to improve athletic performance. Basketball players need to be agile, flexible, and coordinated to avoid injury. Yoga can help each of these components for basketball players, from beginners to all stars.
A study published in 2013 in Pedagogics Psychology Medical-biological Problems of Physical Training and Sports examined yoga and basketball. The researchers asked a group of college basketball players to incorporate a yoga practice into their training routine. They went to classes four times a week for nine months. The outcome was a significant increase in key performance markers such as vertical jump, free throw, three-point shots, tactical execution, speed and speed endurance, and balance.
It’s not just for NBA or professional basketball players. Novice basketball players can benefit from adding in a weekly yoga practice. A 2019 study in the Journal of Sports found that yoga plus basketball resulted in better agility, flexibility, speed, strength, body fat, shooting ability, passing ability and dribbling ability when compared to a group who just did basketball practice. What’s more, these participants only did 30-minute yoga sessions.
NFL players also practice yoga. Most of their football practice is spent lifting weights and practice drills, but a key focus for football players is to prevent injury and handle stress. Yoga does both of these things.
A recent 2021 study examined how many football players get injured. Over the course of four NFL seasons, 3,025 injuries were reported. It’s evident that injury prevention is vital to maintain and improve performance as a football player. That’s why the Seattle Seahawks mandated yoga as part of training.
Let’s take a deeper dive into yoga’s role in preventing injuries.
Yoga for Injury Prevention
Yoga can prevent injury by alleviating tightness. For example, hip-opening yoga poses such as pigeon pose can improve the lower kinetic chain.
Yoga prevents injury by:
- Improving flexibility
- Addressing muscle imbalances
- Strengthening movement patterns
- Aiding recovery by fighting inflammation and increasing oxygen flow
A 2020 study that examined how yoga can prevent injuries among a group of soccer players concluded that yoga mitigated injury. Specifically, yoga strengthens the muscles and joints so that they can handle injury if one does occur.
The stress-busting nature of yoga also helps to prevent mental fatigue, a factor that increases injury risk. A 2020 study found that athletes who reported anxiety and depression had a 2.1 times greater injury incidence rate. It’s essential to take care of your mental health, and doing yoga as exercise can help.
Yoga Combats Stress and Enhances Focus
Yoga, of course, isn't just a physical practice. It's also a mental practice and another aspect of the performance-enhancing benefits of yoga: the mental benefits of meditation that's often part of the practice. Many athletes struggle with stress. Research has found that college and professional athletes experience more stress than non-athletes. A rigorous training regimen and demanding expectations can lead to stress, which ultimately impairs performance.
Yoga allows for body awareness. Slowing down your breathing and entering into a parasympathetic "rest and digest" state increases the flow of oxygen. Breathing centers your mind as each pose centers your body. It’s a mind-body workout that relaxes your nervous system.
Regular yoga practice allows athletes to practice mindfulness or the act of slowing down racing thoughts and finding stillness. Findings from a 2011 study concluded that yoga assists in the reduction of stress, anxiety, depression, and chronic pain, in improving sleep, and in enhancing overall well-being and quality of life.
Yoga Strengthens Movement Patterns
Yoga can be part of sport-specific athletic training. Certain poses, for instance, may mirror the types of movements you’ll be doing in that sport. For example, leg extension lifts and holds resemble a kicking motion that you’d do in soccer. You could do the leg extension machine or hip adductor machine at the gym to build muscle and enhance the movement that way. But you aren’t going to be working on joint flexibility and balance like you would doing it in yoga.
A vinyasa flow can promote fluidity of movement patterns. A common yoga flow is a sun salutation. Instead of static stretches, vinyasa classes encourage constant movement as you stretch beyond a normal range of motion (ROM). This exercise helps to elongate muscles and build muscular endurance and stamina.
Yoga improves alignment, ROM and muscle fiber recruitment. This strengthens the kinetic chain of movement, which results in boosted performance, whatever your athletic sport or your status as a beginner or pro.