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How Meditation Can Increase Mental Durability in Athletes

By Alison Heilig for Yoga Medicine®.

If you’re a yoga teacher reading this, I don’t need to convince you of the numerous benefits of meditation. But for many athletes, meditation can be a much harder sell. As both an athlete and coach in multiple sport modalities, I totally understand and I have grappled with these barriers myself. After all, time is precious and much of the available time that an athlete has is spent training specifically for their sport.

So it can be challenging to convince athletes that spending 5-10 minutes per day sitting or laying in meditation can produce tangible benefits in their sports performance. Fortunately, this concept is becoming easier now that many high profile athletes are beginning to open up about their own experiences with meditation. With the increased interest around meditation and its applications to sports performance, there’s so much more research now which means that the benefits — such as improving focus through distractions, enhancing concentration, heightening breath awareness, reducing in sensitivity to pain, and aiding in physiological and mental recovery — are now well-documented by scientific studies.

Since I currently have my feet in both the athletic competition and coaching worlds, I thought I’d add my voice to the conversation and share one other interesting benefit that I’ve noticed in myself and the athletes I coach: how a consistent meditation practice can significantly improve mental durability.

What is Mental Durability?

Many people think that mental durability means “being tough” but, while mental toughness certainly is part of it, there’s a lot more at work here. Mental durability is the resilience of your mind and refers to its ability to withstand the stress caused by the rigors of training and competing without becoming burnt out, frustrated, or mentally fatigued.

Intuitively, we know that training day after day for competition can take a toll on our bodies and, as athletes and coaches, we do our best to manage that reality through intelligent physical training program design. However, that same stress can also take its toll mentally and I believe we should be taking steps to prepare for and guard against that as well. This is something that meditation is well-positioned to do – specifically in developing the grit or mental toughness to keep going in the face of discomfort, the ability to remain present and composed as the intensity increases, and the capacity to focus through nerves and distractions. Just like our physical training, these are all skills that can, and should, be developed through repetition and practice.

Why Mental Durability Matters

Let’s be honest here, high performance output for competition is tough. It’s important to note here that “high performance output” is a relative term meaning that for each individual athlete, their own maximum effort typically involves significant, if not extreme, discomfort — regardless of where he or she stands on the leaderboard or in the rankings. This means that you don’t have to be an elite level athlete to understand what I mean when I say operating at maximum capacity when it’s time to throw down in competition or the day of your event is no walk in the park. That’s why we reserve these high intensity performances for the peak of our training — whether that is a single day or a series of days throughout a designated competition season.

"Meditation can be a help tool for learning how to step back from the intensity of the current experience and see it as part of a bigger picture..."​

Alison Heilig

Three Ways Meditation Can Boost Mental Durability

The widely discussed performance applications for meditation include refining focus, concentration, and breath awareness – all of which form the building blocks for mental durability. To truly maximize the effectiveness in a sport setting, it’s helpful to look at how these specific skills trained in meditation can transfer to competition and ultimately increase your mental durability. Let’s look at some of the applications I’ve used for myself as well as the athletes I coach.

1. Meditation provides the perspective needed to manage discomfort.
During high output, things quickly get uncomfortable. This can go on for hours depending on the length of your event. When you’re giving it all you got out there, the longer the discomfort goes on, the more difficult it becomes to stay focused on the task at hand. Most of us eventually feel a palpable deterioration of mental clarity and perspective where we begin to then fixate on the discomfort, analyzing all the things that hurt or what we feel is going wrong. Meditation can be a help tool for learning how to step back from the intensity of the current experience and see it as part of a bigger picture — which is important because the moment you feel like more is going wrong than right, the wheels really start to fall off the wagon.

To practice this ability to mentally step back from the discomfort to see the bigger picture so you have it in your pocket on competition day, I find it helpful to routinely do a simple body scan meditation where you’re alternating between noticing the parts of your body that feel unpleasant and those that feel pleasant. As you do this, try to avoid judging, analyzing, or interpreting and simply notice them as pure sensation without needing to label them. After a few moments of sensing these two separate and distinct areas, imagine blurring them together and allowing them to coexist in your experience as you breathe calmly. As I once heard Yoga Medicine founder, Tiffany Cruikshank, say during a meditation: “imagine that every sensation in your body is like one brushstroke in the painting of your entire experience in this moment as you step back to look at the whole picture.” Practices like this one, when done consistently, can help develop your ability to zoom out, take in the whole experience, and likely see that many things are still going well and working in your favor.

2. Meditation teaches presence and patience when the panic starts to set in.
In the sports performance world, we often talk about “flow state” or being “in the zone.” While it has many definitions depending on who you talk to, my experience with it is that it’s a state where you’re fully immersed — mind, body, and spirit and involved in the process of performing. This state requires absolute presence with your full awareness and engagement directed towards the present moment. By definition, this means that you cannot be worried about whether your training was adequate (the past) or the eventual result (the future). Often, the panic sets in when we feel like we don’t have what it takes to see it through to completion; in other words, we allow the past and future to seep into the present and interrupt the flow.

Obviously, there is a place for forethought — after all, competition in any sport requires strategy even if the only person you’re competing against is yourself. However, a well-thought-out pre-competition strategy is different from obsessively worrying about the outcome mid-performance. One will help you, the other not so much.

To practice this skill, I recommend a meditation with a specific focus on your breath. For this one, set a timer for five minutes and focus on being right there for every exhalation — completely present for the feeling of emptying and being empty of breath. When your mind wanders off and you notice it, gently bring your attention back to the process of exhaling your breath. You’ll learn to use something that’s always with you — your breath — to stay anchored in the present moment. One step at time. One rep at a time. One breath at a time.

3. Meditation reduces pre-competition nerves and refines focus.
For most athletes, we have some sort of taper or deload period built into our training leading up to competition. This is the time where your coach tells you to trust your training and ease up to let your body fortify itself and prepare for maximal effort on the day of competition or your targeted event. In my experience both personally and as a coach, this is the time when athletes start to get a little nuts! After so much intense training, all this extra rest and recovery time causes us to feel stir-crazy, get extremely antsy, and then direct that energy toward worrying. This is the perfect time to double down on your meditation practice — after all, you’ve got the time, why not use it to condition your mind to perform optimally the way you’ve conditioned your body. There’s nothing worse than finishing your event after countless hours of training, knowing you had it in you physically but mentally you just couldn’t rally.

During this time, I highly recommend to my athletes to spend time in meditation visualizing how the entire day of competition playing out in as much detail as possible and ending in a positive outcome. Note the sensations in your body present with every step of the way — visualize the pace of your movement, the contact of your feet with the ground, the cadence of your breath, the power in your muscles, the control in execution, the sensations associated with confidence and resolve — all the elements involved, no detail about the experience is too small or insignificant. This will help you create a sensory imprint that you can recall and return to on the day of competition which will keep you focused and moving toward that positive outcome even if things don’t play out perfectly according to plan. Much of those pre-competition nerves are related to feelings of the outcome being out of our control so visualizing a positive outcome and anchoring into the sensations associated with a good performance can help alleviate performance anxiety and help you stay focused on what you do control — giving your best effort right now.

Athletes and Weekend Warriors: Here’s How to Use Yoga to Prevent Injuries

Bravo, weekend warriors. You work long days Monday through Friday but keep the commitment to move your body on a regular basis despite your busy schedule.

While I applaud you, I also offer a word of caution: be mindful of injuries. Jumping into a high intensity physical activity over the weekend after a rather sedentary existence during the week can put your body at risk for injury.

Hamstring strains, Achilles tendonitis, and low back pain are common injuries afflicting athletes and weekend warriors. The good news is that yoga is an effective way to prepare the body for movement and also help the body repair itself afterward.

Whether you’re an all-the-time athlete, a weekend warrior, or a blend of the two, this article explains what you should keep in mind both before and after your workouts. You will also learn how to use yoga to prevent injury with several yoga poses.

To find out how to use yoga to prevent injuries, click here to read the full article originally published on YogiApproved.com.

Three Recovery Poses to Revitalize Your Tissues

By 24Life.

Passive recovery is just as important to a health, wellness and fitness routine as resistance training, good nutrition and sleep.

Tiffany Cruikshank, creator of Yoga Medicine, shares her three favorite poses that are often forgotten but can be used to help revitalize the tissues.

Outer Hips and Thighs

  • Lie on your back, feet flat on the floor and knees bent.
  • Place your right ankle on top of your left knee.
  • Keep your hips on the ground and let your legs fall to your left as far as they can go. For a less intense stretch, use a block or prop under your thigh.
  • Hold for a few minutes and relax, then repeat on the opposite side.

Front of the Hips

  • Lie on your back, feet flat on the floor and knees bent.
  • Place a yoga block (medium height) or rolled-up towel under your sacrum.
  • Draw your left knee in toward your chest and keep your abdominals tight. Take your right leg out straight and lower it down until you feel resistance.
  • Hold here, then lower and lift your right leg in the end range of motion. As your muscles start to release, go lower, if you can.
  • Do 20 to 30 reps, or to fatigue, then let your right leg lower to the floor. Hold here and relax.
  • Switch sides.

Spine

  • Lie on your back, knees bent and feet flat on the floor.
  • Keep your back on the floor as you twist through your spine to bring your knees to your left side. Your knees are in line with your hips, feet stacked. You can place a yoga block between your knees.
  • Use your hand to press down on your top leg. Resist that pressure with your leg. Hold here for five seconds, then relax into the twist.
  • Repeat this one or two times, then relax in the pose for a minute or so.
  • Repeat on the opposite side.

Rebalance & Strengthen with These Three Yoga Moves from Tiffany Cruikshank


Many people view a yoga practice as a stretching session. And while yoga is a great way to stretch and strengthen the muscles, it also can be used to mobilize and invigorate the fascia and tissues before or after a workout.

Below, Tiffany Cruikshank, creator of Yoga Medicine, is sharing a three-move yoga flow that will strengthen and mobilize the muscles and the fascia before a workout if you’re stiff or tight, or as a cool-down after an intense workout to clear out the tissues.

Short on time? Flow through this sequence three or four times for a quick movement session and get on with your day!

Low Lunge to Standing Leg

  • On a non-slip surface, plant one foot in front of you, knee bent to come into a high crescent lunge. Back leg is straight, stand on the ball of your back foot, heel lifted.
  • Steady the lumbar spine by bracing your abdominals.
  • Inhale your arms up overhead, as you exhale, hinge your torso forward halfway.
  • Inhale and press through your front foot to come up, sweeping your arms overhead. Exhale and hinge forward again, bringing your arms down behind you.
  • Continue on the inhale and exhale. After 10 reps, repeat on the opposite side.
  • If you want more, as you hinge forward, straighten your front leg until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Bend your front knee as you come up on the inhale.

Extended Side Angle to Revolved Lunge

  • In your crescent-lunge position, bring your hands close to the ground.
  • Push down through your front foot to turn on your glutes, and pull your belly back to come off your thigh.
  • Bring your left hand by your front right ankle and your right hand up to the ceiling.
  • Rotate through your torso to open up toward your back leg, spinning your back leg down and rotating on an axis to bring your left hand up to the sky and your right hand down by your front knee.
  • Lift your back heel up as you rotate back to start. Repeat, opening and closing with your breath.
  • Perform five to 10 reps, then repeat on the opposite side.

Standing Split Taps

  • From your side-angle position, plant your hands on the ground in front of your left foot and bring your right leg up off the floor behind you.
  • Don’t worry about how high your back leg goes. On your inhale, lift up onto the ball of your standing foot.
  • As you exhale, bend your standing knee as you bend your back leg and bring your kneecap to your front leg.
  • Inhale to lift, exhale to bend and tap. To target the sciatic nerve more, as you lift up, turn your head forward, and as you tap forward, tuck your neck.
  • Perform five to 10 rounds on one side before repeating on the opposite side.

Yoga as Medicine – For the World

By 24Life.

Tiffany Cruikshank Shows Yoga Supports Western Medical Care

By Robin Rootenberg for 24Life.

Upper Hamstring Tendinopathy Treatment

 for Yoga Medicine® discusses what upper hamstring tendinopathy is, what causes it, and how to treat it with a few simple stretches.

A Short Guide For Yoga Teachers

Upper hamstring tendinopathy is among the most common injuries in the yoga community. Whether it’s a yogi who overshot hanumanasana in a public group class or an athletic private client who sprained their hamstring tendon during a sprints workout, it’s fairly safe to bet that as a yoga teacher, a student will approach you with this issue at some point. They’re often in pain and frustrated: the deep, achy sensation under the glute comes and goes with varying intensity. This type of injury is notoriously slow and difficult to heal.  And, when severe enough, it can impact even daily activities like walking, standing, and sitting.

While it isn’t within our scope as yoga teacher to diagnose a proximal hamstring tendon sprain or tear, there’s a lot that we can do to help our students with this common issue in a safe manner. Understanding the basic physiology of the healing process will not only enable you to guide your student effectively but also educate your student about the process so that they can participate in it actively and intelligently.

The proximal tendon of the hamstrings. The attachment at the sitting bone, circled here in red, is a common site of injury and irritation.

Proximal Hamstring Tendon Injuries: The Basics

Tendons are made of connective tissue that is composed of two types of fibers: collagen and elastin. Collagen is very tough, while elastin is more elastic. We have many different types of tissue in our bodies, each with a composition designed to fit their particular function. Tendons are not designed to stretch very much, for example. They are therefore mostly composed of collagen with very little elastin.

If the tissue is forced beyond its rather limited capacity to stretch and into a range of motion that it can’t spring back from, it will tear or sprain. As was the case of our Hanuman yogi and sprinter athlete. Damaging the tissue in this manner can be very painful and also reduces the overall tensile strength of the tendon.

The collagen fibers in tendons (and in other tissues) are arranged in a direction that matches the directional load that the tendon is designed to absorb. In a healthy tissue, the fibers are aligned in an orderly manner. This allows them to easily glide past each other. When the tissue is damaged, the body initiates the inflammatory response and a healing process. This process begins to lay down new collagen fibers at the injury site.

Injuries & Scar Tissue

This is where things can start to get messy. From the body’s perspective, an injury is effectively an emergency scenario. The main focus is on crisis control and patching things up quickly. During this period, the orderliness of the fibers is not a priority. The result is collagen fibers that are a cross-linked, multi-directional, bungled mess. That’s what scar tissue is: disorganized, misaligned connective tissue.

The disorganization of the tissue can be problematic for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the cross-linking of the fibers causes scar tissue to adhere to itself and the surrounding tissues. This impedes the repaired tissue’s ability to interface smoothly with the tissues around it, or maybe even to lengthen and stretch in its own limited capacity.

All of this, in turn, limits range of motion, which ironically makes you more likely to reinjure the same area down the line. Without the appropriate intervention, it’s possible to get stuck in a self-fulfilling, chronic cycle of a limited range of motion, tension, injury, inflammation, and fibrosis. With this information in mind, it is clear why it’s crucial to treat a hamstring tendon injury correctly right out of the gate. If we can control and direct the course of the healing process, we can also minimize scar tissue. This will hopefully avoid a lot of hassle, physical pain, and wasted time dealing with reinjury down the line.

The Fine Line Between Healthy Stress and Reinjury

The main goal of any rehab process is to bring the injured tissues’ capacity to handle load back up to a functional level. We want to strengthen them to the point where they can once again withstand the demands of daily activities, yoga practice, and athletic training. We do this by applying stress to the tissue, thereby encouraging it to strengthen in response to that demand.

The word stress tends to have a negative connotation. However, as it pertains to the tissues in our bodies, stress is actually highly productive when applied mindfully and in healthy, manageable doses. The stress of lifting weights is what stimulates muscles to grow stronger to meet similar future demands. The stress of your feet hitting the ground as you run tells your bones and joints to strengthen in response. Our bodies absolutely need stress in order to stay healthy and functional; athletic training of any kind is by definition controlled, systematic application of stress stimulus. In a rehab scenario, we’re using stress in a very moderate, controlled manner to harness and control the strengthening effect it has on our tissues.

With that in mind, how exactly can we nudge the healing process in the right direction and encourage the new collagen fibers to be laid down in an organized, aligned formation? Aside from stimulating the healing process, we also need to stress the tissue in a way that gives it feedback on the direction of the force it needs to handle. This will help determine how the collagen fibers are laid down; ideally, in a neat, tidy orientation rather than the disorganized bungle of scar tissue.

Strengthening: Next Steps

Conventional wisdom states that the initial injury needs complete rest for at least 72 hours.  It may need more depending on the severity). This is to ensure it’s no longer actively painful or inflamed. After that, it’s OK to begin some very cautious strengthening exercises. Slow and gentle is the name of the game. We want to apply the tiniest bit of stress to the tissue. This will encourage the fibers to align themselves in an orderly fashion. We want to avoid applying enough stress to reinjure the area.

That pulling sensation under the glute now becomes a helpful tool that lets you know when you’re pushing too hard. Keep in mind that an injured tissue’s ability to handle stress is very much reduced. So triggering the familiar ache is a sure sign that you should take it down a notch. Overshooting the mark actually just creates fresh irritation and keeps the tissue in a chronic state of low-level inflammation.

Beyond the importance of working at a conservative level of intensity that is productive for the student and their injury, also consider the specific loads that we eventually want the upper hamstring tendon to withstand. Since the hamstrings contract concentrically to bend the knee and extend the hip, and also work eccentrically to flex the hip as the knee straightens, it is important to train the muscles’ abilities to engage in these positions. In practice, this means applying stress to the tendon at an intensity that does not trigger fresh irritation or pain.

Tips

Start with very small movements in a narrow range of motion. Encourage your student to tune in to the sensations. This will help them avoid pushing into or past the familiar achy sensation. Isometric holds are incredibly useful in this situation. These holds can be fine-tuned to an appropriate level that will yield long-term results. They also have the lowest inflammatory response. In some cases, they can even have an analgesic effect that provides instant (albeit temporary) relief. Most experts recommend aiming for 5 sets of up to 45 seconds of muscle contraction1.

This could be too difficult (and therefore not constructive) of a starting point for many students, in which case, even contractions of 5 to 6 seconds can have a beneficial effect2. As always, your job as the teacher is to be an observer, problem-solver, and guide. Always encourage your student to pay attention to the sensations while you interpret their reaction to your cues. Make appropriate modifications to help them work productively in a manner fitting their context, needs, and limitations. Work in a variety of positions and scenarios, increasing the load and range of motion slowly. Progressing cautiously will not only encourage sustainable progress, but the resulting growth in body awareness will serve your students well to protect them from future injury, too.

To Find Out More

To find out more about the physiology of the healing process, specific poses and techniques to safely strengthen an injured tendon, and ways to maintain range of motion during rehab, consider downloading the Stronger With Yoga: Hamstring Injury Rehab e-book. An additional video bundle of short practices suitable for all phases of the rehab process, from post-injury to long-term maintenance and reinjury prevention, is also available via the Stronger With Yoga website.

***

Footnotes and References

  1. The effects of isometric exercise types on pain and muscle activity in patients with low back pain, Hyun-Seung Rhyu, Hun-Kyung Park, Jung-Sub Park, and Hye-Sang Park
  2. Therapeutic exercises for the shoulder region, Johnson McEvoy, Kieran O’Sullivan, Carel Bron

Yoga for Athletic Recovery During a 9 Day Race

Charlotte Johnson for Yoga Medicine® shares how yoga for athletic recovery can help during long-haul endurance sports like multi-day cycling tours.

Yoga at an Endurance Sporting Event

The JoBerg2c is a 9-day mountain biking race from the city of Johannesburg, South Africa, to the coast – 900 kilometers away. Over 800 riders enter this event every year. And this year I joined the recovery team to offer yoga and myofascial release sessions to the riders. It is an incredible learning experience to work with a mountain biker after one long day in the saddle. But to do this nine days in a row requires a different application of yoga and recovery techniques as the athletes’ bodies wear the stress over the course of the race.

The mind of the athlete is key

The long-distance triathlete Sebastian Kienle said; “Your body drives you to the line, but your mind makes you cross it”. I instantly became aware of the role that the mind plays on an endurance race. I would argue that the mind is also what drives you to the line. The athletes who gained control of their minds were clearly having a different experience than the other athletes. Athletes who were invested in the enjoyment and the experience of their sport, rather than solely their performance or ranking, appeared to wear the physical effects of the race better than those who allowed themselves to be weighed down by fears, uncertainty, pain, and performance. In particular, one athlete stood out to me. He was over 60 years old and his sheer enjoyment of mountain biking seemed to keep him (somewhat miraculously) pain-free throughout the race.

So how did I apply yoga? After noticing this, I spent time in every session inviting and guiding the athletes to take control of their experience. I would invite them to mentally recap their day and to think of a few things they were grateful for, such as the things that went right that day. I encouraged them to recall all the reasons why they enjoy their sport. Many of these athletes are riding it for a purpose beyond themselves – for a charity or in memory of loved ones lost. It was helpful to reconnect with these purposes. It was also good to acknowledge that although the race held many factors that were beyond personal control. The one factor that did remain in their control was the choice of how they would respond to adversity or the unexpected.

The immune system of the athlete needs TLC!

In the JoBerg2c, the average athlete spends about 6-8 hours in the saddle daily and therefore, would have anywhere between 12-16 hours of recovery time before getting back in the saddle. However, the body’s recovery rate starts to slow down over the course of nine days as you keep loading the body with stressors without giving it enough time to fully return to homeostasis.

My perception is that from Day 1- 3, the athletes experienced general muscle soreness, cramping, and fatigue. Yet they were able to return to a somewhat rested state between these days. From Days 4-7, the recovery time noticeably slowed and the athletes’ immune systems became compromised. Many athletes picked up head colds and stomach issues. This was also the time period during which I noticed the mental fatigue, resulting in more accidents and errors occurring on the bike.

During this time, I took particular care with addressing the immune system through yoga. Imagine being taken out of the race of your life over a runny nose! During these yoga sessions I focused on boosting circulation, reducing stress, and facilitating relaxation.

These were my main focus points:

  • Boosting circulation assists the body in processing toxins faster. To do this, I offered poses that incorporated gentle compressions such as twists, child’s pose, or a modified version of broken toe pose.
  • Stress reduction is important because when one is on a bike descending a sheer cliff face, there is a good amount of adrenaline pumping through the body as the sympathetic response kicks in. This sympathetic response is good for keeping one alive and negotiating obstacles on the bike with acuity. However, too much time spent in this heightened state starts to impact the body on multiple levels, including adversely affecting the immune system. I spent time cultivating breath awareness and deepening the breath. The movement of the diaphragm during slower, deeper breathing . massages the vagus nerve, in turn tbreathing.he parasympathetic response which reduces stress.
  • Facilitating relaxation when you have a limited amount of time to gain the maximum amount of recovery is important, however, not all relaxations are made the same. This means there are ways to quickly ‘switch on’ the parasympathetic response versus times where you can slowly slide into relaxation, like putting your feet up with a beer in hand. The former being the method of choice when your body has limited recovery time. To ‘switch on’ the parasympathetic response, I offered restorative or yin style postures that made use of props for support. I also incorporated myofascial release techniques into the practice. It is best to try ‘switch on’ the parasympathetic response within the first 2 hours after exercise.

Here’s what I didn’t expect…

I expected a consistent decline after the effects of fatigue kicked in.  I expected my exhaustion to compound. Instead around Day 7 or earlier, many athletes had adapted or compensated to reach a strength and resilience plateau. They felt physically strong, mentally capable and were enjoying their sport. Noting how quickly the athletes were able to adapt, I came back to the importance of the mind in an endurance race. It is impossible to ignore the correlations between the strength of the mind (affected by among other factors, the enjoyment of the sport) and an athlete’s recovery rate or their perceived need for recovery.

I also pondered on the effect that nature had on recovery. For nine days we were steeped in the most remote and beautiful landscapes that the South African hinterland has to offer. It made me think of what the author Henry David Thoreau described as “wilderness tonic”. I dug a little deeper on this one and found that, indeed, there is scientific evidence backing the positive effects that being in nature has on the immune system and recovery rate.

You can recover “too much”

By this I mean that in the body’s return to homeostasis, inserting too many recovery methods can, in fact, hinder the process. At the race, there were various recovery options available – physio, sports massage, dry needling, yoga, myofascial release, compression boots, and more! There were athletes that would come off a bad day on the bike feeling cramping, sore and shattered, then work their way through every therapy available. But it’s important to remember that many of these modalities also requires a recovery period for the tissues to respond and adapt so more isn’t always better.

In myofascial release for example, we are triggering an inflammatory response to instigate the healing process that allows the tissues to adapt and recover more quickly. As the body heals, it lays down the collagenous fascial wave in a stronger, more orderly configuration indicative of healthy fascia. However, with deeper, more aggressive work, there is also more inflammation. And thus, more recovery time is needed. When an athlete is low on recovery time, it is very important to mete out the amount of therapies one applies. To take care in this regard, I applied gentle myofascial work, in the initial days of the race. I stayed away from highly inflamed areas of the body (due to over-exertion), such as the legs. And focused on areas of secondary stress such as the quadratus lumborum and semispinalis capitus.

Conclusions

It was important to assess the need of each athlete and for some, I had to prescribe the feet-up-beer-in-hand recovery option as their tissues would not benefit from the additional inflammation. For these athletes, it was also important to reacquaint and reassure them of their body’s ability to adapt and recover because in many cases, the angst around recovery sat within the mind. Many athletes needed to be reminded that their body had a keen sense of its own recovery process and that their success or failure did not hinge on a myofascial release tool or a massage table.

Watching and working with these athletes over nine days shattered many preconceived notions I had about how bodies function in certain conditions. It ultimately reminded me anew of the magic that is the synergies between the mind and body and how important it is to engage all of ourselves in the way we move and heal.

Yoga for Athletes: A Little Goes A Long Way

The Benefits of Adding Yoga to a Training Program

There is growing research available that outlines the benefits of yoga for athletes related to their athletic performance. Athletes benefit from yoga both physically and mentally. Assuming the great benefits of yoga for athletes, how can athletes and coaches make time for another training regimen when they already dedicate five hours to their sport daily?

For elite athletes, their commitment might include practice for their sport, weightlifting, agility and speed training, and physical therapy for recovery or injuries. This is not even considering the most important element – their actual competition.

I am a college softball coach. I also teach yoga to college athletes from all sports and direct softball camps for high school athletes. From my experience, a quick yoga practice is something that can be integrated into any schedule. It can fit into the training schedule of time-strapped college athletes. It can fit into the sports camp experience for younger athletes. Athletes have experienced both the ‘yoga fog’ in as little as three restorative postures as well as the energizing qualities of vinyasa breath after a few sun salutations.

Regardless of scheduling challenges or available space to practice yoga, the main emphases of a shorter practice are breath, awareness of how their body responds, and general mindfulness.

Breath

Sport psychologists often start with noticing breath and what it feels like to breathe intentionally and from the belly. Some athletes do not even have time to take full breaths or forget to breathe when they compete. One of our most successful athletes remarked after her final season that she wished she had practiced breathing earlier. It would have allowed her to avoid almost passing out from holding her breath and help her settle her nerves. Athletes can start in any comfortable position (lying down or seated) to connect with their breath and understand how they can calm themselves or get focused simply by bringing awareness to their breath.

To show the effects of breath, they can try a few styles of breath. I suggest alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhan) and skull shining breath (kapal bhati).  This allows them to experience how different types of breath (pranayama) affect them physically.

Recognizing what is going on with their bodies

Mind over matter is a common mantra for competitive athletes, especially when it is a matter of the body. Most athletes are concerned with doing their jobs regardless of what their bodies are capable of doing. They will recruit whatever muscles needed to be explosive, dynamic, and endure the rigors of a competition. Spending time in any yoga posture while tuning in to alignment and noticing where the restrictions in movement or compensations happen can benefit athletes by simply being more aware of how their bodies feel and move.

Guided mindfulness

To help integrate both breath and being present in their bodies, space, moment, and breath, I like to end with guided mindfulness or meditation. It could be incorporated into their final corpse pose (savasana) or when breaking down a posture. Athletes can focus on feeling their alignment or noticing their body’s physical or emotional response to different postures. This is especially useful with postures that target the hips, spinal column, or side bodies. These areas are often tight in athletes. If time allows, a guided meditation with attention to counted breath or a general body scan is another way to guide athletes toward mindfulness. The New York Times recently printed an article about a study that revealed that meditation helped a team of Division I football players withstand the physical demands of training.

Incorporating Yoga for Athletes

Athletes can read about the benefits and hear rave reviews from yoga practitioners. But, they may not understand yoga’s value until they actually experience yoga themselves.

For the teams or athletes who feel there is not enough time in their training schedule for yoga, even 10 minutes could make a great difference. I recommend starting with integrating 10 minutes of yoga to experience its benefits. It can be before or after sport-specific training workouts or at a completely separate time.

No need for extra equipment. Athletes can do yoga anywhere – outfield grass or swim deck. Yoga props can be improvised from whatever is on hand – helmet, towels, or a team sweatshirt.

Prevent Running Injuries with these Yoga Poses

Yoga Medicine teacher Dana Diament shares 5 key poses with Yoga Digest. Incorporate these poses into your training to help prevent running injuries.

Yoga Poses to Help Prevent Running Injuries

With the warmer weather and longer days, summer is a popular time to put your running shoes back on. The sweet smell in the air and warm sun on your skin draws you outdoors, and with the endorphin kick you get from running, it’s easy to push your body further than what it’s ready for. However, by adding in a few yoga poses, you can support your body and prevent injuries to help you go that extra mile. Yoga helps to prevent injuries by addressing the muscular imbalances created by running and increasing both strength and flexibility.

While in the poses, stay focused on your breath and observe your body’s sensations. This helps to build your awareness, which is also key to preventing injuries. The more you can tune into your body, the better you’ll be able to know what your body needs before, during, and after a run to stay healthy and safe.

Incorporate the yoga poses below to keep you running throughout the summer.

 

Downward Facing Dog

Benefits: Stretches hamstrings, calves, and back muscles.

Start on hands and knees. Hug your arms into the shoulders and push the floor away with your hands. Lean back, tuck your toes and lift your hips to make an upside-down V shape. Bend your knees to bring your belly close to your thighs. Be still or pedal out your feet. Take 5-7 breaths.

 

Low Lunge

Benefits: Increases balance, stretches hip flexors and quads

From downward dog, step your right foot between your hands and drop your left knee down. Lift your torso to place your hands on your right knee. Take 5 breaths. Then put your right hand on the ground. Draw your left foot towards your butt and hold your foot with your left hand or use a strap if you can’t reach. Take 5 breaths. Then step back to downward dog to switch sides.

 

Bridge

Benefits: Strengthens the back side of the body and lengthens the front side

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width distance apart. Lift your hips and spine off the ground. Try not to overly engage your upper glutes. Take 5-7 breaths.

 

Supine Figure 4

Benefits: Stretches the hips, releases tension in the low back

Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width distance apart. Place your right ankle on your left knee and flex your right foot. Draw your right knee to your chest, and hold onto the back of your thigh or shin. Relax your neck (place a pillow under your head if it’s off the ground). Take 5-7 breaths and switch sides.]

 

Supine Twist 

Benefits: Releases tension along the spine, stretches the outer hip, relaxes the body and calms the mind

Lie on your back. Bend your knees toward your chest and lower them to the floor on your left. Extend your right arm on the floor and look to the right. Rest your head on the ground and relax your neck and back.  Take 10 deep breaths and switch sides.

 

Read on YogaDigest here.

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