Updated: May 6
The evidence base suggests yoga techniques may support our sporting performance in a variety of ways including:
Reduced muscle soreness.
Correcting postural/muscular imbalances.
Improved reaction time.
Improved breath holding ability.
Approximate replication of altitude training.
Reduction of anxiety/improved self-confidence.
Improved strength, endurance and skill based abilities.
The purpose of this article is to explore (in everyday language) the evidence base and make recommendations on how best to incorporate yoga into a sports person's training plan. We will discuss research studies and look at what elements of ‘yoga’ have been effectively used to support sporting performance.
Before we begin it is important to understand that many popularised breathing methods involve fast or forced breathing techniques which can be both harmful and ineffective. Fast breathing tends to lead to a short-lived ‘high feeling’ due to hyper-ventilation and can also put excessive strain on the diaphragm and internal organs. A systematic review of research articles from 1988 - 2016 found that slow breathing techniques lead to beneficial improvements for the cardiovascular system and autonomic physiological processes. In contrast, fast breathing techniques have not been evidenced to produce beneficial effects (Jayawardena et al, 2020). Hence, the importance and need for evidence-based practise!
Potential Effects of Yoga Interventions Implemented During a Sports Person’s Training
Reduced Muscle Soreness
Boyle et al (2004) study supports the use of yoga within a sports persons training program as the researchers found just one session of yoga reduced peak muscle soreness following eccentric exercise.
A 2020 study by Shelvam et al found that combining yoga training into aerobic training led to a significant decrease in Creatine Kinase (CK) in the bloodstream compared to aerobic training on its own. As increased CK in the bloodstream is a primary sign of muscle damage and over-use, this is strong evidence for the use of yoga within a sports persons training plan as a method to enhance recovery and reduce overall muscle damage.
Helpful for Correcting Muscle Imbalances
In many sports muscle imbalances occur due to dominant use of one side of the body or one chain of muscles. Nikolay et al (2020) highlight yoga's abilities to re-balance an athlete's body and allow an athlete to further develop control over their bodies movements. Nikolay et al emphasize the importance of tailoring the yoga postures to the athletes individual needs and empowering them in managing their own yoga practise.
Improved Reaction Time and Breath Holding Capacity
Bera et al (2021) study supports the use of pranayama practises to improve both breath holding capacity and reaction time off the mark in a sample of swimmers. To achieve these improvements, Bera et al (2021) ustilied 20-25 rounds of traditional pranayama practises including kapalbhati, ujjayi, anuloma violma and bhastrika all including breath retention (kumbhaka) followed by shavasana and OM chanting. This was practised for 45 minutes in the morning 6 days a week, within the swimmers training schedule.
Approximate Replication of Altitude Training
Of importance Bera et al (2021) draw attention to the fact that breath holding, within slow and deep breathing actually leads to oxygen conserving physiological adaptations. These include a slower than normal heartbeat (bradycardia) and improved blood flow to the heart and brain due to reduced blood flow to the extremities (peripheral vasoconstriction). Essentially, pranayama practises provide a similar response to altitude training (Jawahar et al 2010) and apnea training (Delahoche et al 2005), whilst also refreshing air throughout all the lobes of the lungs which are often not accessed within ‘normal’ breathing patterns (Bijlani, 2004).
Improved Physical Strength, Endurance and Skill-Based Abilities
Jawahar et al (2010) found pranayama practises provided a similar improvement as replicating high altitude conditions (hypoxia training) achieved, in respect to the performance of Soccer players. The improvements were found within players speed, power, endurance, agility, dribbling, passing and shooting. Albeit, it should be noted hypoxia training generally led to greater improvements. None-the-less, 35 - 45 minute pranayama practises adopted 3 times a week for 12 weeks generated significantly improved scores on these abilities in comparison to just normal soccer training.
Regarding sport specific skills, Jean-Francois et al (2015) also found improvements in Speed Ice Skaters postural skills and skating technique following a yoga intervention especially regarding awareness of individual movements of their hips. Similar improvements in skill performance following a yoga intervention has been found within a sample of handball players (Yokesh 2019). Interestingly, yoga intervention has also been shown to improve grip strength among Kabaddi players to a higher degree than aerobic exercise (Palanisamy et al, 2020).
One mechanism through which pranayama may improve athletic strength and skill, is noted by La Padula et al (2020). In a study involving microsurgeons, the researchers found that when pranayama was practised with an erect spine and an actively controlled abdominal wall, micro-tremors in the surgeons were reduced. This suggests that pranayama increases core stability and coordination.
Considerations when utilising pranayama to approximate altitude training.
Jawahar et al (2010) state that studies into hypoxia suggest training at low oxygen levels generates 5 main adaptations when exposure is gradual over an extended period of time.
Increased pulmonary ventilation.
Higher hemoglobin levels.
Improved diffusion through the lungs.
Enhanced vascularity in the muscle tissues.
Enhanced ability to utilise oxygen in low partial pressures.
Each of these adaptations can be seen as beneficial to a sports person looking to improve the body's efficiency. However, importance should be given to the words ‘gradual’ and ‘over an extended period of time’. If we look at other definitions of hypoxia, hypoxia is also considered an acute medical condition which may be caused by choking/drowning, altitude exposure, anemia, lung disease and prolonged cold exposure (amongst others). Hypoxia as an uncontrolled medical condition is characterised by confusion, behaviour changes, dizziness and drowsiness (amongst others).
Hence, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika’s often quoted warning regarding pranayama practises:
“As one can gradually tame a lion, an elephant or a tiger, prana should be slowly controlled, otherwise, it can cause harm to the sadhaka (yogi): A judicious practise of pranayama will alleviate all the ailments. An improper practise, on the contrary gives rise to all the diseases: For success, one should inhale, retain and exhale in a very judicious manner” [Chapter 4 Verses 23:24:26]
The above may seem ‘off putting’ but with care, attention and guidance from an experienced teacher, pranayama can be accessible and rewarding for the majority of people.
A literature review by Saoji et al (2019), found that current research suggests that yogic breathing is safe when practised under guidance of an experienced yoga teacher. The research, Saoji et al (2019) considered academically rigorous, suggests that gentle and well-guided pranayama had positive effects on cognitive, physiological, respiratory and metabolic functioning for healthy people.
Improved Mental Health
For mental health, Quadri et al (2020), found that sports students who were practising yoga regularly self-reported greater levels of mental health than sports students who were not practising yoga regularly. Although, arguably, better mental health could have been a factor for regularly practising yoga (rather than yoga causing better mental health), this study does suggest that practising yoga assists sports students to maintain their mental wellbeing while under pressure to study and perform.
Reduction of Anxiety and Improved Self-Confidence
Lona (2020) found that yoga and meditation sessions (3 per week for 12 weeks) were effective in reducing cognitive anxiety (e.g. negative thoughts), somatic anxiety (e.g. physical feelings, butterflies/stomach aches) and also improving self confidence, in Boxing, Judo, Hockey and Football players.
One yoga session a week can improve Heart Rate Variability
Frank et al (2020) found, after a 10 week yoga intervention, in which once a week, one sports lesson was replaced by a yoga lesson, secondary school children significantly increased their heart rate variability, as measured by a 24 hour ECG. Increased heart rate variability means it was easier for the children to access their parasympathetic nervous system (accessed at a low heart rate) and so regulate their own nervous reactions to ‘stress’. The main implication for sporting performance here is that including just one session of yoga a week can make a significant difference to the ability to mediate one's own stress levels.
What yoga practices were included in Frank et al’s (2020) study?
Each yoga class was structured as follows:
Welcome and feedback on the last session - 5 minutes
Introduction and awareness exercises - 10 minutes
Warm-up - 10 minutes
More intensive asana practice - 20 minutes
Floor exercises and transition to relaxation - 15 minutes
Light pranayama sitting exercises - 5 minutes
Silent meditation while sitting - 5 minutes
Feedback - 5 minutes
The students were also encouraged to practice yoga at home.
Low Impact Stretching is More Effective For Stress Reduction than Relaxation Practises
In yoga, it is theorised that muscles hold emotional memories related to past stressful experiences, and so the yoga postures are designed to help relieve these. In practise this suggests that yoga postures facilitate sustainable stress reduction. The evidence base supports this; for example, Corey et al (2014), found a 6 month low-impact stretching intervention led to significantly reduced thoughts about stress alongside reduced cortisol levels. No improvements were found in a purely restorative yoga intervention focusing upon relaxation.This study strongly supports the use of asana (the physical postures) to help a person reduce stress and feel more confident. However, it should be noted Corey et al’s study sampled participants with metabolic syndrome so this may not be generalisable to the general population.
Meditation and Pranayama Can Mediate Stress and Enhance Sports Performance at an Elite Level.
Meditation and pranayama practises (which are not just about relaxation) have also been found effective at mediating stress and enhancing sporting performance. For example; Khanna et al (2011) found a 4 week mindfulness meditation therapy intervention significantly reduced pre competition stress and enhanced performance (accuracy) in 110 elite level pistol shooters.
Khanna et al’s (2011) intervention involved 20 minutes of yoga 6 days a week. This included 3 minutes of shavasana before a breathing practice aiming at a rate of 5 breaths per minute for 4 minutes, then a mindfulness body scan (focusing attention on each joint in turn without labelling any sensations as positive or negative). Then repeating the breathing practise and ending with shavasana.
The breathing practise of slowing the breath to 5 breaths per minute, is especially effective for reducing anxiety when combined with abdominal breathing which stimulates the vagus nerve leading to a greater relax and recover response (the parasympathetic nervous system). Although not included in Khanna et al’s study, the addition of emphasising the exhalation e.g. working towards an exhale double the length of the inhale, can further help to activate the relax and recover response (Porges, 2011; Birch and Mason 2018).
To measure ‘pre competition stress’ salivary cortisol levels were measured (cortisol is a hormone which affects the Hypothalamic Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) axis causing a ‘stress’ response). The ability of Yoga to improve stress indicators including cortisol, blood pressure and heart rate is also supported by more recent studies (Pascoe et al, 2017 and Park et al, 2015).
To explain the enhanced performance of the elite level pistol shooters, Khanna et al (2011) refer to Feng et al’s (2007) study into Integrative-Body-Mind-Training (IBMT). Feng et al (2007) found meditation led to improved attentional processing, improved mood, improved immune function and also lower cortisol levels in the short term. All of which could help explain the enhanced performance of the elite level pistol shooter.
Recommendations For Yoga Interventions Within A Sports Persons Training Plan
Holistic Yoga Exercises
The above research suggests the combined use of asana (physical postures), pranayama (yogic breathing/breath retention) and meditation exercises will likely benefit a sports person's performance, recovery and anxiety levels. It is recommended that a sports person be guided by an experienced yoga teacher who can provide them with timely feedback during the session while tailoring the exercises to them as an individual.
At least once a week (including low-impact stretching) for anxiety/stress reduction
Likely at least 3-5 times a week for 35-45 minutes as a means to approximate altitude/hypoxia training.
Within or around each exercise session as a means to reduce muscular soreness and damage.
3- 6 times a week to potentially see sports specific skill improvements and improved muscular imbalances.
Should be introduced steadily and incorporated gradually into a sports persons training plan. The guidance of an experienced teacher is strongly recommended to observe and provide individualised advice.
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