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By Troy Cole
Yoga continues to grow in popularity in Western culture and with soccer players, and you do not have to go far to find a yoga studio offering a range of classes that will benefit you no matter where you are within your training regimen. Many top professionals advocate for yoga, saying it improves the longevity of an athlete’s playing career.
Ryan Giggs seems to be the individual speaking the loudest and he probably means the most to the community, as he tallied an astonishing 963 appearances with Manchester United of the Premier League. Riddled with injury early in his career. Giggs often refers to yoga as his “Fountain of Youth” and a huge reason behind his ability to play into his 40s. Beyond that, I can speak personally to the amazing benefits of yoga, as an extremely unrecognized name in the lower divisions of professional soccer.Giggs refers to yoga as his “Fountain of Youth” and the reason he’s able to play into his 40s. Click To Tweet
So, this begs the question: Should every soccer player “do” yoga? If yoga really is the answer to solving all physical problems, then why isn’t every single Premier League Club investing all of their money and time into this amazing practice? If it were only that simple…
“It tests parts of your body that you just don’t use in football [soccer]. The first time I did it, about five years ago, I was completely knackered. I went home from the training ground and slept for three hours in the afternoon. I actually dreaded yoga for the first year because it made muscles I didn’t know I had ache, although I know some of the lads think it’s really a bit soft.” –Ryan Giggs
This quote from Giggs points to the obvious growing pains to practicing yoga that take time to work past. On top of that, there are also many other priorities when it comes to the physical preparation of a soccer player. Since time and energy are limited, other players may need to focus on other specific areas of preparation, involving resistance exercise, conditioning, speed work, etc.
Although yoga has been in existence for thousands of years, it is still fitting that elite-level athletes have begun looking deeper into the reasons that this ancient practice has stood the test of time. You don’t have to look far within professional sports to see yoga’s widespread popularity.
To speak in clearer terms directly related to physical preparation, this article talks about six critical components of training, and how yoga integrates into each of them. These six essential areas are strength, speed/power, flexibility/mobility, cardiovascular fitness/energy systems development, recovery, and mental/emotional well-being.
If strength is the maximal amount of force that you can apply against a load, then yoga is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind to train strength. Strength coaches often use external load in the form of barbells and dumbbells, along with additional equipment to assist in a progressive resistance program. However, a missing link that yoga may provide is in the context of core strength, posture, and positioning.
Yoga properly instructs the holding of poses and “bracing” of the core. On top of that, most strength coaches agree that proper core bracing will help transfer loads better from prime movers to carry over to major compound lifts such as a squat or a deadlift. Yoga may not be the fastest way to get strong, but it can add value to a strength program.
Here are a few poses that will apply to strength building in isometric fashion:
This isometric anti-extension core position is essential for low back health, core strength, and spinal stability. According to Stuart McGill, Ph.D., a professor of spine biomechanics, repeated 10-second holds help create residual stiffness of the core. This stiffness of the core will help the more global muscles of the arms and legs transfer forces, leading to greater athletic performance.
- Maintain a neutral spine.
- Keep chin packed.
- Tighten your abdominals.
- Activate your glutes to keep a neutral pelvis
Forearm Side Plank
Another isometric core exercise, the Forearm Side Plank is essential in building stability and rigidness. Another key muscle engaged in the Side Plank is the quadratus lumborum, which plays a major role in alleviating back pain.
- Maintain a neutral spine.
- Keep chin packed.
- Engage your core and raise your hips to form a straight line from the feet to the head.
This posture is accessible to most soccer players, and helps strengthen the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. When held, it also helps lengthen the hip flexor on the back leg. When an athlete holds this posture, it helps to encourage a more aligned lunge position like the one used in sprinting.
- Step one of your feet back about 3-4 feet, staying on the ball of your back foot and keeping your back fully extended.
- Bend your top knee, flexed to stack directly over your ankle and try to keep your thigh close to parallel with the ground.
- Extend arms overhead and slightly engage your core while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Hold the posture for 3-5 breath counts, or around 30-45 seconds.
Another beginner-level pose, Warrior Two helps open up the muscles involved in frontal plane movements like the abductor and adductor muscles. You also engage the glute muscles, quads, and hamstrings in both legs.
- Set up in a wide stance.
- Keep your front toes pointed forward, while the back toes are at a roughly 90-degree angle.
- The front knee is directly over the ankle, and in line with the second and third metatarsal bones.
- Your shoulders remain over the hips.
- Hold the posture for 3-5 breath counts or around 30-45 seconds.
Warrior Three uses strength across the whole posterior chain, including the hamstrings, calves, ankles, and back. Single leg balance is increased along with posture and full body coordination.
- Pressing your weight through one foot, start to lift the opposite leg back, drawing your full body parallel to the ground.
- Keep your top leg fully engaged with a slight bend in your knee and your shin remaining vertical.
- Hold the posture for 3-5 breath counts or around 30-45 seconds.
The Chair Pose helps strengthen the muscles in the hips, knees, and ankles. You are able to properly settle in on contracting the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves when holding this position.
- Your feet are hip-width apart to ankles touching.
- Elevate your arms in the overhead position.
- Shift your hips back first, before bending the knees to lower your body.
- Posture muscles on the back keep the torso lifted as the lower body sinks down.
- Hold for 3-5 breaths or 30-45 seconds.
Power is essential to soccer players and athletes in all sports. The variable of speed added with force applied to a load is often what separates great athletes from just good athletes. Training power is no one-size-fits-all mold in itself; however, most training programs work along the force/velocity (F/V) curve to train power.
Yoga can ultimately use body resistance to train on the lower ends of force and velocity shown in Figure 1 below (because of the slow speed and isometric holds.) Slower speeds and isometric holds allow for the time and conscious control needed to properly recruit groups of muscles instead of relying on our primary/global muscles, which tend to take over.
Speed is perhaps the most talked about training principle in all of sports. Once again, speed is improved through a holistic approach, working on a number of aspects together that make an athlete fast. Yoga is by no means going to make you a track star overnight; nevertheless, you can argue that proper body positioning plays a part in speed.
Flexibility and mobility are two components that can be constantly worked on and that will pay massive dividends. If you have ever trained with soccer players, you know how important it is to be mobile in all directions. On top of that, the rate of soft tissue injuries originating at the hip (hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, and adductors) is extremely high. Flexibility and mobility are not going to prevent all injuries in these areas; however, we have enough science to say that normal hip mobility, in conjunction with healthy flexibility, can help soccer players move more efficiently through a full range of motion. When turning to yoga for inspiration, there are poses that you can easily “steal” to add to your warmups and cool-downs for opening up the hips.
Some yoga poses to add mobility specific to soccer in warm-ups and cooldowns are:
The Low Lunge is a great way to focus on the hip flexor group, including psoas and iliacus muscles. This area receives a lot of attention due to its importance in hip flexion and proper hip extension.
- Keep a neutral spine.
- Put your back knee down and behind your hip.
- Maintain a slight posterior pelvic tilt.
- Actively draw the back hip forward.
The major benefit of this pose is the ability to mobilize the hip flexor group and the inner and outer hips.
- From push-up position, place a foot outside your hands.
- Keep your spine neutral with your hips square with the ground.
- Stay on the ball of your back foot, engaging quad and glute muscles and lengthening the hip flexors.
- Variations can include lowering on your forearms or drawing your top knee away from your body to stretch the outer hip.
Another hip opener, the Pigeon Pose helps increase external rotation of the hip on the front leg and lengthens the hip flexors on the back leg.
- Place your front shin down and close to parallel with the front of the mat.
- Make sure your spine stays neutral and lifted.
- Keep your hips squared off with your top shin.
- Your back thigh will point towards the floor and extend back.
Similar to the Pigeon, the Figure Four position helps lengthen the external rotators and abductors of the hip. This variation allows your spine to be neutral by remaining on the floor and places less stress on the knee than the Pigeon Pose.
- In a lying position, place one lateral ankle directly on the opposite knee.
- Hug behind the hamstring on the extended leg to bring the shin being stretched closer to your body.
While activating your upper body, you also lengthen the whole backside of the body from the hips down, including hamstrings, calves, Achilles, and ankles.
- From a position on your hands and knees, start to lift your hips to the sky.
- Press firmly into your hands, drawing your head and chest through (and between) your arms.
- Allow your heels to draw down and back to help lengthen the hamstrings and calves.
Cardiovascular Fitness/Energy Systems Development
Soccer is all about variety when it comes to energy systems. A soccer match requires sprinting, jumping, and rapid change of direction(ATP-PC), and longer striding (glycolytic), with 90 minutes of constant moving and low-level activity (aerobic). Furthermore, soccer can have a pretty high demand on the cardiovascular system. With each training session and game requiring high bouts of intensity for up to two hours, stressing the higher energy systems outside of soccer is not always the best bang for your buck in season. In season, a foundational yoga practice can work as a low-level aerobic session without stressing the same joints and soft tissue as a light jog. In the offseason, you can utilize more of a cross-training effect by doing a faster-moving yoga practice, often dubbed “power yoga.” During a season or even on a heavier training day, you can still get an aerobic benefit from a foundational yoga class.
Here are three example metrics for recent heart rates during a foundational yoga practice (Figure 2), a powerful practice (Figure 3), and a soccer match (Figure 4).
This is a sample of a 38-minute yoga session with the participant wearing a heart rate monitor. With the heart rate peaking at 140 beats per minute and averaging just under 100 beats per minute, the cardiovascular system is working enough to elevate cardiac output without placing excessive stress on the system.
Right away, you can notice the difference in stress on the cardiovascular system with a different style of yoga practice. Power yoga requires more movement in harder poses that can elevate the heart rate. In terms of energy systems worked, most of the class targets the aerobic zone, with a few bouts that reach low-level anaerobic zones. Although the primary intentions of this class were not to specifically target the cardiovascular system, power yoga is a great way to experience the benefits of aerobic training without stressing any of the joints like you might with running. This is useful during a block of cross-training where you are trying to receive cardiovascular benefits while staying away from the soccer field.
This sample metric is a 90-minute soccer game, including half time. It shows an example of what your cardiovascular system goes through during a normal match. Your highest energy systems (ATP-PC/anaerobic) are being stressed constantly, which brings the highest amount of intensity to both your physical body and central nervous system. Because you are constantly exposed to this type of stressor, engaging in a more passive mode of exercise, like yoga, can really help complement the demands of a soccer match.
There are more competitions, more travel, less time between competitions, and higher demands than ever in the sport of soccer. Recovery is a massive variable in both an individual’s and a team’s success. When battling fatigue and still trying to maintain fitness, everyone looks for new ways to recover.
Using examples from the world’s elite organizations, it is clear that the day after heavy competition is used as a recovery-focused day. On this day, players usually do some sort of “aerobic flush,” followed by a number of modalities to help recover the muscles, tendons, and joints. Beyond utilizing yoga as an aerobic flush on a recovery day, you can also utilize yoga-like movements in your immediate recovery after training sessions and/or competition.
Recovery Yoga Session
Sessions can include the use of yoga techniques that include breathing, calming music, and mental imagery, along with tailored postures and positions to assist players with recovery.
Perhaps one of the most neglected areas in sports is the psychosocial aspect within all teams. With all the sorts of daily stressors, meditation and relaxing techniques seem to be talked about with more regularity. Yoga’s attention to breathing techniques and bringing people to the present moment are some highly underestimated benefits for team sports. With mindset truly making or breaking top athletes, it is necessary that we begin to look at ways of improving this area.
Beyond the physical realm of yoga, some often-overlooked benefits can include:
- Increased focus
- Increased mental clarity
- Learning to detach from negative feelings/emotions
- Bringing intention, purpose, and motivation
Yoga: Simple, Timeless, and Easy to Implement
Enough information is available to show the benefits that yoga brings to the sport of soccer. Beyond that, players can take what they learn about yoga to develop a personal practice that may include breathing techniques on top of the physical poses that complement them best. Whether players are stiff, beaten up, or inflexible, they can take up yoga.Yoga is simple and timeless, and makes a great complement to any training drills and exercises. Click To Tweet
Ultimately, you will benefit by including yoga as a part of your program if you utilize it correctly. As the next off-season begins, you can certainly find ways to add in yoga to your program and shock your athletes’ systems. Like almost everything, starting something new can be difficult. However, with consistency, you will see results and decide for yourself as to yoga’s place within your training program. Depending on players’ time and energy, you may practice yoga two to three times weekly or just include 15 minutes’ worth of postures in your warm-up and/or cooldown. Different variations of the practice of yoga will only be a benefit.
Our world is full of technology, with all types of gadgets, gizmos, and “groundbreaking” training methods. Yoga is simple and timeless: It’s one of the oldest practices known to mankind and makes a great complement to your team sport or life. Not only will you see and/or feel the immediate benefit from a single session, you will also realize the lasting benefits that go along with a consistent yoga practice.