The Great Yoga Debate: Is Yoga Good Or Bad For Increasing Your Physical Performance?

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I do a series of yoga poses every morning for about 10-15 minutes.

Which means that by the end of every week, I’ve amassed over 75 minutes of yoga.

But I don’t really believe it improves my physical performance one bit.

So is yoga making you too slow and too stretchy?

Today, I’m going to give you my personal perspective on the great yoga debate, and whether yoga is good or bad for improving your physical performance - and I’m also going to give you the perspective of Tod Siegel, a 48 year mountain bike race who was kind enough to e-mail me his perspective after hearing what I thought about yoga.

So let’s jump right in – and of course, you can share your personal experience with yoga and pipe in on the yoga debate, my opinion or Tod’s opinion in the comments section below this article. I’d love to hear about your experience, and I’m sure others would too.

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Yoga: Ben’s Take

Let’s start by looking at the muscle contractions you’re producing while exercising (swimming, biking, running, lifting, etc.). In these movements, force is produced not just from the muscle contracting, but also from a release of elastic energy that is stored in the muscle’s tendon.

Take running, for example.

When your foot strikes the ground, your ankle flexes backwards as your body absorbs the impact and your knee bends. When the ankle begins to extend for the toe to push off the ground, the energy stored in your Achilles tendon during the foot planting phase is released. This is called a “stretch shortening” cycle (SSC), and the tighter your tendons are, the more explosively they can release that stored energy during the SSC.

Here’s where yoga comes in, or more specifically, doesn’t come in.

One way to keep tendons tight is to not engage in repeated stretching workouts – which is a reason why any good sprinter, jumper, or athlete in any other power sport knows to be careful with too much flexibility work like yoga. Stiff tendons create big forces very fast; stretchy, flexible tendons don’t.

But it’s important that you not confuse stiffness with the inability to move through a range of motion. These same athletes certainly do perform “stretches” such as skips, bounds, hops, and swings to ensure that they are able to move their muscles through a range of motion similar to what they will experience during their sport – but not a range of motion significantly greater than that (which is typically what you’d be doing during yoga). The type of stretching I’m describing is often referred to as “dynamic stretching“.

I know what you’re wondering…what about inflexibility that causes injuries? Can’t being inflexible to the point where you are unable to move a joint through your desired range of motion cause an injury?

Absolutely!

But data has shown that static stretching (like yoga) doesn’t reduce your risk of injury. So is this because static stretching doesn’t make you flexible; or is it because static stretching makes you flexible, but being more flexible doesn’t reduce your risk of injury?

Let’s see what research says:

A study that reviewed over 360 other studies was published in the March 2004 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. This meta-study concluded that there was no evidence that stretching before or after exercise prevents injury or muscle soreness. It also found that being more flexible doesn’t prevent injuries.

However, the study did find that static stretching does in fact improve flexibility. It just turns out that the flexibility isn’t as useful as you may have thought. As a matter of fact, there is even a possibility that increased flexibility may actually allow your joint to move into potentially more strenuous positions, resulting in risk of subsequent soft-tissue damage around that joint.

In fact, multiple research studies have shown that static stretching such as yoga, in which you go into a stretching position and hold it for 5, 10 or 20 seconds, can actually inhibit the amount of force that a muscle can produce and limit your physical performance in any jumping, running or explosive movement activity you may be doing after that stretching session.

And further data has shown that static stretching doesn’t even reduce your risk of injury, which used to be one of the primary reasons that you may have been led to believe you should do static stretching before exercise – or a daily yoga routine!

So what is the take away message here?

For most sports, all you really need is enough flexibility to be able to move your joints through the same range of motion they’ll be moving through when you’re completing the motion for that sport, whether it’s lifting, fighting, swimming, biking, running, etc. – and if your only goal is reducing risk of injury or maximizing force production, you don’t need to do any stretching above and beyond that.

Ultimately, should you even do yoga at all?

In my personal opinion, the answer is yes – if time permits. Yoga has a range of benefits that go above and beyond simply making you more stretchy. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, I personally do yoga for relaxation, meditation and breath control purposes.

In the meantime, compared to yoga there are in fact better, more functional ways to improve range of motion, such as dynamic stretching. Here’s a  link to a great article I wrote on TrainingPeaks that will teach you more about how to do that.

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Yoga: Tod’s Take

My name is Tod, I am 48, I have been cross-country mountain biking for about 4 years and started racing (aka participating in – I don’t race to “win”) for the last 3 years. I live in Colorado and have done the Winter Park series, as well as the Rocky Mountain Endurance series. I ride a Felt Virtue 3 full suspension bike, I may have a sweet brand new Felt Edict 9-1 full carbon, full suspension bike very soon, I have a German Shepherd named Harlee (my best friend) and I am really the most fit I have ever been in my life.

And I’ve got another perspective on how yoga can and does prevent injuries..

….as well as increase strength, speed up recovery time and clear your brain (and that can prevent an injury right there!), not just for triathletes, but for all other athletes and active individuals.

Yoga is probably one of the most diverse, subjective forms exercises you can imagine. There are many styles and with each style, each person who teaches has their own unique interpretation. One ‘reputation’ of yoga is that it is just for stretching and meditation, but that is the farthest thing from the truth. There are many styles, with teachers that are well trained, who understand the terminology and deeper concepts of what yoga is, and many of these teachers are all about how yoga can be used to get more fit.

I learned the basic poses, what ‘flow’ means, how to breathe properly, and I have really appreciated how much yoga has improved my life, as a mountain biker and skier, and for life in general.

I started XC mountain bike racing about 3 years ago, and only seriously riding for about a year before that.

It did not start out well.

I was not fit, and I cramped and suffered at the shortest of distances – 10 miles! As you may know, mountain biking engages your whole body, especially when riding technical trails, which also requires a tremendous amount of balance and focus! When this is combined with 100 other riders going at race pace, with no stopping, and a high amount of passing and getting passed, all at high altitude, this can create a great challenge.

This past summer I committed to and rode the Breck 32 (36 miles mountain bike race), which is one of the toughest mid distance races in the county (2 climbs over 11’k, 5’k gain) 10 miles longer then the longest I had done so far. I finished under 5 hours (my goal was 5 ½ hours), I didn’t cramp, and I reduced my times in any of the other races by over 20-30 minutes.

I believe a lot of my success and lack of injury has been because of yoga. My technical skills have improved, my ability to stay focused has improved, but most importantly – I have stayed relatively crash free during most of these races.

Outside of mountain biking, I am a pretty avid skier, with bumps all day, everyday. The last few years as I have gotten in better shape, I can’t tell you how many times I have been tearing up a hill and hit something unexpected – and realized at that split second how yoga just saved my butt.

Yoga can be a great challenge and opportunity to work so many different areas of your body that you would never think about. For example, you stress all the small muscles in your ankles when you hold a pose for several minutes – which can reduce injury. You work all the muscles you don’t normally think you use, but which are crucial when it comes to balance – such as obliques, middle and upper back, shoulders and lower back (and you are not always just standing on one foot – you also have arm poses, body holds, etc., which all increase your core and balance).

And let’s not forget planks and inversion poses in yoga!  Planks are key for good core stability and strength, and by planking sideways, forward, and backward, your core will be completely challenged worked! The amount of poses in yoga require so much focus and balance that it is hard to think about anything that is comparable.

As far as stretching goes…

…I am not a person who has a lot of letters behind my name, and I am sure there are plenty of articles about what flexibility does or doesn’t do, but I will say that after I have a hard ride, ski or race, when I am doing yoga the day after, my recovery time is dramatically reduced! Hip openers are the best and most ‘painful’, but so much stress is placed in this area (as well as your shoulders) that yoga opens this all up, and hurts so good!

When you are moving thru poses, flowing, stretching, holding etc, you are also cleaning crap (lactic acid) out of your body, which all helps with healing and again, reducing possible injuries.

The bottom line is that yoga does prevent injuries by giving you better balance, core strength and focus, and so much more.

Not all classes and teachers are the same, and it may take time to find the one you like. Most studios will let you try yoga for free, and I promise that there are so many benefits to yoga that will make you a much better athlete – not just for injury prevention, but also for faster healing, going faster and enjoying whatever sport you do!

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So after reading Ben’s take and Tod’s take, what do YOU think about yoga? Leave your questions, comments, and feedback below.

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28 thoughts on “The Great Yoga Debate: Is Yoga Good Or Bad For Increasing Your Physical Performance?

  1. Not sure if this comment is useful, but I come from an amateur dance background, and so my training focus has always been mobility driven (as to complement dancing). I predominately use the tactical focused training modality: CST/TACFIT[1], and it was through this that I came across Prasara Yoga[2].

    I am no triathlete (although training for obstacle races), and I suppose my aim has always been quality of movement and whole body mobility and strength. I find this 'style' of yoga pretty neat in terms of how it combines both with the dance-like feel and focus on the flow of movement.

    Here is a clip from the GMB's Ryan Hurst, Prasara Yoga, Cricket Flow: http://bit.ly/TL1XAx so you can see what I mean.

    I personally run through a Prasara flow twice as the cool-down post-workout, and before bed coupled with a round of Intu-Flow[3].

    Apologies for all the links, this comment was not supposed to read like a sales pitch.

    [1] http://www.rmaxi.com/tacfit/
    [2] http://prasaraprimer.com/
    [3] http://www.intu-flow.com/

    1. Very interesting info Mash. Dancers, gymnasts, etc. must also follow the rule of doing *enough* stretching to allow them to move through their desired Range of Motion, and that tends to be higher than other sports – meaning you may spend more time stretching and benefit more from yoga than other athletes…

  2. Like the other gentlemen that posted, I race mtb bikes on the east coast. Yoga has been part of my weekly routine for years. Simply put; I feel better with about 25 minutes of yoga after rides. I utilized yoga more for focus, breathing, core strength, and stretching (in order of importance).

    I do believe there is a point of diminishing returns (for me), performing hours of yoga daily could exaust your muscles and be detrimental to your primary sport. However, experiment and find out what works best for you. As for me,…I don't care what the data says, my body says practice yoga a few days a week, don't overdue it, and life is good.

    Bill

    1. Yes, I agree with you Bill in that my body also "speaks to me" and says that yoga is doing more good than harm. But I'd never claim in makes me faster and stronger. Probably weaker and more relaxed actually – but that can be a good thing for longevity, focus, etc.

  3. I do yoga off an on. I enjoy it very much and it does feel good. But, I agree with the research and science. It doesn't help athletic performance. In fact, it can hinder it. All of the anecdotal "I feel" evidence aside, the facts are what they are. While it's certainly true that the brain and mind are important components of performance, I prefer not to make training decisions based upon feelings, as feelings are often wrong. For example, just because I feel faster doesn't mean I am. So, while I do enjoy yoga very much, when I can take the time to do it, I realize that there are more effective uses of my time for my particular goals.

    As far as the so called spiritual benefits are concerned, I personally choose a more appropriate means to that end.

    1. Regarding the spirituality component Wayne, I often combine meditation, spiritual learning and yoga. I cycle through "The Philosophers Notes", "Joel Osteen", my own pastor's sermons and other spiritual teachings for that 10-15 minute morning segment…

  4. Something not mentioned that seems to be important for me. 1 yoga and specific stretching routines seem to help with various muscle imbalances that I have, especially in my legs and hips. IMO most leg injuries are due to some sort of muscle imbalance condition.

    I use yoga and modify many of the poses and rather than do static stretching I do isometric stretching or resistance stretching. This has helped me correct some issues and keep them from recurring.

    Not to mention I feel isometric based stretching speeds the recovery process, do you agree?

    Also do you have any thoughts about AIS stretching? (active isolated stretching for only 2 seconds) http://www.smartstretch.com/what-is-smart-stretch

      1. yes, I believe isometric stretching is basically the same as resistance stretching. Engaging the muscle at the point of the actual stretch. "Resistance stretching" is easier to say and communicate to other.

  5. Ben,

    Yoga is what enables me to manage my chronic tendonitis in my left foot/calf. Without it, my 1/2 and full marathon days would be over. When I feel the tightness or pain settling in, I know I have been neglecting my yoga (along with my rumble roller).

      1. Dunno…I prefer an active flow type yoga that requires you to hold poses for five breaths. I suppose you might say that has an inherent type of dynamism.

  6. Ben,

    As a 51 year old female who ran three halfs, a full and a 25 K in one year…all first time distances for me is that time period…I strongly feel that it was a regular yoga practice that kept me injury free.

    If my hip hurt…i did yoga.

    If my feet hurt…I did yoga and so on;)

    Just my opinion.

    Namaste

    Tamara Scholten

  7. Yoga enhanced my swimming career in college. I was introduced not only to more range in my body, especially shoulder and hips, but mental clarity, and breath. The blending of mind and body in yoga illuminated my strengths and weaknesses: improved consciousness towards life. I raced at the Olympic Trials in 2008 and NCAAs div I in 2008 and 2009 with a focused and calm, mind and body.
    As a full-time yoga instructor now, I must iterate: the different between yoga and stretching is the awareness to breath. I believe going through motions mindlessly in stagnant stretches doesn’t do much, but like Trevor mentioned, isometric or resistance training / stretching is a whole different activity, creating efficiency and purpose in the stretch and flex. The beauty of yoga is that every body feels strength and flexibility differently, I believe one of the points I drive home in my classes is to find a way to harmonize the two. To feel “light and strong” is a beautiful thing when striking a triangle or warrior posture. Yoga is so much more than stretching, it’s a compliment to hard training, it’s the thing I turn to when I need to get out of my head and into my body, it’s a lifestyle of healthy, holistic, and conscious living.

  8. I am a yoga instructor and considered to be above average when it comes to flexibility. I think it hinders my performance in cycling and running. Being really flexible is great for yoga, great for dance, great for showing off, but it is not great for sports. It is also not ideal for plyometric or bootcamp style workouts. Because I am so flexible it is easy for me to cheat or over do it in many movements and therefore have injured my shoulders and hips doing cross training activities. I have always chalked up my inability to be really good at long distance cycling and running to the fact that I am just too darn flexible, like you either have one or the other. I am an overall decent athlete, but honestly believe I am somewhat limited by flexibility. Just another perspective.

    1. I think it is great that you shared this. I have a few runner friends who started getting very in to yoga about 2 years ago. One of them, in my opinion, has become very good and proficient at what I consider very advanced yoga. Interestingly enough, she recently began having injuries, which she never really had before. I wonder if there is any correlation. I myself have run 9 marathons and a multitude of halves and other distances. I try to get to yoga once a week to stretch, relax, and breathhhhh; BUT have never cared too much how good I got, or how flexible I became. This helps confirm that what I am doing is just right! Thanks for sharing.

  9. I agree with Tod. I understand what the research says, but I feel my skiing benefitted greatly. I attribute this to a greater kinesthetic awareness of my body that was very helpful in a sport like alpine skiing, where the equipment is so stiff and limits mobility. Mountain biking and surfing also benefitted. I don't feel much benefit for running though.

  10. Are you referring to a specific type of yoga? Would you say that a Power Vinyasa style practice is a better option for those training to be a better athlete (at least one the is explosive and powerful)? Thanks Ben :)

    1. I'd say power is definitely better than a more relaxing form of yoga when it comes to sports performance but ULTIMATELY it's a bit ironic because any form of static stretching DECREASE power.

  11. Hmmm, the one thing that I would have to say is that it all depends on your starting point. If, you have muscle imbalances, tightness, posterior plane weakness (sitting all the time) then I would think that to any degree that yoga helps correct those things, they do indeed help with the prevention of injury and increase strength and power.
    On the other hand, if you’re someone that doesn’t have those issues, I would say that yoga is not very helpful for injury prevention, strength and power. And possibly counterproductive if too much flexibility is attained.

  12. I'm a triathlete and a yoga teacher. I've been racing for about 20 years and teaching yoga for about 6 years. My primary focus is to teach yoga to endurance athletes. So for the most part I agree with everything in your post. You highlight a couple of misperceptions I've discussed at length with my own students and with endurance coaches like Lucho on his blog Joghard. You can see my posted comment on Lucho's blog here (http://joghard.blogspot.com/2009/03/comment-on-stretching-and-yoga.html).

    And for the most part, depending on how yoga is practiced, I would have no problem advising endurance athletes against taking most yoga classes found in the United States. Personally I feel many yoga teachers do not distinguish between the act of lengthening a muscle through static stretching and creating space in the body by learning proper muscular access.

    One way to see what I am saying is to look at how most people look at a standing forward fold and perceive it as a way to stretch the hamstrings. The problem with this view is that it diminishes the actual strength and coordinated access that can come from practicing this movement properly. The forward fold properly done is a preparation for handstand. To accomplish this the goal is to "release" the hamstrings so the hips can move over the shoulders and the legs become weightless. A lot needs to happen in order to accomplish the goal of getting the hips over the shoulders. First there is the simple process of hinging at the waist versus what usually happens which is folding over the lower back. Then the hips need to shift back and the thighs inwardly rotate creating space for the chest. As this happens more and more weight is shifted from the feet to the palms and the core is active bringing the navel in and up. To visualize this think of platform divers piking into a handstand. The legs float. They are not stretched.

    Downward Dog is similarly complex. In static stretching much of the awareness and balance are removed from the yoga poses they emulate in order to make them more accessible. However in making them accessible they lose much of their value. Much in the same way weight machines can diminish the returns of free weight or proper body weight training. I think yoga should be looked at in terms of strength more like gymnastics where power is actually enhanced by holding static "contractions" for specified periods of time. These contractions also have the benefit of creating addition blood flow to the muscles which is restorative as well as constructive.

    Even the picture at the beginning of this post has very little "static" stretching but massive amounts of contraction and core rotation. Again this is more like gymnastics in terms of developing connective tissue. I think the benefit of yoga for athletes lies in learning how to properly use their bodies by accessing their muscles in the most efficient sequence. To a lot of people that can "look" like flexibility.

    1. I think you really nailed a great point with this, Fred: “I think the benefit of yoga for athletes lies in learning how to properly use their bodies by accessing their muscles in the most efficient sequence.”

  13. Yoga has hands down been the most effective form of exercise for my body shape, my mental clarity and sanity and my over all physical well being… I have been involved in many, many sports over the past 30 years and yoga has had the most positive effects.

  14. I did few years of yoga before triathlon. Due to time constraints I currently do it once per week (it was more or less every day before that). Can't tell if it helps or hurts, but I did contract an injury while doing leg butterfly (not sure about the English term :) ).
    Still have to asses the damage, but the knee is not that strong anymore. At least I can run without a problem. Would like to know about the injury, so I'll schedule a doctors appointment.

    Other than that, I do yoga just so I stretch my body and I think it helps me in stretching my muscles.

  15. I have been doing hot yoga for 14 months. I started off doing 3 days per week (90 minute classes) and now I’m down to 1-2 days per week. I did yoga for 7 months before starting CrossFit and I must say I was way ahead of people in terms of mobility and getting in position compared to the rest of the pack. Yoga is not a miracle drug but it’s will benefit the general population as most lack mobility in their hips and thoracic spine. Also, I strongly agree with Todd’s take on support muscles especially around the ankles from all of the one legged postures. I don’t look at Yoga so much as stretching becasue I don’t push the limits. I stop at tension and hold at tension and wait for the body to open. When your body opens and I don’t make much progress it opens to it’s natural limits. You just need to know not to push past the limit. Since my goal is not to bend up into a reverse pretzel, I don’t really get much more flexible anyway. Most of the time I feel I’m getting a strength workout from all of the one legged down dogs, planks, side-planks, “push-ups” chaturangas sp?, etc… Not to mention the huge appreciation for life and family I get about half way into the class. I become very compassionate and open minded by the end of class and my mind is wide open to thoughts and acceptance. This mindfulness stuff really is great.

    When I go to CrossFit it is a bit of the opposite, I tend to get into my ego more and I have a hard time limiting myself and I push things a little too hard, especially since my goal is not to compete but just be stronger and healthier. There is a little mindfulness that can happen in CrossFit too, usually it’s more natural in that you are just pushing so hard you operate unconsciously in a way. But your ego may have already gotten the best of you because you put too much weight on the bar in the beginning and your mind is essentially just trying to get you through it.

    So anyway, I went off the road there but Yoga good. Very good. Just don’t push past limits and stay in a safe zone. The Yoga teacher may want to push you a little further just like a CF Coach may want you to add more weight. Ultimately it’s up to you to check your ego and pilot the ship.

    I don’t know why so many people are in a hurry to put their leg behind their head or sit in butterfly pose. Same reason I don’t know why people want to snatch twice their body weight. Not that there’s anything wrong with that but there is no fast lane for this stuff. Is progress and biological limits.

  16. Hi Ben and group,

    I was a yoga husband for 10 years before I actually invested the time it took to fully commit to the Yoga experience. My wife drank the "Bikram" cool aid just like I have ingested Crossfit's. We have a drastically different mental picture of what Intensity is. This being said I never really understood her yoga until I embarked upon my own Bikram Hot Yoga 30 Day challenge.

    I had done the occasional 1 off session with her as a way to "bond" and enjoy each others company but I had always found it super painful and most times it took me three or four days to recover. It was insane to me. This was supposed to be GOOD for me. I work hard at my CrossFit and the yoga was supposed to set me up for more success, not set me back. The 30 day in a row Bikram experience however was a new beast. On day 4, I was ready to throw in the towel but I persevered only to prevent the wrath of my 2 teenage sons if I would have quit. On day 9 something strange happened though – I "opened" up. My hips felt less tension, it was subtle, but there was a change.

    Over the course of the next 21 days I had good, bad and ugly experiences with "My Yoga" but at the end of the 30 day experience I now understood what Yoga meant to me. I have a relationship with Yoga now and one that I can visit anytime I need to. I think people need to find "Their Yoga" rather than have people tell them what Yoga is. It certainly worked for me.

    Cheers,
    Alan

  17. I agree with Tod that Yoga compliments my sports of mtb racing, triathlons, motocross and running. The breathing ( which is what yoga is all about) is key. Core strength and flexibility are helpful for me as well. Thanks Ben for the discussion.

  18. I was an avid practitioner of yoga for some years (1.75 hrs of ashtanga yoga, 5 times a week). Now I've gotten into cycling and slowly lost the yoga practice, though just recently I decided to try to incorporate it back in a day or two a week. I guess I missed the mental/meditative aspect of yoga. I totally believe the trade-off with flexibility and power (though how do those ballerinas do it?). Ultimately, I just feel better doing some yoga. Maybe it's my body type: I don't think I have a fast-twitch muscle in my body, and my body feels better being more limber. And perhaps it's my personality: I can tend towards anxiety and depression. Cycling helps release some of this, but yoga does it in a different way. You could say it's cross-training my stress release!

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