Published on January 28, 2013
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.
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?
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.
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!
So after reading Ben's take and Tod's take, what do YOU think about yoga? Leave your questions, comments, and feedback below.