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Can You Use Yoga to Improve Your Athletic Performance?

Practicing yoga makes you better at doing yoga. But is there a way to use yoga to improve your performance and resilience at a particular sport? Get-Fit Guy picks the brain of yoga practitioner, Abi Carver of Yoga15.com, to find out how she works with athletes to do just that. 

By
Brock Armstrong,
Episode #457
Photo of Abi Carver doing figure four pose

Are you ready for something a little different? This article is a full transcript of a conversation I had about yoga and how we can use it in specific ways to aid our athletic performance. For the audio version of this interview (which I strongly encourage you to listen to), I was not locked in my little closet in my own studio at home like I usually am, I was actually in Whistler, British Columbia "on location" with my dear friend, Abi Carver, of Yoga15.

You long-time readers have undoubtedly encountered links in my past articles and past podcasts where I've highlighted Abi's videos and posts. But for this one, she is here in person, not across Skype, not across the internet, but right across the table from me. So here we go!

Brock: Abi, how are you?

Abi: I am great. How're you doing?

Brock: I'm good. We just went for a lovely walk around Lost Lake, and we didn't get lost this time.

Abi: No, not this time!

Brock: It's in the name of the lake, so you'd think that would be inevitable, but we didn't get lost. And we made our way back here to talk about yoga and whether or not—what I'm going to say anyway—is whether yoga is all created equally or are these different brands of yoga actually that different? And are they actually targeting different sort of activities, and different parts of our body, different parts of our nervous system, even? And, the biggest question, because I know you do a lot of yoga specifically for cyclists, can we use yoga to target specific purposes and to really elicit specific results from our bodies and from our performance? So, that's the big ask. But let's break it down a little bit.

But first, before we dive into it, could you just fill in the audience on your background as a ... as a yoga influencer, shall we say?

Abi: I'd like to say I was influential, but I think I can only really count as a teacher. I have an online business, which is called yoga15.com, which is designed specifically for athletes. It's called Yoga15 because all my videos are 15 minutes long. Part of the reason being that I'm a fairly impatient person. Typically, your classes are an hour and 15 minutes. But we can come back to that in a little while.

So, Yoga15 is my company. I work almost exclusively online. I do some privates, but most of what I do is online. I make videos, and they are targeted at different sports. I quite like extreme sports like surfing, mountain biking, snowboarding, skiing, but also I have quite a big audience in triathlon and running, cycling, the more conventional sports weight lifting too.

Brock: That's how I found you, actually. Or is that how you found me? No, wait. How did we find each other?

Abi: Well, I was listening to your podcasts just when I really started this business, which was back in 2013, and I think I probably reached out to you at the time when you could do that, and somebody would actually respond.

Brock: Yeah. Back then we weren't inundated with spam requests for everything. I know even my mum gets spam requests from people wanting a job at her "business," and she's been retired for a number of years now.

But anyway, I really enjoyed the idea of the 15 minutes chunks of yoga, and often I'd string them together and do more. But the idea of actually being able to get through something meaningful and useful in 15 minutes really did resonate with me and still does resonate with me. I'm going to use those videos forever. Even though you've moved on and created a lot of different stuff since then.

Abi: Well, the crazy thing is actually that yoga, it doesn't change.

Brock: It's thousands of years old.

Abi: Yes! It's thousands of years old. And my Yoga, I would actually say, in fairness to Yoga, I would say what I teach is yoga-inspired because it, it is not the whole package that you get in a yoga class. It is non-spiritual. And for me personally, I am a huge fan of all the elements of yoga. But what I teach is a very pared-down version of that, including the time because I am trying to bring yoga to a new audience, so I don't actually teach anybody who's already pretty good at yoga. I teach beginners, and I'm trying to open it up to people who don't feel that there is a yoga class for them. Either there literally isn't, it's too far away, or it's too expensive, or they're doing so much training for their triathlon that "how are they going to fit in an hour and a quarter class."

Ideally, it would be wonderful if we could all do that, but I realized that 'little and often' is so much better than 'none.'

Ideally, it would be wonderful if we could all do that, but I realized that "little and often" is so much better than none. One time that I can get you to do maybe once a month. The benefits of doing 15 minutes or even less than 15 minutes—there's actually a lot of efficacy in just ... I've taught you all the poses, but actually when you're out there on the trail, you've just done a mountain bike ride, you know three poses that you can do, and you're going to do that. And you can do that every time. And you maybe can't go to a class every day.

Brock: That's a common theme that comes up in this podcast is that consistency key, and making sure you shake that all-or-nothing kind of mentality where it's like "I don't have an hour-and-a-half, so I guess I won't do yoga today." Also, consistency is key. Getting it done even just a little bit every day or every second day is so much more meaningful than cramming a whole bunch in on the weekend. We talk about that in terms of workouts as well.

Abi: Well I'm sure you've had that experience where there's a build-up of tension in your body, and actually you can probably get away with not stretching for a day or maybe two days, and you can probably get away with it a lot more when you're in your 20s and younger. But there's this build-up, and you're putting off doing that stretching. And when you get to do the yoga poses, you wish you'd done it two days before, but all you need to do is just a little bit, and it prevents that build-up of to the point where you come to pain, especially around the hips or the shoulders and these sorts of areas.

Brock: I do a routine most mornings and most evenings that is really quite short. My morning routine takes the time from when I put my coffee pot on to the time that my coffee is ready. So not very long! But it really does make a big difference in just keeping some mobility, especially as I get older and start to realize things like "I've got a slight crick in my neck" most mornings. And my right shoulder likes to thunk a little bit. But if I do, even just that small amount consistently, not necessarily every single day but most days, it does make a really big difference. I totally agree.

If I can manage to get you to do just one minute, that's a lot easier than trying to get you to go to a class to put on the right clothes and all that kind of stuff.

Abi: I've been in Whistler for the last 10 days with a friend of mine who's a mountain biker. And I've been going on the trails with him, and I've been walking while he's been on the bike, and I am feeling in my body some of what he's feeling and I've realized that 15 minutes is all well and good but actually what I now want to focus on is a series of one-pose, one-minute videos, because actually, you need to be able to do something for a minute before you take off on that ride. So maybe before you go for the hike in the morning, if you could do just one pose after it, it's better than doing nothing. And what I have found is that once you're there, on your back doing a dead pigeon pose, you kind of do it for a little bit longer and then eventually you'll do the 15 minutes. But if I can manage to get you to do just one minute, that's a lot easier than trying to get you to go to a class to put on the right clothes and all that kind of stuff.

Brock: You're speaking my language in terms of the incidental movement that I try to encourage people to build into their days, too.

Abi: I think that's a big part! You don't practice yoga, or do the stretching for it itself, to support you in the rest of your life. And that is slightly the difference with the Yoga that I teach. I'm not teaching it for itself. I'm teaching it as a supplement for the thing that you're passionate about. So, unfortunately, you will spend an hour and a half running or riding your bike, and no one has to ask you to do that. But you don't have the same passion for the yoga in itself and those yogis out there who don't need to be incentivized to do an hour and a half class. But I'm trying to say that yoga can support you in whatever your passion is. That's why we have to find these more spaces in between.

Brock: That's really interesting. So the practice of yoga, for a lot of people, is to get better at doing yoga. It's not in aid of any other sort of part of their life. Obviously some people are doing it for the calmness aspect or the meditative aspect and stuff like that, but to really dedicate your time to doing yoga isn't necessarily making you better at other things, it's making you better at yoga, and that's great but for those of us who aren't particularly wanting to get better at being a... A yoga mover?

Abi: Yogi.

Brock: I resisted using that word.

Abi: It's a funny word, but that's what we'd say. Yes.

Brock: I resisted because of Yogi Bear. He just kinda ruined it. But anyway. I love that idea of using yoga, like you said, as a tool, not as the practice. That's not necessarily bastardizing yoga or something like that. It's probably paying some honor to it in a different sort of way.

Abi: Well, that's it. I definitely don't want to take away from Yoga—I practice Yoga for Yoga. But you'll find in my videos that we don't do prohibitively difficult arm balances because, in my view, that doesn't actually make you better at your sport.

If you want to learn how to do the splits, that's a very different goal from wanting to improve your triathlon time.

So right when I started designing these videos, I wanted them to be very targeted to what was important for you. Now, actually, if you are going to train flexibility at a certain point, that's not going to help you. So for my friend who's mountain biking, if I make him super flexible, he's not going to have the strength and stability to ride his bike down a mountain. It's going to be counterproductive. And often I think that's what when someone says, is yoga bad for your training? Well, it's one of those things that are dose-dependent. And yeah, holding long hold poses is definitely counterproductive. If you want to learn how to do the splits, that's a very different goal to wanting to improve your triathlon time.

Brock: I used to be able to do the splits, but I can't do it anymore, and my life hasn't changed much. I kind of wish I could do it for party tricks, but that would be about the only time I'd bust that out.

Now for your friend in particular, or any cyclist out there, what do you look for when you're thinking about the person's sport that they're doing and then trying to decide what kind of yoga poses that you would give to them. How do you make those judgments or what kind of algorithm do you run in your own brain?

Abi: Posture and body position is one of the main aspects. So if you take the body position of a cyclist, roughly speaking, you're going to have a rounded spine, and your shoulders are going to come forward even to close your chest. You've got tight hips, shortened hip flexors. And if you then took the body position of a surfer, you're going to have exactly the opposite. You have the spine in extension.

Brock: Yeah. You're not flexing the spine, you're extending it on a surfboard.

Abi: It's exactly the opposite. Those two work wonderfully actually together as they complement each other.

So where the hip flexors are in a shortened position if you're on the bike, but this in an extended position, if you're on the surfboard. On the surfboard, you're basically in what would be called a cobra pose in yoga. So it's slightly complicated because there's the body posture, then there are the recurring movement patterns.

So, the posture of a runner isn't particularly asymmetric, but you're using certain muscles more than you're using other muscles and certain muscles get tight. If you're running, it's pretty much sagittal plane. So there's not much lateral movement, there's not much rotation in there.

Brock: And the sagittal plane is the forward-backward directions, for those of you who haven't studied movement.

Abi: Yes! Some of the movements, they've got really good technical words for, which I find useful as shortcuts. And sometimes I just revert to "bending forward and backward." So sorry.

Brock: That's my job as an interviewer.

Abi: Clarify. Yes.

So you've got body position, you've got the muscles that are being worked more consistently than others. Then there are some things like particular pain points that come up for a particular sport. For example, you have cyclists knee. Actually, the reason I started working with mountain bikers is that what I didn't realize was how prevalent low back pain was in mountain biking. Even more so than just cycling. So, all these things need to be taken into consideration. And then I would say that we are all pretty much special snowflakes as well. I mean, somebody may have an injury which means their pelvic tilt might be different. And because they may have injuries, all I can do is give you a template, and that's the template generally for your sport, and then we have to work the nuance in that.

Brock: That makes sense. So you're looking at the body position, let's say of the cyclist again. Would you want to counterbalance the position? Would you be thinking of poses that sort of unfurl those shortened hip flexors and maybe reverse the curvature of the back or something like that?

Abi: Yeah. I can give you a sort of real-world example of this. So this morning my friend was going for a ride and what I asked him to do before we left was a one-minute, one-pose. That's what I wanted him to do because all he wants to do is get out on his bike. But I want him to be able to ride every single day this week and not have to stop for pain. So that is all I want him to do.

The way I break down yoga: when you introduced this interview, you talked about different styles of yoga, and that isn't exactly how I work. There are different types like Vinyasa flow or Hatha or Bikram but how I divide up yoga is by skill. So I have a flexibility style, a strength style, a recovery style, a balance, and a mobility style.

Now a flexibility style is holding poses for two to three breaths. So that's like static stretching. Then we've got the relaxation would be similar, but it would be longer held poses and more on the breathing and the meditation type. Which is what most athletes love. But if you are somebody who was working in an office, actually maybe you want some more up-regulating stuff, but because you're athlete, you want to relax. Then mobility is faster moving. It would be called Vinyasa or flow, which is a more dynamic style of movement through the poses. And when you're strengthening, we're trying to balance strength and flexibility to create mobility.

Brock: So that's the one where you move from one pose to another and not necessarily pausing for very long in each one.

Abi: Exactly. In fact, in yoga, you try to move with your breath. So sun salutation would be an example of a mobility series.

So that's my language. You'd call it Vinyasa in proper yoga speak. And then we've got strength. Strength for me is isometric and eccentric and concentric. So I would say something like a plank holding poses that are designed for strength holding warrior two would come with strength.

Brock: Warrior Two is my nemesis.

Abi: Warrior Two is hard! It's hard for athletes. And I'm not going to put that in very many classes because my goal and my belief is that the really foundational stuff is the stuff where the benefits are for athletes. I personally only go to "yoga for beginner" classes. I think I learn something in every single class because I'm not trying to work on my fancy arm balances. I just want to get really, really good at the basics.

My belief is that the really foundational stuff is the stuff where the benefits are for athletes.

So let's go back to my friend the cyclist. So what I asked him to do this morning was to activate the muscles that he was going to be putting the most stress on, which I believe there's a bunch of them, but I think that his lower back was being put under an enormous amount of pressure. And he doesn't have the same muscle there as he has in his glutes, or in his thighs. So we just did a minute of bridges. Just activating his lower back, trying to keep his glutes relaxed because he's gonna use his glutes a lot when he's climbing up that mountain. But doing a bridge, just to activate that lower back and get the neuromuscular connection going on. So he's tuned in when he gets on the bike.

Brock: That's interesting because I think not very many people think of yoga in that way, in activating muscles. Most people think of it as increasing flexibility and relaxing and meditation. But you're actually talking about bringing energy and activity to a muscle group—to prime them for the movement.

Abi: Exactly. I mean again, "activate" isn't a yoga word, but it's all there in the practice, and it improves your yoga. It's about bringing your mind and body together. So that's where it differs a little from some kind of conventional training because as you're doing those bridges, you are only focusing on the sensations in your body, and you're not thinking about the ride ahead. I only wanted him to do it for a minute. You can do that. And so that's making the connectivity between your brain and your body move much faster, which is what you're going to want when you're at the top of a trail called "comfortably numb" which is 15-minutes of holding on tight as you descend.

Brock: Okay. So it's Quick and Dirty Tip time (I have never referred to it like that before, but we're going to call it that in this one). So, let's say we've got some cyclists out there, I'm sure we've got some runners, we've got some swimmers. What would your piece of advice be for them to, whether they're trying to prime themselves for that workout or trying to recover from that workout, what would be the thing they should look for to choose the right yoga pose? Or a series of poses?

Before we exercise, we want to activate or engage a muscle. Then we're going to do an exercise. Then after an exercise, we want a stretch.

Abi: Okay, so before we exercise, we want to activate or engage a muscle. Then we're going to do an exercise. Then after an exercise, we want a stretch. So we are going to have an activation exercise before the workout, a stretch or flexibility pose afterward. And then you also need to do is you're off training. So that's where you want to build strength. You wouldn't want to do that on The Day. You don't want to start wearing yourself out by doing strength exercises and warrior twos before you go for a run.

Brock: So, this is sort of cross-training day?

Abi: Exactly. So, you've got the "off days" and the "on days." So you want to be doing, activating and stretching-out actually on the days. And then you want to be building strength and mobility on your off days.

Brock: So we should just choose the muscle group that you know, if you know your sport, you know where you've got those aches and pains as you said, the little snowflake part and also the major muscle groups that you know you're going to be using. Prime those before. Give them a good stretching afterward. And then on the off days, focus on those same parts to just make them more resilient.

Abi: Yeah. So today we, we activated the lower back before we started and then when we got to the top of the trail, I wanted to stretch out his glutes because that was the bit that was getting super tight. Something like a Pigeon Pose, which you may know, you can do that three ways. You could do it on your back - and we'd call that dead pigeon or figure four. You could do a normal pigeon as well. But what we did, because we were outside, is we did a standing pigeon. We just found a rock, put up the foot up at an angle and then you can do the same pose at that position.

Brock: Ah! I've never done it standing.

Abi: All you need to do is to stretch the outsides of your hips. If you've got your leg bent in front of you, then you're getting that stretch there.

Brock: Yeah, you're right. Getting down on the ground in a proper pigeon—I mean that's a challenging pose at any time—never mind in the middle of a mountain trail somewhere.

Abi: Yeah. Pigeon is very challenging, and I wouldn't suggest you do that if you weren't really, really well warmed up. And yeah, if it's raining, you don't want to be laying on your back doing Dead Pigeon anyway.

Brock: Awesome. Well that was very helpful, and I think we probably busted some myths or at least changed some people's minds on what yoga can be used for—it doesn't have to be for anything. And maybe that's part of the problem that our limited vision or our limited belief in what some exercises are for and yoga is no exception there.

Abi: Yeah. And I really love responding to people who have questions. So if anyone did want to send me a message, they could email me at abi@yogafifteen.com, and I'll see if I can help you.

Brock: And you're also on Instagram and Twitter, and Facebook is your favorite, right?

Abi: I do like Facebook. That's where I post all my articles. So my site is yoga15.com. I think my Facebook is at facebook.com/yoga15abi. And the same on Instagram.

Brock: All right. I will put all of those links into the show notes, so you don't have to try to remember them. Just go to quickanddirtytips.com/getfitguy and look for this episode all about yoga and how we can use it in different and fun and exciting ways.

Thank you for joining me this afternoon. Although I guess technically, I joined you because I came up to Whistler from Vancouver.

Abi: Yes! Thank you for coming up here to see me. It was great.

Brock: Thank you for coming on the Get-Fit Guy podcast. It was awesome to do my first in-person recording, and I'm glad it was with you.

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About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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