Yoga and Sport: The training technique no longer neglected in the age of 'marginal gains'

Newstalk.com speaks to yoga teacher Julie Burke about her time with Harlequins and London Irish

BY Cian Roche 16:06 Tuesday 25 April 2017, 16:06 25 Apr 2017

Image: ARNO BURGI/dpa

Elite sport now revolves around getting the maximum out of every part of an athlete's training.

From rest and recovery to training on the pitch, statistics and patterns are meticulously logged in order to understand more about how athletes are developing.

Manchester United, for example, used world renowned sleep coach Nick Littlehales to help their players improve their recovery. Littlehales would often go into the hotel rooms of the English national team before they arrived and ensure that mattresses and conditions were up to scratch.

In the US, MLS side Seattle Sounders began monitoring players in training and kept a log of their stats which indicated players reactions before they would pick up muscle injuries. This helped them identify which players were at a point close to injury and helped in squad rotation.

All these measures are taken to give athletes the best chance at succeeding in their respective sport. Yoga has emerged as another important aspect of injury prevention and improving player flexibility.

Julie Burke has worked with English Premiership side Harlequins and Championship side London Irish, and explains that incorporating yoga into a fitness regime is beneficial both mentally and physically.

"Everyone hits a wall or gets knocked back when they’re on the pitch," she tells Newstalk.com. "We're able to use yoga to benefit the athlete from a mindfulness point of view, as well as a physical one."

For more more than a decade, Burke has been developing her skills as a yoga therapist. Rugby players and football teams were an important part of her tutelage, but her beginnings were rooted in more maternal fields.

Mother and Baby

"I had an interest in how yoga helped pregnancy and loved the idea of being able to do something with kids."

Burke embarked on a course in mother and baby yoga, aimed at women preparing to give birth and then post-partum classes with their newborn children.

"What’s lovely about the mother and baby yoga is that you’re with them through a journey right from the start. Typically you’ll have a pregnancy group from start to finish. You end up knowing them quite well.

"As they go through, there are worries that come up and complications. It’s about helping their body prepare but also helping their mind prepare.

"Once the baby comes it’s about helping them connect with the baby. We can help to try and get their body back and help get into shape, but also the mindfulness side. Helping them come to grips with being a new mum."

From here, she began studying how yoga can be of benefit to sports teams and admits she was surprised it wasn't taken as seriously up until recent years.

"It really shocked me when I was only starting to get into it.

"There was such a gap there, they weren’t really giving any attention to mentally prepare people for or to get over games.

"You can really help people understand the benefits of stretching and why you need to use it in your game. It really surprised me when I worked with professional sports people who were very inflexible."

She added: "You don’t need them to be able to do the splits, but to have that lack of mobility in their back and in their legs and how that corresponds to their reaction time on the pitch was surprising."

Participants take part in the event 'Yoga and art' on colourful mats in the atrium of the Albertinum in Dresden, Germany, last year. Image: Arno Burgi/dpa

In order to get the maximum out of her training, she drew on previous experience from her mother and baby education.

"It’s the same principle with a sports team. It’s not about going in and doing a once-off session.

"I worked with their physios, their strength and conditioning coaches and pretty much their whole team to help build it into their routine.

"Both on the physical side, but also on the mental side, helping them prepare and recover from games."

Mobility and Flexibility

Burke would work with the wider team and help develop tailored plans to each of the players to improve their mobility and flexibility - particularly in their backs.

"It’d be quite interesting to see that some would have great flexibility in their hamstrings, regardless of what position they played. What I found commonly was their backs were the tightest. They had no idea how to stretch out or release their backs, their upper body and their shoulders.

"My aim was to help them understand how their own body should feel during the exercises."

The improvement in player standards, she says, comes down to the changing attitudes toward yoga and the emphasis placed on 'marginal gains'. For professional footballers who may play 50 high-intensity games in a year, recovery is vital. But, the shifts have also come in the public's change in attitude.

"In the last eight years it’s massively come on. It’s gone from something that was for really fit girls who like to put on their yoga pants, to something that’s really accessible to everybody.

"I have a woman who’s travelled from Cork to every one of my workshops and she’s touching 70. She’s really into her yoga and her fitness."

Julie Burke will be appearing at this year's WellFest, 'Ireland's only health, fitness and wellness festival', in Herbert Park, Donnybrook, on May 6 and 7. To get tickets, click here.

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