What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think 'rugby'?
Then what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think 'yoga'?
These two sets of cliché images appear in conflict with each other – one is stereotypically considered to be very masculine, physically strong and high intensity, the other has feminine, free-spirited connotations. I believe yoga has much to offer to rugby players – if they have the strength to challenge their preconceived ideas! The purpose of this post is to highlight, through my personal story, how yoga can be beneficial for rugby players – whether to reduce injury risks, aid recovery or to improve flexibility and balance. I offer guidance on what you can do before concluding.
After dislocating my shoulder in a rugby match I was given a few rehabilitation exercises to do and told “rest up, keep up with the rehab and you’ll be fine in a few weeks, then ease back into training”. Well, just like many young men faced with following prescribed orders I quickly decided to chin off all of this. Frustrated with my own body I was back in the gym in a number of days, I got bored of the rehabilitation exercises (they seemed so easy and dull, they couldn’t be providing any benefit!) and decided to just crack on with my normal training! I noticed the shoulder was never as strong as it was before and there was a growing imbalance in my body. Anyone who is passionate about sports and has had the misfortune of an injury will surely recognise the same behaviour – frustration and impatience to just get back to normal. After dislocating my shoulder again and revealing to a physiotherapist that I always chinned off the rehab exercises and just got back to training he urged me to find something that would keep my attention for long enough to help me recover properly and steered me to yoga. That is where my journey began and my focus was hooked.
So how can yoga help rugby players? I think the main benefits yoga brings to a rugby player are reduced injury risk, faster recovery between sessions, increased flexibility and improved balance.
Reduced Injury Risk
Sometimes a sporting focus can lead to muscular imbalances which may result in injury. Consider the prop forward who wants to improve his scrummaging so focuses on squats, leg presses and leg extensions in the gym. It is easy to imagine how such an approach can neglect the development of the hip muscles, so vital for power transmission, or imbalanced quadriceps and hamstrings. One could pick an example from almost any position and identify areas that may end up underdeveloped or overworked and at risk of injury. Sadly, even with all the yoga practice in the world you can still pick up nasty injuries, my point is that dedicated practices to strengthen some muscles that are likely to be underdeveloped, particularly in the shoulders and hips, will surely reduce the risk of injury.
The benefits of stretching post exercise are well researched and documented but how many people do you know, including perhaps yourself, who give everything in the gym or on the pitch but who as soon as the session is over neglect to stretch. Or offer a paltry lip service to a few stretches while talking and necking a protein drink! With a dedicated yoga practice you get to pay particular attention to stretching your muscles and are more likely to actually achieve the recommended 30-60 seconds of stretching (minimum) to see benefits (a world away from the 10 second bent over hamstring stretch and standing quad stretch we are all familiar with!).
Flexibility is defined as the capacity of a joint or muscle to move through its full range of motion. Flexibility is more than simply stretching, it needs to involve strength through the entire range of motion. Yoga offers this in a variety of postures, and particularly in hatha, vinyasa and ashtanga style classes. For rugby players increased flexibility may lead to more positive contact scenarios. Consider post tackle, attempting to jackal for the ball; if your flexibility is impaired perhaps it is easier to reach for the ball by dropping to a knee or elbow, or propping yourself on your opponent and thus giving away a silly penalty? Also consider the front row in a scrum, where even a few millimetres of depth in the crouch may help get under the opposition and force them off the ball or out of the scrum. Consider too the jump or lift in a line out – yes speed, explosive strength, accuracy and timing are key, but what if you could add that little extra by being able to comfortably extend to your full potential?
Balance is defined as the ability to stay upright or stay in control of body movement, (coordination) is the ability to move two or more body parts under control, smoothly and efficiently. Perhaps an underrated skill for many forwards but well respected by backs running great lines. With the modern game demanding the forwards to be realistic running options in attack, it is now time for them to take note of some of the training the backs do and follow suite, perhaps even just adding some balance work would reap benefits.
What can you do?
If I could only offer a handful of postures for rugby players they would be these: wide legged forward fold (think strength in the contact), pigeon (deal with those tight hips!), Warrior 3 (hamstring strength and flexibility), dolphin (should strength and ROM) and finally eagle (a real two for one!). I would also strongly recommend a warm up sequence that mobilises the whole body, strengthens the muscles around the joints and engages core stability. This recommendation isn’t just mine alone, the RFU will soon implement a 20 minute warmup routine focused on these areas, which in very recent research reduced overall injuries by over 70% in a study involving nearly 2500 players! Of course, for such a routine you could come to my #YogaforSport class.
A simple concluding thought; don’t take my word or experience for it, don’t listen to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, keep doing what you are doing to keep getting the same results. If you want to reduce injury and increase performance however, it is time to improve your warm up and cool down routines and to take flexibility and balance seriously. Yoga is a great way to add these aspects to your training and hopefully help your game.
Cross, M.J., Williams, S., Trewartha, G., Kemp, S.P. and Stokes, K.A., 2016. The influence of in-season training loads on injury risk in professional rugby union. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 11(3), pp.350-355.
Lynch, E., Lombard, A.J., Coopoo, Y., Shaw, I. and Shaw, B.S., 2013. Shoulder injury incidence and severity through identification of risk factors in rugby union players.