How does yoga help footballers and why has it gained popularity?
Elite athletes will use any means possible to get their bodies in better shape than their competitors. This is no different for footballers. It is a sport with an incredibly high injury rate, meaning staying fit is often more important than getting fit in the first place. If a footballer can avoid injuries, it lengthens their career and makes them a more attractive prospect for other clubs to buy.
A proven but not often discussed way for footballers to lengthen their career is yoga. Many football fans may think yoga is something that only middle-aged women do, but in reality, it’s been a key tool for some elite players who have had impressively long and injury-free careers.
The reason yoga suits footballers is because it develops muscles that get neglected by the nature of the sport. Football is a lopsided sport, so players use each leg for separate tasks. One leg is almost always used for kicking the ball, the other is planted into the ground repeatedly. This means the hip flexor and quadrilaterals are frequently engaged by the kicking leg, but they are not with the planted leg.
As this happens throughout a footballer’s entire career, it can cause imbalances in the spine and hips. Yoga is a way of training muscles that many people don’t even realize they have. For a footballer, this can translate into improved speed, strength, and muscular endurance.
The most outspoken footballer on the topic of yoga was Ryan Giggs. Now retired, he played for Manchester United until he was 40. Most footballers retire in the mid-30s and often see a rapid decline in their fitness and abilities in their early 30s. Of course, different people’s bodies act in different ways, but once players breach 30 it’s often clear who has looked after their body and who hasn’t.
Giggs played an astonishing 963 games for United and holds the record for the most Premier League assists with 162. He retired after the 2013/14 season, having broken numerous age and appearance records across multiple competitions. The Welshman struggled with injuries early in his career, which is what prompted him to see if yoga would help. He ended up referring to the practice as his “fountain of youth”. His turning point was when he suffered a hamstring injury the night before a Champions League tie with Bayern Munich in 2001. Reflecting on that injury, he said: “It was that day I just thought: 'I need to do something, I need to not drink as much alcohol, I need to look at my diet, I need to do everything I can, my bed, cars – everything to stop this happening.”
The now 47-year-old also once alluded to how difficult yoga can be to begin with, and how attitudes in football towards yoga have changed: “It tests parts of your body that you just don’t use in football [soccer]. The first time I did it, about five years ago, I was completely knackered. I went home from the training ground and slept for three hours in the afternoon. I actually dreaded yoga for the first year because it made muscles I didn’t know I had ache, although I know some of the lads think it’s really a bit soft.” Giggs actually ended up releasing his own yoga DVD.
Arguably the two greatest footballers of all time, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, both practice yoga. This is party why they’re still playing at the top level aged 33 and 36 respectively. Former Manchester City midfielder David Silva actually started using the same yoga instructor as Ryan Giggs. He said: “With so many games you have to play non-stop and anything you can find which helps you prepare for these games is good. I have taken up yoga with the same teacher as Ryan. It’s been another way of helping me stretch out after games. It’s helped me get back in shape.”
The benefits to footballers are not only physical. It’s a relentless and frantic sport where individual performances are scrutinized intensely. This means any opportunity to relax the brain has to be maximized. Yoga is used by many as a form of meditation, and that’s how current Inter Milan manager Antonio Conte uses it. He’s known for losing his temper on the touchline, but during his spell at Chelsea, he turned to yoga to help him control his emotions during and after games.
It’s clear that Ryan Giggs seemed to be the catalyst for changing attitudes within football towards yoga. When anyone tries to envisage a player who defied the odds with their longevity, they think of Giggs
Euan Burns is a features editor at Origym Centre of Excellence, which provides high-quality personal training courses and packages.
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