2/9/2023 0 Comments
Sometimes in figure skating, it’s true that we have to practice more and work harder, not just smarter.
And when we do, we need to rest even harder.
It’s no secret that our modern society is full of sleep-deprived beings wandering about, operating heavy machinery, putting ourselves on the hook for high performance, and trying to be pleasant to others. Have you ever tried to be nice to a driver who cuts you off when you have only slept for five hours three nights in a row? 😂 Or when someone in your house mouths off to you again?
Chronic stress and sleep deprivation are huge factors in illness and injury, and even bigger predictors for burnout.
According to most studies, adolescent athletes need at least 9-10 hours of sleep a night. That’s almost impossible for the student-athlete to achieve!
Older elite athletes can get by with a little less, but the reality is that most athletes are operating on a sleep deficit. You can read some of the studies here.
Factor in stress, electronics use, caffeine, medications, and poor sleep hygiene, and you end up with a scenario that, even if you have 10 available hours to sleep, you can’t be productive in rest and recovery.
What to do, then?
As a yoga teacher, I’ll tell you that this is where yoga, particularly restorative yoga, comes into play–in helping our rest time be truly restful.
Common Recovery Practices for Figure Skaters
What goes up must come down–and the stimulation of our nervous system is no exception. For the body to properly recover from the stressors of daily and athletic life, particularly among Type-A figure skaters, we must create the tools and conditions for it to be able to safely do so. Recovery in the sports world involves everything that you do between practices or workout sessions. It should involve mental, physical, and emotional rest and replenishment, and typically begins with a balanced training schedule and proper nutrition and hydration.
Active recovery can involve strategies like massage, foam rolling, low-intensity movement, stretching, cryotherapy, and hydrotherapy, among others.
But proper recovery is more than just working out muscle soreness. Our brains need a break, too!
When we are stressed out, as we all are in our modern society, the body is more susceptible to illness and injury, it creates more inflammation, and it recovers less quickly.
Restorative Yoga is a Crucial Recovery Tool for Figure Skaters
Many studies and anecdotes have shown the benefits of yoga for athletic cross-training, anxiety relief, sleep improvements, mood enhancement, and so on.
Not all yoga is designed for the same purpose, though, and some varieties of yoga are anything but recovery tools.
Restorative yoga, though, is a special subset of yoga that is especially helpful for rest and recovery.
By definition, restorative yoga is an act of self-care that promotes a grounded state by placing the body in comfortable postures supported by props for an extended period of time to allow for the release of muscular tension, bringing about a downshift in the nervous system (aka relaxation response). Most restorative postures are done on the floor, with the head and the heart close to the same level.
Important note: lying in these postures while looking at a phone doesn’t count! In restorative yoga, we are aiming to allow the brain to rest, which in turn, allows the body to relax.
In a restorative practice of at least 15-20 minutes, the brain can move into an alpha wave state, which is crucial for balancing the left and right hemispheres of the brain. In this state, the heart rate and blood pressure decrease, as it is associated with a deep relaxation response.
Restorative yoga and the alpha wave state have been shown to help boost attention, lower depression, reduce anxiety, foster creativity, relieve fatigue, and improve sleep.
Why does this work? Because the body is placed and supported in positions that tell the brain it is safe and that it does not need to remain active (aka you don’t need to be alert and you’re not going to move any time soon).
If you are having a hard time switching on and off at the right moments to rest, restorative yoga is the recovery tool that you need in order to learn to properly rest and recharge.
Best Recovery Pose for Figure Skaters - Legs up the Wall
While foam rolling and stretching are very important recovery tools, sometimes the brain is so tired and agitated that the tediousness of doing them is a real barrier to the skater. It’s especially in these instances that I like to practice (or advise my students to practice) Viparita Karani, or Legs up the Wall.
In actuality, we should allow ourselves a 20-minute restorative practice daily. For logistical reasons, this can be hard to schedule–rushing from school or work to the rink, then home to make dinner or do homework, or to another activity make a comfy afternoon time out difficult to achieve.
Even though many barriers may exist, scheduling a mid-afternoon reset is one of the most important things a skater (or any human) can do to improve their mental and physical well-being.
It doesn’t have to be mid-afternoon, though… don’t let that be a barrier to trying it out. Give yourself a rest & reset whenever you need it. And if you can schedule a consistent time every day, then even better. I like to practice restorative yoga when I’m getting ready to switch gears between jobs–from teaching Spanish to coaching skating, for example.
There are lots of beneficial restorative postures, but perhaps the most accessible one is Viparita Karani because it requires the least amount of props.
Viparita Karani reduces swelling in the legs, gently improves flexibility in the hamstrings and low back, improves sleep, and relieves leg cramps and lower back pain.
Additionally, it is great for reducing stress and anxiety, particularly because it helps calm the busy chatter of the monkey mind, especially when practiced along with conscious breathing.
I find Viparita Karani particularly helpful after a long day on my feet or a long day of travel, or when I’m feeling particularly achy and depleted. An added bonus is that it’s really great to practice right before bedtime.
Many teachers say this is the #1 pose for every athlete and every yogi to do daily.
Counter indications: Viparita Karani should be not practiced by anyone with glaucoma, conditions that cause excessive fluid retention, or uncontrolled high blood pressure.
Simple Instructions for Figure Skating Recovery with Legs up the Wall
Common Obstacles to Legs up the Wall for Figure Skaters
No mat? No problem! Place a coat or a towel on the floor for the back and head and put the legs up the wall. Check out the photo above of me practicing this at the airport. NBC pictured Amber Glenn practicing this in January at the US Championships, and I even saw a photo a few years ago of almost the entire U.S. Olympic figure skating team in this posture.
No wall space? Put your legs on a chair or use a yoga strap or long scarf to keep your lower legs together with minimal effort.
Loud room? Wear headphones! You can listen to calming music or a guided meditation like the one in my Free Practices.
Bright space? Place a light towel, scarf, eye mask, or even the sleeve of a sweatshirt over the eyes. The weight and light block help still the eyes, quieting the mind, and allowing you to relax more fully.
In short, Viparita Karani, or Legs up the Wall, is an accessible restorative yoga pose that has many, many benefits for the figure skater. It is beneficial as a recovery-specific tool and also for managing stress, anxiety, and sleep struggles. Study after study shows the many benefits of restorative yoga for the brain and the importance of proper recovery for the body.
Viparita Karani is a great restorative addition to your recovery routine and mental and emotional well-being toolkit. Don’t have a routine or toolkit yet? Then Legs up the Wall is a great place to start! Schedule yourself a 20-minute restorative practice today.
Try it out and let me know what you think. A calmer mind and happier legs are awaiting you.
Author // the skating yogi
My name is Sarah Neal. I have been immersed in the world of figure skating for over four decades. I have seen firsthand the abuse that happens at the higher levels of our sport and experienced how that trickles down into unhealthy training practices and habits at the grassroots. I have seen this play out in the operations of the very institutions that control our sport. Whether for a profession or hobby, pursuing skating should be a joyful, rewarding process, an opportunity for athletic and personal growth, and a place to build lasting friendships.