Fiona Mather

Yoga and yachting

HPSNZ Head of Performance Therapies Fiona Mather has mixed yoga with yachting as part of the New Zealand Team’s build up to the Tokyo Olympic Games.

Traditionally sailors spend months racing and training overseas but being based in New Zealand for long periods during 2020-21 due to the global pandemic, has given Fiona the opportunity to connect more regularly with the Olympic team.

“This has allowed me to better stay on top of any issues, through early identification of tightness in the body or loss of range, which can highlight a developing injury,” she explains.

While common injuries seen in more high impact sports are rarer in yachting, the introduction of high speed foiling in some of the new Olympic classes has come with a different set of physical challenges for athletes and preparing them to be robust helps them to compete on the world stage.

In sailing, over-use injuries – particularly in the upper limbs, neck and back – are common because crew are often carrying out repeated pulling movements in a small range or holding postures for sustained periods of time.

“While sailing is a tactical/ technical sport the time spent off the water preparing for the physical and physiological demands on the water are important. The pain and fatigue of injury or restriction can be an unwelcome distraction for an athlete,” Fiona says.

“The sailors require agility and good joint range of motion as they are often moving into quite unique positions in small areas on the boat. To move quickly into these positions the body needs to be balanced through the torso with good flexibility through the lower limbs.”

Fiona, a qualified physiotherapist and trained yoga teacher, says weekly yoga sessions for the Olympic Yachting team have helped negate some of the stress-inducing movement caused by sailing and reduced the onset of injuries which could result in time out of the boat. The flow type of yoga combines functional full body movements with balance. It helps to raise the athletes’ awareness of any tension in the body addressing niggles and restoring range of motion.

Highly trained athletes can develop asymmetry due to the physical demands of their sport. Unchecked this asymmetry can contribute to injury. To help prevent this from happening, physiotherapy is aimed at restoring the balance in the body, counteracting the stresses and strains of the sport and optimising functional movement.

Fiona also stresses that she works closely with strength and conditioning, performance physiology, performance nutrition and performance medicine – an “integrated approach” which has proved beneficial for the Tokyo-bound sailors.

“Working in high performance sport, there is a unique opportunity to work collaboratively in the performance support team which is an approach I value,” adds Fiona. “The human body is a system and we need to gather knowledge in a whole range of areas from fuelling the body to the psychological, physiological and physical mechanics of the body. When we look at this holistically, we understand human performance much better and enable athletes and coaches to reach their performance potential.”

“If the physiotherapy interventions are delivered in isolation and we only concentrate on the physical aspects of injury then the healing process may be prolonged.

“However, if you view the athlete holistically, that joined up thinking and integrated approach can result in injured athletes returning to sport fitter, faster and stronger than before.”