How Ryan Giggs keeps in Premier shape at 37
At a time when most footballers simply exercise their Ferrari’s, he’s still a hero. And it’s all down to yoga, he tells Mike Pattenden
So I’m lying on my back in a room full of mirrors with one foot pointing in the air when Ryan Giggs hovers over me and suggests I tighten my left buttock. It sounds like the sort of embarrassing dream a fanatical Manchester United fan might have. Definitely not the sort of thing you’d share with mates down the pub. But then, not so long ago the biggest embarrassment for a “bloke” would have been to admit you were doing yoga at all, let alone doing it with Ryan Giggs.
At 37, when most professionals have hung up their boots, the Premier League’s most decorated player remains a vital member of the United team. He considers the yoga sessions he started almost a decade ago as one of the key factors in extending his career, hence his new DVD, Giggs Fitness.
Nor is he alone in embracing yoga. Roy Keane – threatening, glowering hardman Keano – is a convert, as are the goalkeeper David James , the Ashes-wining skipper Andrew Strauss and Andy Murray. As elite athletes and role models they are helping to overturn some very old perceptions: specifically that yoga is something old ladies do in dusty church halls or yummy mummies perform in smart dance studios.
There was a time when any man who did yoga was considered “a bit spiritual” or rather too in touch with his feminine side. These days guys are doing the downward facing dog in increasing numbers.
What brought Giggs to yoga was injury. He suffered a number of hamstring tears in his twenties that put him out of action for weeks at a time. When the club asked Sarah Ramsden, a yoga instructor, to assess him she was shocked to discover he couldn’t even touch his toes. Soon he was taking two sessions a week.
“It was really hard,“ he reflects after our joint workout at a Manchester country club. “In fact I didn’t like it for a year because it was so tough. You’re stretching muscles you’re not aware of and it’s really uncomfortable. But I kept going back because I could feel the results pretty quickly. And once your body gets used to it, it becomes easier. I’m definitely much more flexible than 15 years ago.”
Sitting there with a touch of grey around his temples, Giggs is serious, phlegmatic. A model pro in an ear of self-obsessed, vainglorious nonentities. Ramsden, meanwhile, is a former rower from Chester who adapted her yoga studies to treat sportsmen. She how works regularly with Manchester United as well as Manchester City.
“Fitness to me in three elements: cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility. We’ve tended to ignore the latter so that when players age and stiffen up we discard them,” she explains. “We’re now seeing the benefits of a fresh approach. If you look at the South American and southern European players they will have done flexibility work throughout their careers. These teams also tend to place more emphasis on agility whereas we have relied on pace and strength and power. Look at that World Cup-winning Spanish team – they dance!”
Ramsden’s exercises adapt yoga poses to a tailored fitness programme, and her work is taken very seriously at Old Trafford. Even Wayne Rooney has been packed off to see her.
“Yeah, Wayne’s been in for sessions,” corroborates Giggs. “A lot of the younger players don’t think they need it but they still come into the gym sometimes and watch me doing it. It plants a seed. Then they pick up an injury and they’re more interested. Sometimes I see players struggling and have a quiet word – I’ve been on to Michael Owen and Rio Ferdinand.”
… So we’re a bit more educated and open-minded now, but will only elite athletes feel the benefit?
“I see a lot of amateur sportsmen in my local sessions – cyclists, rugby players, runners, Sunday footballers. The reason they are there is because they want to carry on doing the sport they love for as long as possible,” Ramsden says.
“If you do a sport for long enough your body goes rigid in that pattern. As you age the body stiffens and movement becomes restricted. So yoga is good for everyone.”
Giggs, meanwhile, is a perfect student and a great advertisement for its benefits but he is by his own admission a long way from being a double-jointed yogi. That is not the point of Ramsden’s sessions. “They’re about limiting the damage of a very physical game. I’m not here to teach him how to sustain advance postures perfectly for hours. In fact I ‘m wary of not pushing my students beyond their natural limits because of the potential for damage.”
…Less pleasant is the succession of contortions I have to perform that set my heart pumping and have the sweat running off me. Just as with the Ramsden / Giggs session there is nothing lightweight about it and I am perturbed to find how may positions I struggle with, especially on one side of my body compared with the other. It is really hardcore and, though I am sore for a few days, I sleep like a baby. If it works, I might even go back to playing football, although I'll struggle to match Giggs who is as good as ever.
“it’s impossible to say whether it’s totally responsible for extending my career,” he ponders, offering that characteristic frown. “I watch my diet carefully and I recuperate properly too, but whatever it is I feel as good as I did five years ago and I reckon I can play till I’m 40. And when I do have to retire I’ll keep the yoga up because the benefits are for life.”
So there you go. I’ve bought a mat and come out now. I’m into yoga and Giggs is my guru.
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