Yoga for Masters Swimmers – Working with Your Breath

The benefits masters swimmers can experience through a swimming-specific yoga practice are numerous. After working with masters swimmers for the last 28 years as a coach and a yoga teacher/therapist here are my top three priorities for a yoga for masters swimmers practice:

Although injury prevention is the number one priority mobility and breathing contribute to building a more resilient body. For that reason I will leave injury prevention to last.

In the first instalment of this series of articles we discussed mobility. In this article we will explore how incorporating a swimming-specific yoga practice can help change the effectiveness of your breathing.

Why Breathing?

Swimming is a unique sport in many different ways. One of the most significant being that it is one of the only sports where you cannot breathe at will. For that reason breathing efficiency is an essential element in achieving success. No matter if you are a fitness swimmer, a multi-sport athlete, open water swimmer or compete in the pool, training how you breathe can have a huge impact on your performance.

Intentionally training how you breath not only effects your physiology, but can also have an incredible impact on your psychology as well.

Breathing Habits

By the time we are able to call ourselves masters swimmers many have spent their adult lives practicing bad breathing habits. There can be many different reasons for this; a few include a lack of awareness, stress or a physical limitation (e.g. deviated septum). 

Some of these habits include:

  • Mouth breathing
  • Upper chest breathing
  • Shallow breathing 
  • Breath holding
  • Overbreathing

We are always training habits, whether they be desirable or undesirable ones. During a typical day we take roughly 20,000 breaths, which gives us a lot of opportunity to ingrain a habit. 

The question is what habit are you training?

Muscular Fatigue

The intercostals, abdominals and diaphragm are your primary breathing muscles. The scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, trapezius and pectoralis minor muscles are your secondary breathing muscles. 

When breathing effectively and efficiently the primary muscles do the majority of the work. If we fall into bad breathing habits the secondary muscles often apply more energy than they should. 

We use many of these secondary breathing muscles to help stabilize us in and propel us through the water. If these muscles are being fatigued from how we breath throughout the day it can negatively affect your swimming efficiency .

Stress

All of us experience different levels of stress. When experiencing stress the sympathetic nervous system (fight, flight or freeze response) is activated. When this happens the rate of our breathing increases and for that reason becomes more shallow. 

The reverse can also occur. If our breathing rate is high and the depth of the breath is shallow the sympathetic nervous system can be activated when it is not required. When this happens we expend energy in a way that is unnecessary and it can also have negative psychological side effects.  

By learning how to breath more fully you can build resilience in the face of stressful challenges and help conserve energy for when it is needed.

Mindfulness

Increasing the awareness of your breath gives you the opportunity to practice mindfulness throughout the day. Mindfulness has many benefits including:

  • Accessing a state of flow
  • Reducing anxiety
  • Developing the ability to focus and refocus
  • Enhancing recovery
  • Sustaining mental wellness

Bringing your attention to your breath can be very grounding. Using different breathing techniques can help strengthen the mind-body connection and create a healthy balance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).

How Does a Yoga for Masters Swimmers Practice Make a Difference?

A Swimming-Specific Yoga practice can help you develop greater breathing efficiency by:

  1. Creating awareness
  2. Disrupt habitual patterns that make change possible
  3. Teaching new breathing patterns
  4. Practicing moving with breath

By working with your breath in an intentional way you can start to build new and more effective habits. In a swimming-specific yoga practice you create an awareness of breath by noticing your natural tendencies then use that awareness throughout the practice to train your breathing patterns in different ways.

There are many different types of these practices in yoga (pranayama). Three I have found to be extremely beneficial for masters swimmers include: 

  1. Three Dimensional Breath
  2. Belly Breath
  3. Three Part Breath 

Three Dimensional Breath (360° Breath)

  • Choose a place where you can feel comfortable either lying on your back, sitting in a comfortable position or standing up
  • The three dimensions of the breath are the front, sides and the back of the body
  • Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest
  • Take a few breaths to notice what your natural pattern of breath
  • Start breath in and out of the nose slowly
  • On each inhale begin to feel the front, sides and back of the body all expanding
  • On each exhale slowly release the air through the nose

 

 

Belly Breath

  • Lie in a comfortable position on your back
  • Place your hands on your abdomen or one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest
  • Take a few breaths to notice what your natural pattern of breath
  • If you have not already start to breath in and out through the nose
    • You can also breath in through the nose and out slowly through the mouth with pursed lips
  • On each inhale breath deeply allowing the belly expand on each inhale while keeping the chest as still as possible
    • Breath into the hand(s) on your belly
  • With each exhale allow the belly to soften

 

 

Three Part Breath

  • Choose a place where you can feel comfortable either lying on your back, sitting in a comfortable position or standing up
  • The three parts of the breath we will be focusing on are the belly, ribs and chest
  • Place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest
  • Take a few breaths to notice what your natural pattern of breath
  • As you build your three part breath exhale the air out through the nose slowly
  • Take three breaths where on each inhale breath deeply allowing the belly expand on each inhale while keeping the ribs and chest as still as possible
  • The next three breaths on the inhale feel the belly expand and your ribs widen while keep the chest as still as possible
  • Put together all three parts of the breath on the inhale feel the belly expand, ribs widen and chest rise in a wave like motion or rhythm

 

 

This Yoga for Swimmers article is brought to you by Swimming-Specific Yoga the world’s top resource for online yoga classes and content designed for swimmers and multi-sport athletes.

Visit our website swimminspecificyoga.com to take a 7 day free trial of the Swimming-Specific Yoga Online Studio membership..

        Swimming Specific Yoga

 

This article was written in co-operation with Leslie Tomlinson of H2Om Yoga Therapeutics

 

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About Jeff Grace

Jeff Grace

Jeff is a 500 hour registered yoga teacher who holds diplomas in Coaching (Douglas College) and High Performance Coaching (National Coaching Institute - Calgary). He has a background of over 20 years in the coaching profession, where he has used a unique and proven teaching methodology to help many achieve their …

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