Yoga for Swimmers: 4 Ways Mindfulness Can Improve Your Swimming Performance

Mindfulness. At one time this word was polarizing and drove people away from practices such as yoga because it was seen as wishy washy and synonymous with spirituality.

Recently many of the most successful people in the world have credited a lot of their achievements to mindfulness practices. That fact is one of the reasons people throughout western society have begun to realize how powerful mindfulness can be.

Mindfulness can be defined as:

A mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.

Tim Gallwey, who is the author of The Inner Game of Tennis, feels that some of the biggest challenges athletes encounter are self-doubt, fear and lapses of focus in high-pressure situations. To overcome these challenges Gallwey has athletes learn how to quiet their minds and focus on the present moment.

Yoga is one of the most popular and effective ways to practice mindfulness. The following are five ways that mindfulness can enhance your performance in the pool.

1. Focus

Mindfulness improves focus by having attention fixed on a singular aspect that is occurring in the present.

One strategy that is used in yoga is to focus on the breath allowing thoughts and feelings to arise. As those thoughts and feelings present themselves attention continues to be on the breath allowing.

This practice gives the opportunity to develop greater concentration while dismissing distractions.

This is a skill that can improve through a yoga practice, but this improvement will naturally crossover into other areas of life as well.

Improved focus helps enhance the effectiveness of each practice and performance at competitions by developing the ability to shut out distraction and direct attention to what is important at that moment.

2. Recovery

Mindfulness can allow you to recover in a more effective way.

The parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and recovery, is stimulated when practicing mindfulness. This allows both the body and the mind to release tension and recover more quickly.0

Restorative yoga is one of the most effective styles of yoga to enhance recovery.

Restorative yoga can be quite challenging because there is not a lot of movement involved in the practice. This can ultimately allow for a deeper experience of mindfulness, but it can also create frustration. This type of frustration is often present when learning any skill, but getting past that road block in the acquisition any skill can make performing it even more effective and enjoyable.

Practicing mindfulness provides an opportunity to switch from a constant go, go, go mindset to one that is more calm and focused on the present moment. By doing this it allows the focus on past experiences to diminish and pauses the desire to continually strive for more.

To understand how a this change in mindset may enhance recovery let’s take the example of someone who is having trouble falling asleep.

What causes someone to have a difficult time falling asleep? More often than not it is that they are caught up in thought. The thoughts of past experiences or thoughts of how they will perform the following day.

It is understandable how this mindset can keep someone awake at night. If being focused on the past and the future can prevent you from sleeping, the ultimate form of recovery, it can also be seen how it can prevent effective recovery from a practice or a training cycle.

By being in the present moment, learning to accept what is rather than trying to change it, allows the mind to settle and the body to let go tightness and tension.

3. Dealing with Stress and Anxiety

Many of us experience unnecessary stress and anxiety for several different reasons. These feelings are part of a series of reactions that are built into our psychological and physiological make up to protect us from life threatening danger.

The stress and anxiety that we most often feel is overblown, because there are very rare occasions where we are faced with life and death situations.

The intensity of our feelings is based on our perception of the situations that we find ourselves in.  It is those perceptions that can create a level of stress that has negative consequences.

Mindfulness teaches how to observe and accept what is occuring in the present moment. This skill allows for an opportunity to change the perception of stress and quite often reduce its negative side effects.

In the pool feeling stress and anxiety can have a huge effect on performance. One of the biggest obstacles many swimmers face is the anxiety that comes before a competing.

By learning to observe and accept those feelings that create anxiety without attaching attention to them loosens their control on unnecessary emotional reactions, which in turn will help improve performance.

4. Accessibility to a State of Flow

In the book The Rise of Superman Steven Kotler explains flow as:

In flow we are so focused on the task at hand that everything else falls away. Action and awareness merge. Time flies. Self vanishes. Performance goes through the roof.

Being able to understand and tap into this flow state is something that skateboarding legend Daniel Way feels has given him the ability to achieve some of the most impressive feats that the skateboarding world has ever seen, “When I’m pushing the edge, skating beyond my abilities, it’s always a meditation in the zone,” Way told Kotler.

“I’ve gotten really good at pulling the veil down, at camouflaging reality, locking out my conscious mind and riding my focus into the zone.”

Many times an athlete experiences a state of flow or performs in the zone without knowing how they got there. Practicing yoga can assist you in learning how to get to that state intentionally.

Since becoming the Head Coach of the Seattle Seahawks Pete Carroll has introduced his players to the practice of mindfulness, “It’s an inner thing,” Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks defensive back, told Mindful Magazine. “When you’re quiet and don’t say anything, you start to see the unseen. That’s why people need to be observant and listen. When I turned my ears to listening, I improved, personally and in everything.”

Thomas also told the magazine that he meditates on a regular basis, “You’ve got to. That’s how you get into the flow. That’s why I do my little dance, my back pedal, because I’m flowing with the offense. However, you’re going to get at me, I’m going to adapt. I’m going to flow with you like water.”

By practicing challenging, but achievable movement with a focus on breath in a non-judgmental environment is the perfect way to tap into the illusive state of flow.

Bonus: Happiness

One of the qualities of a mindfulness practice is observing thoughts, feelings and emotions while accepting them without judgement.

Throughout history many have proclaimed that one of the greatest sources of suffering is attachment, mindfulness helps one to observe and accept what is without attachment.

Mindfulness can provide the opportunity to increase your self-awareness, self-acceptance, challenge negative thought patterns and understand that emotions and feelings, good or bad, are not permanent.

These abilities and insights often create a greater feeling of happiness and when you are happy there is a greater chance of performing at your best each time you hit the water.

Other articles in our Yoga for Swimmers series include:

5 Ways to Make Yoga More Enjoyable

7 Reasons Why Swimmers Should Do Yoga

3 Ways to Increase Shoulder Stability

3 Fundamentals of Yoga to Focus on With Swimmers

3 Restorative Yoga Poses to Help the Effectiveness of Your Taper 

Why Olympic Swimming Champion Rebecca Soni Does Yoga

About Jeff

Jeff Grace is the owner and operator of Excel with Grace which specializes in teaching sport specific and therapeutic yoga.

Excel with Grace - Headshots-20

Jeff is trained in vinyasa (flow), hatha, yin, restorative and therapeutic yoga practices. He is also completing his 500 hour certification as a yoga therapist.

Jeff has been deeply immersed in the sport for decades. He has been coaching for over 20 years and has had athletes medal at both CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) Championships and Age Group Nationals.

Join the Excel with Grace bi-weekly newsletter group to receive information on how yoga can improve your athletic performance. Sign up for free here.

Leave a Reply

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

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 …

Read More »