Yoga for Swimmers: 7 Reasons Yoga Takes Your Training to the Next Level

A yoga practice designed around the unique needs of swimmers is an extremely effective way to enhance your dry land training. A yoga practice for swimmers helps improve strength, mobility and body awareness. It can also develop breathing efficiency, enhance recovery, assist in injury prevention and improve mental skills.

The following outlines in more detail how a yoga practice for swimmers enhances these aspects of your training.

1. Mobility

Flexibility is one of the most common reasons swimmers incorporate yoga into their training. Yoga helps increase range of motion, but the quest for greater flexibility isn’t always a productive one.

In an attempt to increase range of motion many athletes sacrifice stability. This leaves joints vulnerable to injury. It can also negatively affect the amount of the force that can be generated in the new range.

Therefore mobility rather than flexibility should be the focus.

Increased Range of Motion + Stability = Mobility

Mobility plays an important role in improving technical efficiency and swimming with greater ease.

A yoga practice for swimmers focuses on functional mobility. Bernie Clark defines the functional yoga as, “focusing on the intent of the postures rather than their appearance.” In our case the intention is to develop mobility on the mat that will give you an opportunity to improve your performance in the water.

2. Strength

For a swimmer developing strength is important to increase the ability to generate force, support technical development and reduce the risk of injury.

To move through the water effectively you need to have strength in different areas of your body as well as a strong connection throughout. This synergy is a key to ensuring your strength is being used as efficiently as possible.

The importance of this connection is one of the reasons yoga is extremely effective in developing swimming-specific strength. The awareness a yoga practice for swimmers requires helps condition the targeted areas of the body as well as creating a stronger connection throughout.

3. Body Awareness

Developing greater body awareness helps us move more effectively and efficiently.

A yoga practice for swimmers develops a stronger connection to the present moment through movement and breath. The connection between the two gives you an opportunity to listen to the body with greater clarity. This is one of the biggest differences between yoga and other training modalities.

You can apply this awareness to develop a greater understanding of how your body moves in space in several different ways.

Balance

Balancing poses are an incredible way to develop body awareness. To stay stable you have to first listen to your body then make adjustments, sometimes smaller ones sometimes larger ones.

The ability to listen to your body as well as understanding how to make adjustments is the same process you use to make technical changes in the water.

Body Scanning

Body scanning is another effective way to build body awareness. This is a foundational part of a swimming-specific yoga practice. In a body scan you move your awareness from head to toe noticing how you feel at specific points in the practice. You then revisit different poses and use subsequent body scans to build an understanding of how you are responding to different stimuli.

Identifying Differences

By bringing attention to how poses feel differently on each side of the body is another effective strategy to improve body awareness. By doing this you begin to understand how many small differences there are throughout the body both when moving and in stillness.

Does developing body awareness on land help you in the water? This is a very good question since you are working with several different factors including buoyancy and moving through a different fluid medium. From what I have observed when you take the time to learn how to listen to the body it can benefit any activity.

4. Working with the Breath

Swimming is one of the only sports where you cannot breath at will. For this reason having the ability to work with the breath is one of the keys to success.

A yoga practice designed for swimmers gives you an opportunity to breathe with intention.

You can learn to work more efficiently with your breath by creating an awareness of your natural breathing pattern and then manipulating that pattern in different ways. Through this process you learn greater breath control.

In a yoga practice for swimmers the breath connects the mind and the body. By co-ordinating breath with movement it develops the ability to perform with greater ease.

Easy Speed

A phrase commonly used in yoga is effortless effort. This is synonymous with Bill Sweetenham’s concept of easy speed. The legendary Australian swim coach uses this terminology to describe how you need to apply both effort and ease to achieve a peak performance.

Combining easy speed and  present moment awareness are key elements in a state of flow or performing in the zone. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the foremost expert on the subject says there is a strong connection between yoga and flow:

The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.

A yoga practice for swimmers gives you an opportunity to practice moving in a state of flow. George Mumford worked with Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s helping them develop their present moment awareness so that they could be flow ready. In other words the more you practice this state the more prepared you are to take advantage of the experience of performing in the zone when it presents itself in the water.

5. Recovery

For swimmers to adapt to the stresses of training recovery is essential. Yoga is an effective modality to enhance the recovery process.

There are four main ways that a yoga practice for swimmers allows for this to occur:

  • Activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System
  • Reduces Stress
  • Releases Muscle Tension
  • Improves Sleep

Performing specific poses and working with your breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the side of the nervous system responsible for recovery and regeneration. You will also experience greater present moment awareness (mindfulness).

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally (as defined by John Kabot-Zinn the creator of MBSR – mindfulness based stress reduction). The practice of mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress.

Combining restorative yoga poses with body scanning develops increased awareness of where you are holding tension. Once you have identified areas of tightness you can work with your breath to intentionally relax.

By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress and releasing muscle tension your ability to get to sleep and the quality of your sleep will improve.

6. Injury Prevention

Imbalances in the body can create vulnerability to injury. Although these are unique for each individual there are some imbalances that are commonly seen in swimmers.

A yoga practice for swimmers can help create better balance in the body. Creating this balance is an important part of an injury prevention plan. By focusing on developing specific strength, mobility, body awareness as well as enhancing recovery it enables you to support joints that may be vulnerable to injury and rebalance the body.

The development of your body awareness will also help you to listen to your body and understand how different movement patterns can create vulnerabilities.

7. The Mental Game

Developing strong mental skills is an important part of achieving success in any sport. Even though this is an accepted fact many don’t take the time to focus on them. Both time restraints and the lack of practical ways to work these skills makes it a challenge.

Yoga is commonly seen as a series of physical skills that improve strength, mobility and body awareness. One of the amazing things about the practice is it gives you the opportunity to work on mental skills while developing your physical abilities.

In his book Mental Skills for Competitive Swimmers world-renowned sports psychologist Dr. John Hogg lists several key skills needed to create an ideal performance state.

A yoga practice for swimmers is a practical way to develop a number of those including:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Relaxation
  • Self-Talk
  • Visualization (Imagery)
  • Attentional control

Through a swimming-specific yoga practice all of these areas are developed in a very purposeful ways.

Mental Wellness

To excel in sport an athlete must be disciplined, focused, hard working, dedicated and continually look for new ways to improve their performance. All of these characteristics can be seen as extremely positive and beneficial life skills. They are qualities that should be taught, promoted and embraced.

Although the positive qualities listed above can lead to great success they have the potential to create unhealthy ways of thinking. Many athletes have a hard time getting out of the performance mindset, which can lead to being overly self-critical as well as having a lack of self-acceptance and self-compassion.

Developing a mindful practice such as yoga and meditation can help you develop greater self-compassion and self-acceptance, which has the potential to greatly improve your mental health.

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.

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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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