Yoga for Swimmers: How Yoga Can Help Boost Your 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 swimming-specific yoga practice allows for this to occur:

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

Activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System

The parasympathetic nervous system is the side of our nervous system responsible for recovery and regeneration. The changes in the body that happen when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated are known as the relaxation response and include:

  • Activation of neural structures involved in attention
  • Decreased metabolism
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased respiratory rate
  • Increased brain plasticity

Yoga helps activate this relaxation response (Lazar et al. 2000; Melville et al. 2012). One of the ways this is accomplished is through the connection to the breath in a yoga practice.

An example is the is a three-part breath. To perform this breath air flows through the nose. On each inhale feel the stomach fill, the ribs widen and the chest rise. On each exhale feel that same pattern in reverse allowing the air to slowly leave the body.

This process slows the speed of the breath, which activates the relaxation response (Van Diest et al. 2014).

Legs Up the Wall pose is a gentle inversion that helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system by changing the direction of the blood flow moving it towards the heart and the head. It is also a great pose to come into to practice your three-part breath.

yoga for recovery

Stress Reduction

Several mindful practices including yoga have been shown to reduce stress and assist in recovery (Sharma et al. 2009). Professional sports teams such as the Golden State Warriors and Seattle Seahawks use yoga and mindful practices as part of their training programs.

There is a lot of confusion around the word mindfulness. John Kabot-Zinn the creator of MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) defines it as:

The awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.”

Many think that practicing mindfulness is about clearing the mind of thought or not thinking, this can be extremely frustrating because it is almost impossible for anyone to achieve. The intent of mindfulness is to bring your awareness to the thoughts or feelings you are having without allowing them to steal your attention away from the present moment (which they will). When you notice that your thoughts have grabbed your attention simple return back to your point of focus (as described below).

A great way to think about this process is described by Dan Harris the author of 10% Happier:

“Picture the mind like a waterfall, they said: the water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall. Again, elegant theory – but, easier said than done.”

Two ways you can practice mindfulness during a swimming-specific yoga session are through:

  • Breath awareness
  • Body awareness

Strengthening your awareness of the present moment by using the breath or the body as a point of attention can be practiced both when moving and in stillness.

Doing an easier yoga sequence following your breath is a great way to do a moving meditation focused on recovery.

swimming-specific yoga

Exhale

swimming-specific yoga

Inhale

swimming-specific yoga

Exhale

swimming-specific yoga

Inhale

 

As you move through this sequence you can use your breath or the responses in your body as a point of attention.

Coming into a restorative pose such as a Deer Twist for a longer period of time allows the body to relax in a supported position giving you the opportunity to focus on your breath or move through a body scan.

swimming-specific yoga

  • Start in a seated position
  • Place a bolster at a 90° angle at your right hip
  • Bring your right leg out in front of you towards a 45° angle
  • Bring your left foot behind you with your left knee at a 90° angle
  • On an exhale twist to the right side and place your upper body down onto the bolster
  • Make sure that you can relax into the pose to allow yourself the opportunity release tension
  • Come into the pose for 20-50 three part breaths

 

Reducing Muscle Tension

Yoga is a great to way to help release muscle tension. Combining restorative yoga poses with body scanning help develop greater body awareness. With that increased awareness you can start to identify where you are holding tension. Once you have identified areas of tightness work with your breath to intentionally relax those areas.

Swimmers hold a lot of tension in the thoracic spine as well as the chest and shoulders. Restorative Fish pose is a perfect pose to allow for tension in those areas to release.

  • Place a bolster or half foam roller across your mat
  • Lie down on your back with the bolster or half foam roller under your shoulder blades
  • Place your arms above the bolster or half foam roller so that they can rest on the ground with the palms facing the sky
  • Either place your head on the floor or onto a block ensuring the neck is comfortable and not strained
  • Make sure that you can relax into the pose to allow yourself the opportunity release tension
  • Come into the pose for 20-50 three part breaths

Another method to help relieve muscle tension is yoga nidra.

Yoga Nidra is known as yogic sleep. In essence it is a form of guided meditation that engages the parasympathetic nervous system through heightened body awareness and attention to the breath.

Yoga Nidra provides a way of contacting and resting within Pure Awareness as it exists beneath the waking and dreaming/imagery states of mind.

It involves guided practices that gently draw one’s attention inward, through various aspects of body, breath and being. This progressive inner attention invites the activity of the mind to gradually still along the way, while going ever deeper toward conscious deep sleep.” – Jennifer Piercy

The following is a short 18 minute Yoga Nidra session.

For this practice find a position where you are at ease, that will be restful for the length of the class. Many chose to practice in a classic savasana pose, but feel free to choose a different position that will allow you to relax.

Improving Sleep

The most effective and efficient recovery tool is sleep.

For many getting to sleep is difficult. There can be many reasons for this including:

  • Stress from juggling training and life outside of the pool (school, family, friends, etc…)
  • Nervous energy before a competition
  • Lifestyle

Doing a light form of yoga can help you prepare for sleep by:

  • Calming the nervous system
  • Easing the mind of daily stress
  • Release muscle tension

Incorporating any of the practices in this article into a sleep routine can help give the brain a signal to begin to transition from a waking state to a sleeping state.

Lazar, S.W., Bush, G., Gollub, R.L., Fricchione, G.L, Khalsa, G., Benson, H. 2000. Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response in meditation. 11(7): 1581-1585

Melville, G.W., Chang, D., Colagiuri, B., Marshall, P.W., Cheema, B.S. 2012. Fifteen minutes of chair-based yog postures or guided meditation performed in the office can elicit a relaxation response. Ev-BasedCompl & Alt Med. DOI: 10.115/2012/501986

SHARMA, PRITHA; Sharma, Pritha., Kendrick, Kevin; and Chilek, Daniel R. Jr (2009) “Effect of Hatha Yoga on Stress and Recovery of Female Collegiate Athletes,” International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings: Vol. 2 : Iss. 1 , Article 30.

Van Diest, I., Verstappen, K., Auber, A.E., Widjaja, D., Vansteenwegen, D., Vlemincx, E. 2014. Inhalation/exhalationratio modulates effect of slow breathing on heart rate variability and relaxation. App Psychophys Biofeed. DOI: 10.1007/s10484-014-9253-x

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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