In a quest to improve performance in the water swimmers often turn to dry land training to help improve their strength, mobility and body awareness. A yoga practice specifically designed for swimmers is one of the most efficient ways to improve in all three of these areas.
A swimming-specific yoga practice can also develop breathing efficiency, enhance recovery, help prevent injury and improve mental skills.
Throughout my career I have incorporated yoga into the training programs of the swimmers I have coached from age groupers to university athletes. I am now a yoga teacher and therapist who works with swimmers at every level and have taught swimming-specific yoga classes across the world.
The following are seven of the benefits you can gain from incorporating a swimming-specific yoga practice into your training program.
One of the most common reasons swimmers incorporate yoga into their training is to become more flexible. Yoga helps increase your range of motion, but there is more to the equation than that.
When athletes attempt to become more flexible they often sacrifice stability to increase the range of motion in a joint. This can compromise the joint leaving it vulnerable to injury and many times force cannot be applied in the new range.
For that reason mobility should be the focus.
Increased Range of Motion + Stability = Mobility
Mobility is important in the development of more effective technical skills as well as learning how to swim with greater efficiency and ease.
A swimming-specific yoga practice ensures you are creating strength and stability in your joints as you increase range of motion. The practice is focused on functional mobility meaning what is being developed in your yoga practice can be transferred off of the mat to give you an opportunity to improve your performance in the water.
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. That synergy is what ensures that your strength is being used as efficiently as possible.
The importance of this connection is one of the reasons that yoga is an extremely effective method for swimmers to develop strength. The awareness that a swimming-specific yoga practice requires not only helps condition the targeted areas of the body, but also creates a stronger connection throughout.
3. Body Awareness
Developing greater body awareness helps any athlete move more effectively and efficiently. A swimming-specific yoga practice develops this by creating a stronger awareness of the present moment through movement and breath. This awareness is one of the biggest differences between yoga and other training modalities.
There are several strategies where this awareness is applied to develop a greater understanding of how your body moves in space.
By doing movement patterns you are unaccustomed to you learn how to engage and relax muscles in different ways. This improves your ability to develop new movement patterns with greater ease, which includes developing your technical skills. Balancing poses are an amazing way to develop this type of body awareness.
One of the best ways to learn how your body responds to different stimulus is through body scanning. This is a foundational part of a swimming-specific yoga practice. To do a body scan you move your awareness it from head to toe and notice how you feel at specific point in the practice. You then revisit different poses and go through a body scan once again to understand how your body is responding to your practice.
Bringing attention to how poses feel differently on each side of the body is another way body awareness is developed. By doing this you begin to understand how many small differences there are throughout the body when moving and in stillness.
4. Working with the Breath
Swimming is one of the only sports where you cannot breath at will. For that reason having the ability to work efficiently and effectively with the breath is one of the keys to success.
The time spent on the mat gives you an opportunity to breathe with intention and work with the breath to develop efficiency.
One of the ways you learn to work more efficiently with the breath is by creating an awareness of your natural breathing pattern then manipulating that pattern in different ways. By doing so you learn greater breath control and how to breathe more effectively.
During a swimming-specific yoga practice the breath connects the mind and the body keeping your attention in the present moment. By co-ordinating breath with movement it develops the ability to perform in a more relaxed state.
A phrase commonly used in a yoga practice 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.
Performing in this way and with present moment awareness are key elements in experiencing a flow state 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 swimming-specific yoga practice gives you the opportunity to practice moving in a state of flow, which in turn gives you a chance to experience the feelings that are part of performing in the zone. As Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s meditation teacher George Mumford says developing your present moment awareness allows you to be flow ready. In other words the more you practice this state it gives you the opportunity to be ready to take advantage of the experience of performing in the zone when it presents itself in the water.
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
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 helps develop increased awareness, which helps you identify where you are holding tension. Once you have identified areas of tightness you can work with your breath to intentionally relax those areas.
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
When there are imbalances in the body we leave ourselves vulnerable to injury. Although these are unique for each individual there are some imbalances that are commonly seen in swimmers.
A yoga practice designed for swimmers can help create better balance in the body and in turn be used as 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 is 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 that it gives you the opportunity to work on your mental skills while developing those 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.
Yoga is a practical way to develop a number of those including:
- Visualization (Imagery)
- Attentional control
Through a swimming-specific yoga practice all of these areas are developed in a very purposeful ways.
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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