Women athletes inspire me, but there is a whole new level of admiration for the competitive swimmer. My husband swam competitively for years and my admiration runs deep for the discipline, gracefulness, and strength that it takes to participate. When my children were younger they competed also and I remember specifically delighting in their fearlessness in water and their little triangle-shaped sternums with sinewy back muscles on dry land. To this day, I have to fight my fear watching them leap in and out of Lake Superior’s waves like dolphins, and trust that their good training and instinctual love of the water is a skill that they will appreciate for their entire life.
But, like any sport, the swimmer does best when she incorporates cross-training. The importance of a strong core, lengthened and flexible spine, and mobility of the shoulders are all critical allies in the swimmer’s performance. Bottom line: yoga translates into improvements in water.
Before I get into some of the poses that are so beneficial for the technical aspects of swimming, it is worth mentioning some of the less thought of rewards that a swimmer yogini will reap.
- A focus on breath. Now… any swimmer will jokingly tell you that air is overrated as they have trained their bodies to control breath better than any other athlete. And yet, yoga brings consistent awareness to the patterns of breath, which translates into a better usage of limited opportunities for air in the water.
- Injury prevention. The repetitive usage of the rotator cuff can provide a serious strain on the shoulder for the swimmer. Sometimes the shoulders are so muscle-bound that they become stiff and immobile. Yoga is both a great tool to prevent the common injuries of swimmers as well as an opportunity to increase flexibility and provide relief.
- A stronger core. This translates into better performance for every athlete, and swimming is no exception. A good yoga class will sequence you from poses that fire up the abs and build heat within your frame to stretches that will lengthen the front of your body and stretch out those same muscles.
- Yoga teaches the swimmer unique movement patterns. Like a runner who only moves in a linear direction, a swimmer only works certain muscle groups in one consistent motion. Yoga literally asks your body to move in completely different ways, expanding the flexibility of fascia (that connective tissue that weaves throughout our body covering everything from bones to muscles to organs), the muscles, and even contributing to the suppleness of our joints.
Swimmers tend to be muscle-bound in the shoulders, and although some of the following poses may seem simple, practicing them over a period of several weeks will provide great benefits.
Sit back comfortably on your knees or cross-legged if it is more comfortable. Maintain an erect and tall spine. Take a strap in your hands and inhale as you raise it above your head. As you exhale, lower the strap behind your back, keeping your arms straight (loosen the strap if you cannot). Move the strap up and over for a cycle of 5-7 breaths. Focus on keeping your chest expanded.
After a few rounds of moving the strap above and behind, take the right arm and direct it up towards your ear as the other drops down behind you. Hold for a for a cycle of 5-7 breaths, then repeat on the other side.
Notice the variations of the stretch and where you feel the most sensation (Reminder: yoga is always about connecting the mind and body!). These are subtle but amazing stretches and it is worth noting that they are beneficial for everyone, especially considering the shoulders rolling forward society that we live in (think of your computer desk posture).
Eagle or Garudasana Arms
This is an excellent stretch for the top of your back. Sitting tall and comfortably, intertwine your arms keeping your fingers pointing towards the sky. Press the tops of your right fingers into the palm of your left hand. Draw your elbows outward away from your torso and broaden your shoulders without squeezing your trapezoid muscles. Keep your neck long.
Forward Fold with a Strap
Standing tall in Mountain pose, hold the strap behind your back with both hands and straighten your arms. The strap is useful for those who find discomfort through their shoulders when they try to clasp their hands together, but you can also clasp your hands if you’re more flexible in the shoulders. Hinging from the hips with mindfulness focused on keeping the spine long and flat, fold forward. Keep the tops of your shoulders lifted with arms outstretched behind you. Notice the stretch in your hamstrings and stay here for 7-9 deep breaths or until you feel a release.
This is a warrior variation with tremendous benefits to the entire body. In this pose, consider that you need to ground your feet and maintain your base, power up your quads and hip muscles, lengthen your side body, and expand and shine your heart upwards. All of that, plus breathing! I love this pose and the openness and expansion it creates in the entire upper body. Start in low lunge with your fingertips at the floor. Inhale and lift the upper body stabilizing with equal strength in both legs. Raise your hands over your head. You can also modify this pose by creating cactus arms out to the side or lift the arms over your head palms facing in.
This is another warrior variation that stretches and strengthens the serratus anterior, the muscle responsible for stabilizing the shoulder joints and increasing the shoulder’s range of motion. Begin in Warrior 2 and flip your top palm up. Your bottom half stays in Warrior 2 positioning with the feet grounded, back foot dropped. There is a safe bend in the front knee with careful attention paid to alignment. Reach your fingertips out to your front and extend your back arm. Now, flip your front palm up to the ceiling and, as you inhale, lengthen your front arm up towards the sky. Reach the fingertips up with consideration of stabilizing the tops of shoulders.
These are just a few of the many poses that would benefit the swimmer (and the land lover). So, if chlorine is your favorite fragrance I invite you to towel off and incorporate yoga into your dry land practice. The practice in itself means more productive pool time. Then, the next time you dive into the pool or even compete in a triathlon you can say to the posse of non-posers at your heels, “Eat my bubbles.”
Photo Credit: Jennifer Plante