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Yoga for Swimmers

Yoga, with its emphasis on balance and alignment, is great dryland training for swimmers.

By Baron Baptiste and Kathleen Finn Mendola

Gentle on the joints, forgiving of injuries and other physical limitations, and deeply relaxing, swimming and yoga, when practiced together, unite their strengths, making for a more balanced athlete.

The minimal gravity effect of swimming is appealing to those who suffer from injury that precludes them from high-impact movement, as well as pregnant women, people with chronic joint pain, and the elderly. Logging laps in the pool undoubtedly provides physical and psychological benefits. But too much time spent in the water without counteracting or opposing activities can be detrimental, resulting in body misalignment and lack of bone strength.

Body alignment, integral to all sports performance, is often thrown off kilter in swimmers, says Leslie Sims, a former national swim coach who is currently a yoga teacher at "now YOGA" and head coach at Club Swim in Los Altos and Palo Alto, California. This is due to overdevelopment of the front of the body, which occurs from chronic overuse in three of the four basic swim strokes—butterfly, breast, and freestyle. Because a swimmer's pectorals are predominantly in a contracted state, the opposing fascia (where muscle attaches to bone) of the rhomboids is weakened. Because the backstroke can counteract some of the repetitive stroke motions that lead to such muscle imbalance, Sims instructs her swim students to perform the backstroke at the end of every workout. Often just doing the backstroke isn't enough, however. Learning proper alignment through a consistent yoga practice can help tremendously, Sims says.

The biggest drawback to a fitness routine based solely on water sports is that the body can't get stronger without gravity. Just as a coiled spring gets its force from resistance, the body needs stress to build strength in muscle and bone. Bone density, in particular, is developed through low- and high-impact weight-bearing exercise like running, walking, bicycling, dance, and yoga. This is an especially unfortunate drawback for women, who are most at risk for developing osteoporosis, a disease marked by a gradual weakening and thinning of the bones.

Laps and asanas

Competitive swimmers call it "dryland training"—incorporating other sports into an exercise regimen to compensate for what is missing in a primary workout. A yoga practice can complement even an amateur's swim routine by introducing two legs of the fitness triad—strength building and flexibility. Asanas (postures) utilize body weight as a powerful source of resistance: Outside of the water, gravity helps to build strength and muscle. In addition, postures take the body through a full range of motion, encouraging flexible, supple muscles that are less prone to injury.

Consistent practice of yoga also yields extended muscles, as opposed to the contracted, compact muscles associated with running or cycling. And extended muscles are physiologically necessary for a swimmer: To be efficient in the water, every stroke and kick demands a full extension of the arm and leg. When executing all four strokes, swimmers propel themselves by extending and contracting from the tips of their fingers to the ends of their toes.

Many competitive swimmers run to increase aerobic conditioning—the third leg of the fitness triad—because effective aerobic training requires more than just a few laps in the pool. "If you just casually swim laps, chances are you'll be unable to bring your heart rate up high enough and sustain it long enough to gain significant aerobic conditioning," says Sims. "By incorporating the four basic strokes when you swim—breast, freestyle, butterfly, and backstroke—you can get a full body workout. However, achieving a cardiovascular workout in the pool is more challenging. You must use interval training—swimming laps at a vigorous pace against a clock."

In Sims' work with swimmers, she focuses on key body areas and applies some of what she calls "universal principles" of asanas to help them ward off injury and improve performance:

Shoulder Blades: In Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) and Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog), your instructor may tell you that the shoulder blades need to drop down the back. The same principle applies in swimming, where the shoulders create the biggest problems. Rotator cuff injuries or shoulder tendonitis (also called "swimmer's shoulder") occur when the rhomboids are not held in place when the arm is raised in freestyle stroke. Instead of the muscle carrying the weight of the arm, the tendon bears the burden. Over time the tendon becomes frayed and aggravated.

Hips: Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose), with the soles of the feet touching together and the outsides of the knees flat on the floor, demonstrates a healthy external rotation of the hip. For many people, though, the hips remain locked and stiff. In a swimmer, this congestion can manifest in a faulty breaststroke kick. Without free, loose hips, it's difficult to complete this stroke effectively and efficiently.

Ankles: In all of yoga's standing poses, it's important to place the foot on the ground in order to get full extension, and flexible ankles allow the foot to rest solidly on the ground. Similarly, swimmers use the ankles as the foundation of movement—propelling the body forward with a kick. The top of the foot should hit the water as if in Virasana (Hero Pose)—at 180 degrees. Sims will often work with runners who have such severe ankle stiffness that their kick literally pulls them backwards—"like trying to lift a plane off the ground with the flaps down."

Swimming to Samadhi

Both yogis and swimmers know about using the breath to move the body. Yogis use the breath to encourage the opening and lengthening of stubborn muscle groups, and the cleansing of physical and emotional toxins. Deep, full breathing enhances yoga asanas and increases circulation and cardiovascular capacity. Being immersed in the water makes this process easier, as water puts pressure on the lungs to expel excess air and allows fresh new prana to enter the body.

"All breathing in swimming should be done in an open chest position," says Sims. Just as yogis often exert effort on the inhalation and relax on the exhalation in asana practice, swimmers inhale before submerging, then utilize the extended exhalation to follow through on each stroke, propelling themselves through the water. The stroke facilitates the cycle of breath, with the rhythm modified according to each individual. In freestyle, swimmers are encouraged to become aware of alignment and pattern their breath cycles so that the head turns to breathe on alternating sides of the body. Not practicing this "bilateral breathing," Sims says, would be like doing Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) on only one side of the body.

It makes sense that breath awareness factors into good swimming. After all, swimming is a sport in which the senses are withdrawn and awareness is pulled inward. For some people, Sims adds, because "you are covered with water, with little sensory ability, little sound, little visual stimulation...it's a sense of the fifth limb of yoga—pratyahara," literally, a gathering toward oneself.

Baron Baptiste is a yoga teacher and athletic trainer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, known for his work with the Philadelphia Eagles and as the host of ESPN's "Cyberfit." Kathleen Finn Mendola is a health and wellness writer based in Portland, Oregon.
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Reader Comments

Coach

Wonderful article. But the authors are wrong about needing gravity to build strength - they have somehow not heard of resistance training (?) which is what swimming is (and the program astronauts use in space to offset the effects of micro-gravity.)

Maryanne Ford

I love the article, as I'm an avid lap-swimmer AND a yoga teacher/therapist. Louise, I share your thought that we must inhale through the mouth when taking breath..If you inhale nasally you might aspirate on water, whereas if you inhale water accidentally through your mouth it will just end up in your stomach, not your lungs.

Louise Burger

Lovely article, thanks. I was looking specifically for advice on the breathing aspect of swimming. In my yoga practice both the in and out breath pass are done through the nose. How to bteathe when swmming? Breathing out through the nose is achieveable when under the water, but too difficult uopn rising to the surface - natural inclination is to take a gulp of air through the mouth, which is surely unhealthy, or not??

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