Whether you’re a competitive swimmer or just someone who enjoys swimming for leisure but incorporates 2-3 sessions into your regime a week, you’re bound to end up with tightness in your shoulder blades, hamstrings and hips/ankles at some point.
Unless backstroke is your thing, then it’s common for swimmers to overdevelop the front of their body. Because you don’t need to support your body weight against gravity whilst in the water, inevitably the postural muscles get weaker over time, leaving the more competitive swimmer to hunch over.
So if you love swimming it’s important to maintain dryland exercises to support your efforts in the water. Yoga is a great way to do this – reducing tightness, improving strength and flexibility and helping you to maintain a correct posture in the long term.
Performing yoga on land is also a great way to gain comfort with the unfamiliar pattern of breathing in water – a quick inhalation followed by a long exhalation. Learning important breath ratio exercises taught in yoga will help you to maintain stroke efficiency and allow you to focus your energy on your technique.
We’ve compiled key yoga poses that help support the main areas for a swimmer; shoulder blades, hamstrings, hips and ankles. We’ve also looked into a key powerful breathing technique used in yoga, to help you on your way to a greater swim.
The Shoulder Blades
The shoulders are often the biggest problem for swimmers, creating what is known as Swimmers shoulder. This can occur when the rhomboids are not held in place when the arm is raised in freestyle stroke. Regularly incorporating a Downward Dog stretch into your weekly routine can help to strengthen and stretch the upper body as well as helping to calm the mind. This is because the pose opens your shoulders and chest, helping to relieve stiffness.
The Bow Pose is great for helping to release all of those upper back muscles used during a swim and also helps to open the front of the body as well.
The downward dog
- Start on the mat on your hands and knees. Make sure your knees are slightly below your hips and your hands are slightly in front of your shoulders. Turn your toes under and spread your palms.
- As you exhale, lift your knees away from the floor. Keep a slight bend in your knees. Lengthen the tailbone away from the back of the pelvis and press towards the pubis. Lift the sitting bones toward the ceiling.
- Whilst exhaling, stretch your heels down toward the floor. Now straighten your knees but do not lock them.
- Actively press both index fingers into the floor. Firm your shoulder blades against your back and draw them toward the tailbone.
- Stay in this pose for 1-3 minutes, then mindfully bend your knees to the floor and rest in child’s pose.
The bow pose
- Start by lying face down on the mat.
- Bend knees backwards and gently grab the ankles.
- Hold your ankles by pressing the feet into the palms. Ensure your knees are kept hip-width apart.
- Pull your chest off the mat and stay here for 5 deep breaths.
The bound angle pose, also known as the cobbler pose, is great for demonstrating a healthy external rotation of the hip. Most people’s hips tend to remain stiff and locked up. In turn, when in the water this can manifest into a faulty breaststroke kick. Performing the bound angle pose will help to loosen the hips to help complete the breaststroke kick effectively.
The high lunge is also great for opening the hips and chest, stretching the groin and legs and lengthening the spine.
Bound angle pose
- If your hips are particularly tight, raise your pelvis by sitting on a blanket or magazine. Sit with your legs straight out in front of you, Exhale and bend your knees whilst pulling your heels toward your pelvis.
- Drop your knees out to the sides and press the soles of your feet together.
- You need to be sitting so that the pubis in front and the tailbone in back are equidistant from the floor. This leaves the pelvis in a neutral position and the perineum parallel to the floor.
- Helping your body with touch is powerful in yoga, but never force your body. Instead, release the thigh bones towards the floor, with the knees following.
- Starting at the front of your mat, whilst inhaling, soften your knees and come into a forward fold. Inhale and exhale three times.
- Bring the fingertips to the map and step the left foot backwards into a runner’s lunge.
- Lay your torso on your the thigh in front and lengthen forward. Whilst looking forward firm the left thigh and push up toward the sky, holding the left knee straight. Push back into your left pinkie toe.
- Whilst exhaling, step your right foot back beside the left. Repeat the above in reverse.
Tip: If you need a little more support, try holding a yoga block between your hands.
Swimmers will use the ankles as the foundation of all movement to help propel the body through the water. And so, the more flexible your ankle, the more surface area you can direct on to the top of your foot. When your ankles aren’t as flexible as they could be, you’re creating drag by kicking water down rather than backwards.
The hero pose is a great yoga pose to practice because it requires your feet to point straight back behind you, mimicking the same positioning of your feet when kicking in the water. This pose will not only strengthen your ankles but it also helps practise good posture.
- Kneel on the mat with your thighs 90 degrees to the floor. Touch your inner knees together.
- With your feet slightly wider than your hips, ensure that the tops of your feet lay flat on the mat. Angle your big toes in toward each other slightly.
- Exhale and sit back between your feet.
- Ensure both sitting bones are evenly supported, allowing a thumbs-width space between the inner heels and the outer hips.
- Press the heads of the thigh bones into the floor with your palms. Then place your hands on your thighs, palms down.
- Lift the top of your sternum and widen the collarbones, releasing the shoulder blades away from the ears.
- Squat with your feet as close together as possible.
- Separate your thighs wider than your torso. Whilst exhaling, lean your torso forward and keep between your thighs
- Lightly press your elbows against the sides of your inner knees and bring your palms together. This will also help to lengthen your front torso.
- Hold this for one minute (or 30 seconds if you’re a beginner), then whilst inhaling, mindfully straighten the knees and stand in Uttanasana.
When it comes to breathing, generally we are on autopilot with the nervous system regulating our breath so that we can focus on other tasks. However, by focusing solely on your breath, you gain control back over your mind and body.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s important when swimming not to hold your breath underwater. Instead, inhale with your head to one side, then utilize the extended exhalation once submerged, before alternating your head turn when inhaling again. This is called ‘bilateral breathing’ and will help to propel you through the water.
The more rhythm we create with our breathing, the more at ease we feel. In yoga, breath control is referred to as ‘pranayama’. It’s one of the eight limbs of yoga: ‘prana’ means life force and ‘yama’ means to control.
All breathing work in swimming should be done in an open chest position, and so this particular style of breath will help teach you to fully open your chest for a longer inhalation.
This breath has three parts – firstly start by inhaling through your nose, filling your belly first. After this, fill your chest and finally your upper chest and shoulders. When exhaling, you reverse the motion, starting with your upper chest and finishing with your belly.
If you’re unsure whether the breath is as deep as it can be, try putting one hand on your chest and one on your stomach. Your hand should extend in and out with the motion. If it doesn’t, you need to focus on your breathing a little more.
So now that you have some key yoga poses that reduce tension and stiffness in the main troublesome areas for swimmers, you are sure to feel as zen in the water as you do on the yoga mat! Grab your Swimfreak goggles and practise your new breathing control, and don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter for more swimming tips!