Yoga can help swimmers increase strength, flexibility, range of motion, and body awareness
Curiosity led Mountain View Masters Coach Tina Whiteside to the yoga studio for the first time. She came out refreshed and feeling like she’d had a great workout. After a few more sessions, she was hooked.
“I liked it so much, I started to teach it,” says Whiteside, a U.S. Masters Swimming–certified Level 3 coach and a certified instructor of Baptiste yoga, a type of Vinyasa yoga often referred to by practitioners as “power yoga.” Every Baptiste yoga session consists of the same sequence of poses, each pose held for a short amount of time to strengthen the body and increase the practitioner’s awareness of body and mind.
Once Whiteside was practicing regularly, she found her swimming getting better and felt better. “I no longer had shoulder pain when I swam butterfly and freestyle,” she says.
That’s because one of the benefits of yoga is increased flexibility, especially in the hips and shoulders, parts of the body that tend to get tight from swimming a lot and not stretching enough, Whiteside says. “If you’re not loosened up, freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke, and butterfly just don’t work as well,” she adds.
Another benefit is a stronger core. “Practicing yoga can teach you to engage and pull in your core, and you do the same thing in swimming,” she says. Often, “swimmers may not understand what ‘engaging the core’ really means,” she adds, but yoga can help a swimmer learn to “keep your balance in the water with a strong center.”
And then there’s body awareness. “If I’m swimming and someone is coaching me, suggesting I do X, Y, or Z with my kick or pull, I know what they’re saying, and I can put it into practice,” Whiteside says, because yoga has taught her to become more aware of her body and of its position and the muscles it’s engaging at any one time.
Yoga has helped her coaching, too. Part of practicing yoga is learning to speak authentically and meaningfully, both to oneself and to others. When Whiteside is coaching, instead of just telling a swimmer what he or she is doing wrong and how to correct it, she says, “I’ll ask, ‘Would you be open to trying something new that might change everything about your freestyle?’”
Experiencing the Stretch, Embracing the Stillness
Baptiste yoga works well for Whiteside, but she stresses that any form of yoga can benefit a Masters swimmer. Hatha yoga, for example, emphasizes stillness—the opposite of swimming laps—and calls for positions to be held for longer periods of time than in Vinyasa yoga.
Swimming injuries can come from repetitive movements, says Charles Hanford Beall, a certified hatha yoga teacher who offers one-on-one instruction, typically over Skype, through his online studio, yogasorcerer.com.
“Holding the postures a little longer,” says Beall, who has worked with many swimmers over the years, “gives the body time to settle in and experience the stretch and strengthen stabilizing muscles.”
Some of the poses Beall says he finds particularly helpful for swimmers are those with a torso twist: “Twisting helps a swimmer practice turning the torso, so that when they’re swimming in the water, they’re not keeping their torso flat and hyperextending the shoulder.”
The cow face (gomukhasana) pose is another pose Beall finds works well for swimmers, as it helps stretch and open up the shoulders. To get into this pose, reach one arm up so its bicep is beside your ear, then bend that arm’s elbow so the hand of that arm is behind your neck. Then, reach your other hand up behind your back so the fingers of your hands touch, almost touch, or hook together. One elbow will be pointing up and the other down. Hold for five to 10 deep breaths, then switch arms.
Another shoulder-stretching and -opening pose is the classic downward-facing dog (adho mukha svanasana) pose, which is found in many types of yoga and is one of Whiteside’s favorites. To get into downward-facing dog, bend over from a standing position, plant your hands on the floor in front of you (bending your knees as necessary), and walk your feet back until your body forms a triangle with the floor.
Yoga’s pranayama (breathing) exercises—which include slowing down your breath, holding it, and breathing rapidly—can help swimmers more easily control their breathing, Beall says. And the meditative aspect of yoga is great for practicing visualization, a technique swimmers often use to envision themselves swimming a race, he says.
Find What Works for You
Whether you’re a seasoned yoga practitioner or just starting to think about giving it a try, and whether you practice vinyasa yoga, hatha yoga, or any other type of yoga, the stretching, strengthening, calming, and empowering aspects of these practices can have true benefits for Masters swimmers.
If you’re new to yoga, Whiteside recommends trying a beginner’s or all-level class. If you’re hesitant to try yoga because you don’t want it getting in the way of your daily swimming routine, you can try one yoga class a week for a month and then consider how your stroke has changed during that month, she says.
Yoga can be done every day—for example, five to 10 sun salutations every morning, Whiteside says—or in a class or two a week. Sweat it out in Baptiste, embrace the stillness of hatha, or try something in between: There are so many different options, Whiteside says, that if you want to give yoga a try, “there’s very likely something out there for you.”
- Technique and Training