Yoga for Swimmers
Do you dream of someday breaking Michael Phelps' Olympic world records? Or are you simply planning to swim a few laps here and there in your local community pool this summer?
Either way, the following yoga poses and breathing technique may help to prevent some common swimming-related injuries and improve your aquatic performance. Add these techniques to your regular weekly routine either before or after you swim.
1. Face-Down Shoulder Stretch
If you are reading this article, you have probably heard of “swimmer’s shoulder.” It is no secret that the constant sweeping overhead movements required for many swimming techniques—such as the butterfly, backstroke, and crawl—create a risk of shoulder injuries.
A face-down shoulder stretch can help to release the elaborate web of muscles in your shoulders and chest, and may even increase your range of motion and power against the water as well.
How to Practice It
Start by lying on the ground on your belly. Place your left hand under your left shoulder with your elbow bent, and extend your right arm out to a T with the palm down.
Press your left hand into the mat as you roll onto your right side and stack your left leg on top of your right. Your right cheek can rest on the mat or a block. Aim to stack your shoulders on top of each other as much as possible.
For a deeper stretch, bend your left knee and place the sole of your left foot flat on the ground behind your right knee.
Want to go even deeper? Bend your right knee and place your right foot flat on the ground next to your left, almost as if you were setting up for bridge pose. If both hips are able to come to the ground and you want to take this one step further, you can weave your left arm behind you and clasp your hands (trying to keep your wrists at shoulder height).
Take five to ten slow, steady breaths and then release your hands if they’re clasped, and roll back onto your belly before switching sides.
Note: This can be an intense stretch, so move in and out of the pose slowly and mindfully.
2. Locust Pose (Salabhasana)
Like all athletes, swimmers need to develop a combination of strength and flexibility to gain maximum power. Locust pose is great for simultaneously strengthening and lengthening the core, spine, shoulders, chest, arms, and thighs.
How to Practice It
Lie on your belly with your arms at your sides, palms facing down, and rest your forehead on the floor. Bring your legs together, big toes touching and heels just a tiny bit apart. Reach your tailbone toward your heels to lengthen through your lower back.
On an inhale, lift your head, upper torso, arms, and legs away from the floor. Keep looking down at the ground so your neck stays long. Hug your legs together and lift them from the backs of your upper thighs; reach out through the top of your head, lift and extend your chest, and extend through your fingertips and toes. Breathe.
Stay here for thirty seconds to one minute, and then release on an exhale. Rock your hips from side to side to release your lower back.
3. Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana)
For swimmers who do the breaststroke or feel any congestion in their hips, bound angle pose is a must. It encourages a healthy external rotation of the hips and provides a deep stretch for your hips and groins, aiding in releasing tension in these areas so you can maximize your strength and range of motion with each and every kick.
How to Practice It
Come to a comfortable seated position with your legs extended in front of you. If you have tight hips or if your lower back rounds when you sit upright in this position, you may want to sit up on a block or a blanket.
Bend your knees and bring your feet to the floor so that they’re just a few inches away from your groins. Allow your knees to fall open to the sides, bringing the soles of your feet together. Keeping your spine long, bring your hands to your ankles.
Let the pull of gravity on your knees open your hips: There is no need to push your knees down or to keep the big-toe sides of the feet glued together (they may naturally splay a bit apart).
As you inhale, sit up tall; as you exhale, stay upright and focus on elongating your spine. If you are able to keep the pinky-toe edges of your feet together and open your feet like a book, you may want to consider amplifying the stretch. For an intensified version, continue to lengthen your spine as you hinge slightly forward from your hip creases. Breathe here for 30 seconds to a minute.
4. Breath Retention (Kumbhaka Pranayama)
Kumbhaka is the retention, or holding, of the breath, an essential skill for any serious swimmer. In addition to increasing your lung capacity, this technique can also help to restore your energy, increase your focus, and strengthen your diaphragm.
How to Practice It
Kumbhaka is an advanced pranayama technique, so it is best to start out slow, regardless of how much experience you have holding your breath.
Come to a comfortable seated position. Begin with ujjayi pranayama (victorious breath), breathing in and out of your nose and matching the length of your inhales and exhales (i.e., inhaling for three counts and exhaling for three counts, or whatever length feels comfortable and sustainable for you).
Take as many ujjayi breaths as you need to establish a consistent rhythm. Then begin to introduce breath retention after an inhale. Hold your breath for a count of 1, 2, or 3 to start, and then exhale completely.
Take a few regular ujjayi breaths, without breath retention, and then repeat the pranayama sequence: inhale, retention, exhale, a few rounds of ujjayi breath without retention.
Then consider suspending the breath for 1, 2, or 3 counts after the exhale as well: inhale, retention, exhale, suspension, then a few rounds of ujjayi breath without retention or suspension.
If it’s comfortable, you may start to increase the length of your breath retentions and suspensions with each round, or decrease them if they feel too long. However, if you feel like you are gasping for air, return to regular breathing.
Once you have the hang of it, practice up to ten full rounds of ujjayi pranayama with kumbhaka, and then return to regular ujjayi for about eight to ten rounds.
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Lauren Beth Jacobs is a yoga, fitness, and wellness coach who aims to help people to identify fun, realistic ways to integrate healthy practices into their hectic, everyday lives. Find out more about Lauren, from her health and wellness offerings to her favorite gluten-free recipes, and access her free tips for transforming your health, on her website, www.laurenbethjacobs.com.