Swimming is a unique form of exercise in that it provides a full-body workout without putting stress on the joints. Those with aching knees or other physical limitations can swim freely in the water, making it the ideal way to stay in shape. As beneficial as it is, swimming does come with its own set of caveats.
Spending too much time in the water without supplemental training can cause over-development of some muscle groups while ignoring others. Low bone density is sometimes another common side effect of low-impact exercises like swimming. Just like a spring gets its force from resistance, the body cannot get stronger without significant stress on the bones and muscles. Yoga benefits swimmers of all levels as it builds up oft-ignored muscle groups, and strengthens bones with high-resistance movements.
Dryland training — or cross-training — is essential not only for competitive swimmers, but recreational swimmers as well. Swimmers tend to overdevelop the front of the body by overusing three of the four basic strokes (freestyle, butterfly, and breast). The resulting weakened rhomboids — which are opposite the pectorals — cause a muscle imbalance which can lead to injury.
Cross-training with yoga accentuates a swimmer's strengths, while shoring up their weaknesses. The gravitational resistance offered by yoga is critical in building strength and flexibility. Among other things, yoga can provide:
- Increased flexibility
- Improved kicking power
- Greater stamina
- Sharper mental focus
- Stronger core muscles
- Shorter recovery times
- Decreased chances of injury
- Increased breathing capacity
No other activity can boast the kind of respiratory awareness that yoga does. With specifically designed breathing exercises, called pranayama, yoga is an effective way to bring greater awareness and regularity to a swimmer's breathing. It's no secret that efficient, purposeful breathing will improve performance underwater, but achieving this is the challenge.
Swimmers strive for symmetry in every motion; in every stroke. Breathing is often an overlooked aspect as swimmers focus on increasing kicking power or upper body strength. Not alternating sides can eventually create an imbalance in respiratory function. Here, yoga can play a huge role in encouraging bilateral breathing. Through heightened respiratory awareness and improved lung capacity gained from practicing yoga, bilateral breathing will come much more easily.
A swimmer with a strong respiratory system should be able to take shallow or deep breaths, and breathe quickly or slowly. Consider a typical breathing rhythm in which a swimmer inhales before submerging while using the extended exhalation to power the stroke. On the other hand, yogis exert on the inhalation and relax on exhalation. Combined, each breathing practice can bolster the other, and help develop more robust respiration.
Swimmers and yogis alike are savvy about using breath to move the body. Thus, by increasing the VO2 max — the measure of aerobic capacity — a swimmer can vastly improve performance in the water. Through vigorous pranayama practice a swimmer can increase this VO2 max, thus pumping more oxygenated blood to hardworking muscles.
In each of the examples below, the yoga asanas — poses — will target a different set of muscles as part of a full-body workout. Before you start, pick up some apparel and a mat that will help you get ready for each pose. Since each pose is stationary, swimmers can shift some attention to their breathing to increase respiratory awareness. These poses are gentle, yet effective enough to be used as a warm-up or a cool-down.
Extended Side Angle Pose
The Extended Side Angle Pose — parsvakonasana — is a full-body strengthener that targets the shoulders, back, legs, and abdominals. This pose will:
- Relieve stiffness in the shoulders and back
- Strengthen legs and abdominals
- Loosen hip flexors and stretch abdominals
- Improve body alignment
Side Plank Pose
The Side Plank Pose — vasisthasana — improves upper body strength and overall balance. Swimmers can use this to:
- Strengthen wrists, forearms, and shoulders
- Tone core muscles
- Improve balance and body alignment
Upward Bow Pose or Wheel Pose
The Upward Bow Pose (sometimes called the Wheel Pose) — urdhva dhanurasana — opens the entire body including the spine, shoulders, chest, back, and thighs. It is both an extremely challenging and therapeutic pose, and can:
- Stimulate the lungs, thyroids, and pituitary glands
- Stretch major muscles such as the shoulders, chest, back, and thighs
- Correct the common "swimmer hunch" by strengthening the back and improving posture
- Help relieve stress and improve asthma conditions
Recovery, an important aspect for swimmers of any level, is the main focus of the Bridge Pose — sarvangasana. Aside from strengthening the neck, the bridge pose can:
- Reduce stress and anxiety
- Open up the neck and chest
- Strengthen the glutes and hamstrings
Why Not Yoga?
Swimmers have a wealth of options for dryland training, and while yoga isn't necessarily right for everyone the benefits are undeniable. Also, since it requires minimal equipment, yoga can be practiced almost anywhere: On the pool deck, at the gym, in the living room. By strengthening injury prone areas such as the shoulders, improving breath control, and increasing flexibility, yoga addresses many of swimmers' most common complaints. No other type of cross-training can offer the kind of therapeutic and corrective training yoga does. On top of that, yoga's low-impact nature makes it the perfect in-season training. The real question is, "Why not yoga?"