By: Micha Shaw, in partnership with Jolyn
A consistent yoga practice can have amazing physical benefits for swimmers, such as improved flexibility, mobility and strength. As athletes that repeatedly perform the same movements, day in and day out, its’s important to bring awareness to our movement patterns and incorporate exercise into our training that can help us perform and stay injury free. Although the physical benefits of yoga for swimmers is immense, it’s the mental benefits that I think have the most potential to enhance performance.
Yoga can help athletes strengthen their mindset by increasing awareness, mind-body connection, focus and resilience. It is also a great practice to help alleviate and respond to stress, both physical and mental.
A couple things to consider as you start your yoga journey:
- Props are your friend! You are not cheating by using props, and they do not mean that you are weak or bad at yoga. Props help you perform the poses safely and effectively.
- There is no prize for forcing yourself into a pose. We all have different limitations and abilities. Listen to your body, and respect what it is telling you!
- Focus on your breath. Notice the quality of your breath. If you are holding your breath, or it feels restricted in a pose, you have gone too far. See if you can pull back, readjust and slowly move deeper by extending the length of your exhales.
*** I intentionally did not cue the breath with movement. I find that sometimes with beginners it can be overwhelming to link breath and movement cues. So to start, just breath. As you become more familiar with your yoga practice you can incorporate more specific breath work.
Our feet are easy to ignore; however, they are integral to our swimming success. Flexible, mobile ankles help propel you through the water with a strong kick, and the mobility of your big toe plays an important role in the range of motion of your ankles. Also, because the foot position is the opposite of dolphin and flutter kick, it provides a nice counterbalance, especially if you are prone to foot cramps.
The toe stretch targets the muscles and connective tissue on the sole of the foot.
How to perform:
Come onto your hands and knees and tuck your toes under. Don’t forget your little toes, they sometimes need help to tuck under. Gently sit your hips back over your heels and walk your hands towards your knees. Option to stay here with your hands on the floor. To progress, sit upright with your hands on your thighs and the entire weight of your body on your heels. Sit up tall and breathe.
Note: this pose can be intense! At first, maybe you can only sit for 5 breaths and that is okay. Start from where you are and build up to 1-2 minutes. There is a big difference between discomfort and pain. If you feel sharp pain in your knees, ankles or feet please stop.
Cow Face Pose variation
The repetitive nature of swimming can create muscles imbalances, especially around the shoulder joint. Cow Face Pose stretches the muscles around the shoulder with a combination of internal and external rotation. Notice if you feel a difference between sides and avoid this pose if you have a rotator cuff injury.
How to perform:
Sit in a comfortable seated position. For extra ankle mobility practice, you can sit on your heels with the tops of your feet flat on the floor. I chose to sit in a variation of hero’s pose, sitting on a block with my knees together and my feet slightly wider than my hips. Choose a seated posture that allows you to sit up tall, with a nice long spine.
Reach your arms out to the side, parallel to the floor. Externally rotate your left arm, palm facing forward, thumb pointing up. Internally rotate your right arm, palm facing behind you, thumb pointing down. Left arm reaches up, bending at the elbow to bring your left hand in between your shoulder blades, palm facing your back. Right arm reaches down, bending at the elbow to place the hand (palm facing away from you) in between the shoulder blades. If possible, clasp your hands. If your shoulders are tight, I highly recommend using a strap to extend your reach. Hold for 10 breaths, and then repeat on the opposite side.
Extended Puppy Pose
Extended puppy pose stretches the spine, upper back, shoulders, and opens the chest.
How to perform:
Start in all fours – shoulders stacked over wrists, hips over knees. Tops of your feet evenly pressing down. Walk your hands out in front of you as you bring your forehead down onto the mat. Keep your hips stacked over your knees. Arms actively reach out in front of you, at least shoulder distance apart. If your shoulders are sensitive or tight, keep your hands slightly wider. Hands press down into the mat. Biceps roll out, triceps move in to help create a broadening in the upper back. Chest melts down toward the mat. Hold for 5-10 breaths.
***if your forehead doesn’t touch the mat…no problem! Keep your neck and head in line with your spine, ears in-between upper arms. Option to use blanket or block to rest your forehead on.
Low Lunge variation
This is my favorite lunge variation to open up the front of the hip. It’s simple and easy to incorporate into a quick after-practice recovery session.
How to perform:
Come into a low lunge with your right leg forward, both hands on your hips. Hips stacked over your left knee. Draw your tailbone down and gently engage your left glute. Keep your spine long, lower belly drawing in, crown of your head reaching up toward the sky. Press your hips forward, maintaining the lift in your pelvis and the slight glute engagement. Reach your right hand forward, pressing the back of your hand into your knee/thigh. Resist the pressure from your hand by pressing your thigh into your hand (this is a VERY minor engagement, and your knee should remain stacked over your ankle). Left arm reaches up and over to the right. Stay here for 5-10 breaths, repeat on the opposite side.
Supine Bound Angle Pose
Okay, if you are only going to try one pose…let it be this one! This is my favorite, hands down. Supine Bound Angle Pose stretches the inner thighs and opens the hips and chest.
How to perform:
Start in a seated position, place the bolster behind your hips/back. Bring the soles of your feet together, knees open, blocks under your thighs. Carefully lie down on the bolster. Arms open out, shoulder height, palms face up.
Make any adjustments to help yourself feel completely supported…add extra support under the thighs if you feel any strain in the hips. If lying on the bolster is too intense for your back, or you are unable to relax your arms onto the ground…remove it!
Ideally stay for 3-5 minutes, paying particular attention to your breath. Notice if you can release a little deeper with each exhale. Enjoy!
Micha Shaw is a former Division I college swimmer for Cal State Berkeley, and swam on the USA National Open Water Swim Team. She is now working on her master’s degree in sports psych and is a certified Yoga Instructor. She focuses on teaching athletes how to strengthen their mindset through yoga, mindfulness and meditation. Learn more about Micha through her Instagram: @michashaw.