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Yoga and Swimming, by Guest Author and World Champion Haley Cope
A training secret you should use
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"Some coaches think activities like yoga or stretching are not good for athletes. They could spend the time other ways, like in the pool doing more laps, or in the weight room getting stronger. They claim that extra flexibility, beyond that which happens naturally, is not needed and may even lead to injury."

What do you think? Do you think stretching has helped athletes?

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About Yoga

Haley CopeIf you have ever watched a good swimmer, one of the first things you might notice is their ease and grace. Their movements are smooth, balanced, and fluid; it looks as if they are exerting very little effort, while those around them struggle to keep pace.

The reason for this is not that they are naturally gifted and do not have to try; they are working as hard or harder than everyone else in the race is. The reason their swimming appears to be so easy stems from coordination of muscle, breathing, and body, letting them focus their energy in the right places instead of expending it unnecessarily. Yoga can help you learn to develop this coordination, too!

My experiences with Yoga

My first experience with Yoga was during my junior year of high school. My coach and I decided to eliminate morning practices and insert yoga in their place. We thought it would be an extension of stretching, a big help towards increasing my swimming efficiency (it was also very funny to watch my coach lose his balance and pitch over onto the floor).

Both of us really enjoyed the experience, but ultimately decided that we were moving on to try other things. I think this decision had to do with the instructor and the class atmosphere. The class was designed for an older crowd who wanted a good stretch to start their day. While I also wanted that stretch, I decided it was something I could do on my own, at home.

My next experience with Yoga occurred while I in college at CAL. Part of our swim team's cross-training included Yoga. This time, my instructor, Devon, did not teach only yoga; he knew about spinning dance, weightlifting, and just about every other fitness activity known to man. In addition, he knew what we wanted in a Yoga class. He explained the poses, coached us through them, and helped us apply what we were doing to our activities in the pool.

What I have learned from Yoga

Yoga can be hard - but it also can be relaxing - It does not have to be all stretching and meditation, which many people think of when they hear the word Yoga. I have found that means that muscles all over your body are straining to hold the various positions. However, it does not have to be quite as hard as it seems. Yoga teaches you to relax all of the muscles that are not specifically needed to hold the pose. This helps you to conserve energy by not using all of those unnecessary muscles and put it towards the muscles that need it.

Breathing is an important part of Yoga - and swimming - Everyone knows that breathing is important. Without it we would die! Devon taught us to breathe using the lower part of our lungs, especially when we are holding a difficult pose. Focusing on breathing gave me something to think about other than the pain that I might be experiencing. It also helps me get more oxygen, which in turn helps my struggling muscles. The same thing happens in the water. By picking a breathing pattern, and sticking with it, I can use all of my lungs, and focus on something other than the strain of the race or practice. I have found that with this comes a calmness that helps hold my stroke together longer - and results in improved times.

Arms can be strong - but your belly is stronger - Maintaining tension through the core muscles of your body can help take some of the stress off the little muscles that you are using. The same applies to swimming. One of the reasons that some people get more distance for every stroke is because they are not using just their biceps, triceps, and hands to move themselves through the water. They have connected the various muscles in their arms to their core body muscles and are using these much stronger muscles to do a lot of the work. Lat and oblique muscles are bigger and stronger than deltoids, biceps, and triceps - and can maintain your pace during a race for a lot longer than arms alone.

Yoga develops your sense of balance - both on land and in water - Balance can help you get through just about anything. In Yoga, balance is important for holding various positions. Similarly, your balance in the water can help you be more streamlined. By pushing your chest (or your back for backstroke) down, you can get your hips to ride much higher in the water. This reduces how much of your body is dragging through the water. You can pull with less effort to go the same speed. However, you have to hold your core muscles tight, otherwise you are just burying your head, causing more drag.

Flexibility is good for swimming - and Yoga makes it better - Finally, yoga helps with flexibility. Yoga involves a lot of stretching. The extra flexibility developed through practicing yoga applies directly to swimming. The more flexible your shoulders, arms, legs, hips, and feet are, the easier you will be able to kick, recover your arms, and execute a proper hand entry. Your body parts will move more smoothly and require less effort in the process.

I believe Yoga has made me a much better swimmer. I hope you can add it to your workout regimen and develop a smooth, effortless stroke, too. At least it will look effortless to those that do not know the secrets of Yoga!

Haley Cope

remember to consult a physician before beginning any fitness regimen

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