Top Tips,  Training and Technique

Yoga and pilates – swimming’s secret weapons

To prevent injury, improve strength and stamina and enjoy swimming as the sport for life we know it can be, one thing is certain – it’s not just about time in the water. Land training and specifically yoga and pilates, can have a big impact on swim enjoyment and performance. However, for many, knowing your eagle from your plank can feel perplexing, so I spoke to some fellow swim coaches, yoga and pilates experts for some top tips.

Yoga and pilates – why I’m a believer

Swim For Tri’s Dan Bullock says yoga and pilates, “assist in teaching and unlearning bad habits.” I couldn’t agree more. Like swimming, both disciplines require the use and engagement of numerous muscle groups at one time, rather than working muscles in isolation. They support, “Increasing and maintaining range of motion and build dynamic strength,” explains Fit and Abel’s Dan Abel; which in turn improves body awareness and helps iron out technique. For example, the ‘swimmer’s position’ in pilates helps engage the glutes and reduce knee bend and leg drop that can cause drag.

Yoga’s particular focus on breathing supports the development of breath technique, including maintaining a natural breathing rhythm whilst under pressure; be that in challenging water conditions, a race start, cold water or helping to overcome a fear of the deep.

I believe all of this contributed to me enjoying 11.5 hours of peaceful, pain free swimming, and maintaining good swim technique over the 26.4km Lake Zurich Marathon Swim last summer.

Yoga and pilates – what’s the difference?

Very briefly…



Thousands of years ago in South Asia. Many varieties – Vinyasa, Kundalini, Yin…

What are the classes like?

Mat based. Varies a lot (gentle to dynamic and powerful). Depends on the style of the teacher.

Extra Kit?

Yoga bricks or straps can support alignment.


Working the entire body – through a cycle of poses and counter poses.


Breath work to cultivate control, using a variety of techniques.


Spirituality is entwined in the practice. E.g. generally a class ends in ‘Savasana’ – lying down in a moment of stillness to meditate.



Early 1900s, by Joseph Pilates for strength and rehabilitation.

What are the classes like?

Mat based or on a reformer – a bedlike frame with a carriage that can move forwards and back and attached by springs.

Extra Kit?

Generally limited e.g. a Pilates ball.


Spinal alignment and body control with focus on driving from your core


Awareness of breath (through nose – out mouth) throughout the movements.


It can be very relaxing but the focus isn’t spiritual experience.

Which to choose?

Try both – see what you like! There’s a huge range of yoga classes and styles out there, so speak to the teacher to find a good match. The same for pilates, and where possible get a word of mouth recommendation.

The ZEST LIFE Top three poses for swimmers.

Credit Amy Bell


Builds core strength. Hold for five breaths and repeat three times. Try working one leg an inch off the ground and alternate legs if you need more of a challenge.

Credit Amy Bell

Extended side angle pose

Opening up the side waist and helps find that reach, length for the pull in the water. Engage core and let your waist fold into the supporting arm. Five breaths each side.

Credit Amy Bell

Credit Amy Bell

Eagle pose

A stretch for upper and lower body and a great shoulder and upper back stretch. From standing, stretch your arms out forward, palms facing in, cross your right arms over your left at the elbow joint. Bend your elbows, and bring your forearms up vertically, wrapping the forearms round one another until your palms touch. You want no gaps between your arms. Then raise your crossed arms up so your elbows are in line with your eyes. Hold for five breaths, then unravel and repeat on the other side.

The Zest Life run yoga and wild swim retreats in Anglesey, Wales

111 Pilates top 3 pilates moves

Swimming 1


Lie flat on the mat and extend your arms in front of you and legs behind. Maintain a neutral spine as you lift the arms, legs and head hovering off the floor, as you inhale and exhale you scissor kick the arms and legs.

Scapula 1

Scapular isolations

Laying on a mat with your spine in a neutral position, inhale as your shoulder blades glide across with your arms moving towards the ceiling and then exhale as they glide back towards the spine.

Long Stretch

Long stretch (reformer)

With a neutral spine in a plank position, push the carriage away on the inhale and exhale to return – works all the muscles through the body to maintain the position, plus focus on the scapular muscles for the movement action. are a Pilates Studio based in South East London, offering mat and reformer classes and 121 lessons

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