Avoid swimming shoulder problems with Swim Smooth’s Adam Young
If you’re a triathlete, the chances are that you’ve experienced shoulder pain or discomfort at some point in your swimming life. Though the culprit can be down to issues such as using hand paddles with insufficient shoulder strength or simply doing too much too soon, nine times out of 10, this will be down to your stroke technique.
Correcting your technique is not actually that difficult, but you do need to know what to look for and work diligently to improve in these areas.
If available, video analysis is a great tool for this because it really helps you identify what you personally need to work on. Otherwise, these four simple tips will help you avoid bad technique and painful shoulders.
To avoid shoulder pain, you need to develop a good, symmetrical body rotation by swimming with a bilateral breathing pattern (every three strokes). Without this you will end up swimming with a flat torso on the water’s surface, causing your arms to swing around the side during the recovery phase.
This swinging action causes shoulder joint impingement and rotator cuff issues, which could put you out of action for weeks. Try the ‘unco’ body rotation drill to help you develop good full body rotation and avoid damaging your shoulders.
Though it used to be a commonly taught freestyle technique, a thumb-first entry into the water leads to excessive internal arm rotation. When you consider that the average swimmer does about 3,200 strokes per hour, you can see why this might eventually lead to acute pain in the shoulder and an overuse injury. Instead of entering thumb first, change your technique to enter with a flat hand, fingertips spearing the water first.
Poor posture in the water can lead to shoulder impingement. This can be improved by working on flexibility in the muscles at the front of the shoulder and chest. Doing this, together with improved stabilisation of the muscles at the back of the shoulder, improves posture and removes crossover at the front of the stroke, which is something that also harms your swimming efficiency.
To introduce better posture while you swim, think ‘shoulders back, chest forward’. Improved alignment and posture means that the power of the pull phase is dramatically improved because you are now applying propulsion straight backwards, the direction that will send you forwards as efficiently as possible.
Catch and Pull Through
Without the use of video analysis, many swimmers are unaware of how they pull through under the water. Typically they will do this with either a dropped elbow or with a very straight arm. This puts excess strain on the shoulder muscles, because the majority of the pull through phase is spent pushing down on the water, rather than pressing back on it to move yourself forward.
Working to develop a high elbow catch technique with enhanced swimming posture helps you to utilise the larger, more powerful muscle groups of your chest and upper back, rather than relying upon the shoulders.
One-armed drills or swimming ‘catch-up’ – pausing with both hands in front of you before taking alternating strokes – can allow you to watch yourself and help you keep your elbow high and shoulders free from niggling injuries.