I never used to enjoy swimming. I would sink like an anchor whenever I tried and would be envious of other people I saw who floated effortless through the water. Can some of you relate?
3 years ago, I began my journey into triathlon racing. At first, I could barely swim a single length of 25m without being totally gassed! Online information and videos helped me piece together an understanding of proper swim technique and slowly I got better and better.
But then I joined a Masters swim squad locally and after a few weeks of intense volume that I was not accustomed to, I got injured. A shoulder injury to be precise. Part of the reason of course was that I was not prepared to do 90-minute practices of over 3000m. But as I delved more into swimming technique, I realized that my stroke was still flawed and the combination of poor technique and excessive volume were holding me back.
Here are the 4 freestyle stroke flaws that may be hurting your shoulder as well!
- Crossing the midline – I see this alot when I observe people during lane swimming at the community centre. Imagine a line that cuts your body into equal left and right halves that extends from your head down to the feet. As your arm recovers over the water and extends forward into the catch phase of the stroke, it should not cross the midline. Instead, the arm should line up with your shoulder joint. When you cross over, you place excessive stress on your shoulder joint and can create impingement pain. If repeated hundreds of times while swimming laps, it will start to wear down on your rotator cuff tendons.
- Thumb first vs fingertips first entry – This is also commonly seen in swimmer and makes Problem #1 above even worse. A thumb-first entry results in excessive internal rotation of the shoulder further aggravating the impingement. Conversely, focusing on a fingertip entry so that the hand enters in a more neutral shoulder position will greatly help prevent shoulder problems and set you up for a more effective catch and pull.
- Pushing down on the water – Not only does pushing down with your extended arm result in a less effective pull through, it also puts a large stress on the shoulder joint. It also has the effect of lifting your head and torso up while sinking your legs down thereby creating more drag in water.
- Pulling through with a straight arm – Too much stress is placed on the shoulder joint when a straight arm is used to pull through the water. While you might think that using a ‘bigger paddle’ will be more effective, it creates more stress on your tiny rotator cuff muscles. Instead, a proper bent arm pull will engage larger muscles like your pecs and lats to help generate the pulling force. You may see some Olympic sprinters very effectively pulling with straight arms but remember you are not an Olympian with freakish body genetics! For the average Joe/Jane swimmer, sticking with safe biomechanics is a better idea.
If you have been having shoulder issues from swimming lately, then it is quite likely that there is something wrong with your stroke that is causing the problem. Have someone watch you while you swim both above the water and below to give you some critical feedback. If you can, a video recording is very instructive. A GoPro camera or even some of the latest smartphones which are waterproof can be used. When I developed my own shoulder pain from swimming it was extremely frustrating and took almost two months of minimal swimming and rehab. As always, prevention is the best medicine!
Now that I’ve fixed my own stroke flaw (I was pulling with a straight arm), I am swimming pain free with greater efficiency and for longer distances.
Athletes understand athletes…until next time!