The most common injury in swimming is related to the shoulders. Physiotherapists will frequently diagnose a shoulder impingement, tendinitis, or simply a repetitive strain injury and for some people they will view this as inevitable. The accumulation of shoulder rotations or pulls completed per session, per day, per week, per cycle will be in the thousands and therefore an overuse injury will occur…but does that have to be the case?
Aside from the repetitive nature of swimming, the other biggest cause of shoulder injuries is poor posture. Swimmers are notoriously bad at standing up straight. Rounded shoulders and a curved lower back are a common sight on poolsides across the world. But why?
Rounded shoulders are typically caused by tight pectoral (chest) muscles. Due to spending most of the training in the pool on your front (freestyle/ butterfly/ breaststroke), these muscles become shortened (tightened) and as the muscle connects into the shoulder, it can pull them forward. This rotation of the shoulders can cause overuse in the smaller muscles (rotator cuff) and can lead to inflammation. The inflammation in the joint means there is less room for the shoulder to rotate in the full range of motion and can lead to a shoulder impingement or tendinitis.
Many swimmers will then try to specifically stretch or massage out at the exact expression of pain. It is important to note, that where you feel the pain may not be the cause of the pain. In relation to the tight pectoral muscles, a good starting point is by spending as little as 5minutes to stretch after a session and for the older swimmers, you can also trigger point for a deep tissue release.
Now we know our pecs are prone to tightness, the other area we can optimize to help minimize the rounding of the shoulders is to strengthen the upper back. Swimmers LOVE a TheraBand exercise and for the most part, I do too. Picking 3 or 4 exercises that require minimal effort with high repetitions can help to strengthen a key area. Using the whole 15minutes of pre-pool to solely do resisted shoulder exercises is not recommended. This can cause fatigue in your shoulders before youve even entered the water whilst also decreasing your whole-body readiness to swim.
Another way to improve posture is by increasing control over the shoulder blades (scapula). Our shoulder blades should sit flat on the back and throughout most movements, they should remain flat whilst they glide out as the arm lifts and pulls through the stroke in the pool. Scapula winging occurs when the shoulder blade lifts out of the back when raising the arm. Again, TheraBand exercises can be utilized to increase strength but the easiest way to combat this is to perform simple body weight exercises in which control is the primary focus. Exercises such as scapula press ups, swimmer press ups or I-Y-W-Ts are all great examples of exercises in which the focus should be on controlling the shoulder blade.
The final talking point may seem like a leap away from the shoulders and therefore not relevant to this blog post but hear me out. The body is connected from head to toe and works together as such. Apart from swimming or sport in general, people live their days sitting down. In the car, at school, playing X-box, watching TV, eating meals. Sitting down can cause the hip flexor to shorten (tighten) and the lower back to become stretched making this cross-section our dominant line. In turn, this switches off the opposing, more important line in the glutes and core.
When the core and glutes are dis-engaged, this exaggerates the curved lower back and rounded shoulders in which swimmers so frequently exhibit. To combat this and shift the focus back to our stronger muscle groups, mobility for the hip flexors and lower back can be prioritized and activation exercises for the glutes (squats, lunges, glute bridge, clams, monster walks) and core (plank variations, dead-bugs, bird-dogs, hollow hold) can be utilized.
With all this in mind, you are probably thinking that there isnt enough time in an already busy day to tick the boxes in combatting poor posture. Working on these factors can be implemented throughout the day with becoming mindful of reducing periods of sitting down or consciously sitting up straight and engaging the core when you are.
The easiest time slot in which to have the biggest impact on posture and a positive impact on swimming is pre-pool. Many of my athletes are bored of me promoting the benefits of pre-pool. Not just as an opportunity to minimize the risk of injury but also as an opportunity to improve performance. Whilst 15minutes may seem like plenty of time, I often watch the minutes dwindling away whilst athletes solely socialize, change from school persona to athlete persona or in the mornings, see this an extra 15minutes of rest.
So, with what you have read in the above blog post, do you think your pre-pool is sufficient in keeping your shoulders healthy and improving your performance? Or can you make small changes to increase your performance outcome?