It was June 2014 and I was 6 weeks away from taking on my biggest swimming challenge, a relay across the English Channel, and I could barely swim 4 lengths of a pool. The pain in my shoulder started as soon as I started to swim and peaked with every stroke I made. I wasn't enjoying my swimming, I was struggling with my training. I was not a happy boy!
Swimming is a great form of exercise for both physical and mental health, but my experience is typical for many swimmers at one time or another. Shoulder pain is top of the list of issues often reported by swimmers, both recreational paddlers and elite athletes, and as I found out - it's really hard to enjoy your swim when each arm rotation hurts and can even keep you out of the water altogether. Disaster!
Swimming - particularly front crawl, backstroke and butterfly - demands a great range of movement from the shoulders and upper back, movements which can lead to irritation of the tendons around the shoulder joint.
With that in mind here are my 5 top tips for pain free shoulders when swimming front crawl.
Slow increase in swim time/intensity
Internal rotation exercises
1) Build up your swimming slowly
This relates to both time and intensity of your sessions. If you are new to swimming, or are returning after a fairly lengthy lay off, like most of us will be at the moment, then start with short, easy swims. Often a sudden rise in either time or intensity of swims will trigger pain in the shoulder as the tissues are not accustomed to the work demanded of them. As a general rule if you are increasing your swimming your weekly increase should be less than 10% more than the previous weeks effort.
2)Make sure you roll your body as you swim.
Swimming front crawl demands that your arm goes from right by your side to all the way up, over your head during the recovery phase of the stroke. If your body stays flat in the water throughout the stroke there is a considerable strain on the shoulder in order to get the hand clear of the water. Ideally the body should roll to about 45 degrees so the shoulder of the arm recovering comes out of the water, reducing the strain on the shoulder to recover. Practice single arm drills to get the roll.
3) Learn to breath to both sides
This can be a toughie. These days kids are taught from an early age to breath both sides (bilateral breathing) but that certainly wasn't the case when I was learning to swim (many moons ago!). But difficult as it is to break the one sided breathing habit it is worthwhile for 2 main reasons. Firstly if you are only breathing 1 side the tendency is to roll the body only to that side, increasing the strain on the opposite shoulder. Secondly it gives you much more versatility and ability to see what is going on around you - a bonus whether you navigating a busy pool or a stretch of open water.
4) Hand entry
Many swimmers put their hand into the water in a position which will not do their shoulders and favours. As a general rule we want to minimise the time spent where the shoulder joint is at the limits of it's normal range of movement. As the hand approaches entry into the water in front of the head the arm is rotated forwards in the shoulder joint (internal rotation). 2 common hand entry positions add to this rotation and simple changes can help prevent and alleviate shoulder pain.
a. Thumb first entry - try it now - put your arm straight out and turn your hand so your thumb points at the floor. Feel the tension in your shoulder. Now imagine you are doing that with your arm straight above your head 20-30 times a minute. Instead try to get your fingers to enter first with your palm facing the water - this will reduce the internal rotation.
b. The hand enters the water past the midline of the body, so on the opposite side of the head. Again this increases internal rotation, further compressing the top of the shoulder. An ideal entry point for most swimmers is in line with the shoulder on the same side of the body. Be warned this will feel really really wide to start with - but your shoulders will thank you for sticking with it.
5) Internal rotation exercises
If you are limited in the internal rotation of your shoulder (so if you struggle to put your hand behind your back and up between your shoulder blades) so exercises to improve it would be a good idea. It is one of the movements which is really important in swimming.
Try holding a broom handle behind your back with your hands shoulder width apart then raising it up your back, keeping your back nice and straight - you will feel the stretch at the front of both shoulders and it mimics the rotation you need to keep your elbows nice and high through the stroke. Need some help? We can assess you and your range of motion and devise a bespoke plan to fit you.
So there they are - my 5 top tips for keeping shoulder pain at bay. But what if it's already there? You can try making some adjustments to your stroke - you may find it beneficial to speak to your coach or invest in some lessons.
If you need help getting out of pain and developing shoulders that are more resilient and adapted to swimming give us a call. We will be able to assess you, help you understand why you are experiencing problems and help you out of pain so you can swim free again with a smile on your face. Call on 07738017206 or book online to start your recovery.
But what about me? Some good osteopathic treatment and adjusting my training got me to a position where I could take part in the channel relay and I loved every second of it!
And the best part is that it is one of the experiences which set me on the path to this great career as an osteopath!
Enjoy your swimming!
Ian is an osteopath, experienced swimmer, a county level age group swimmer and open water swimmer.