Shoulders and Swimming: Help Prevent Shoulder Injuries With Proper Swim Technique

Shoulders and Swimming: Help Prevent Shoulder Injuries With Proper Swim Technique

While swimming, our upper body works incredibly hard as most of our propulsion through the water comes from our arms’ action. Back muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and spinus erectus are involved, and our core muscles such as serratus anterior, exterior and interior obliques, and rectus abdominus. Most of our arm muscles also play a critical role in swimming, but the shoulder joint muscles take on a heavy load.

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The shoulder joint enjoys a massive range of motion; in fact, it is the most mobile joint in the body. However, the joint is necessarily unstable to allow for this range of movement. This wide range of motion in the shoulder enables us to perform the intricacies of freestyle, backcrawl, and breaststroke. Robust, balanced shoulder muscles and a healthy joint are must-haves for swimming.

The shoulder is formed by the meeting of three bones: the clavicle (collar bone), scapula (shoulder blade), and the humerus (upper arm bone). Two groups of muscles serve the shoulder joint. One group attaches the upper arm to the shoulder girdle, and the other group attaches the shoulder girdle to the trunk. The deltoid, pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, teres major, and the rotator cuff muscles attach the upper arm bone to the shoulder girdle. The muscles that connect the shoulder girdle to the trunk are the rhomboids, levator scapulae, trapezius, latissisums dorsi, serratus anterior, and the pectoralis minor.  Along with these many muscles, the shoulder joint also has soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. Suffice it to say; the shoulder joint is incredibly complex, so your health care team must address any issues of pain or immobility.

If You Swim Often And For Long Distances…

It’s essential to consider these many muscles that allow us to swim a variety of swimming strokes; care for them to continue to perform at your best. If you swim often and for long distances, you must consider your shoulder joint’s repetitive action and the wear and tear you are placing on the joint. Suppose you have shoulder pain, a limited range of motion, or pain when swimming. In this case, it’s critical that you consult your health care team for an assessment. An accurate diagnosis of what is causing your pain or limiting your range of motion and a detailed recovery plan is needed so that you can get back in the water. 

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Common Injuries To the Shoulder

The rotator cuff deserves some special attention, as it is often the source of pain and injuries. A rotator cuff is actually a group of four muscles (subscapularis, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, and teres minor). Rotator cuff tears are common and are often due to normal wear and tear and repetitive movements like swim strokes. A rotator cuff injury causes weakness, pain in your shoulder while resting, pain when lifting or lowering the arms, and a cracking feeling when you try to move the shoulder in specific directions. Pain can range from being very mild to excruciating. If you think you have a rotator cuff injury, it’s essential to seek an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan from a professional.

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Common injuries to the shoulder joint that can arise from swimming include irritation and inflammation, rotator cuff tendonitis, rotator cuff tears, shoulder impingement syndrome, cartilage tears, and bicep tendonitis. How we swim matters; proper stroke technique can serve to prevent many of these injuries. If you are unsure of your technique, join a swim clinic, or take some lessons. Consider these activities as not just improving your form but also as a way to prevent injuries. Poor stroke mechanics, poor flexibility, and low motion range are common causes of injuries to the shoulder. You must also consider two other contributing factors to shoulder pain: poor posture and muscle imbalances. Consult your health care team, a physiotherapist, personal trainer, or massage therapist to help you identify which aspects of your posture needs correction and where your muscle imbalances lie. Do this before you begin to experience “swimmer’s shoulder,” and you may avoid this painful situation altogether. 

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Proper Swim Technique

Proper swim technique is critical for your performance, but it will also serve to help prevent shoulder injuries. Maintain ideal body alignment and posture while swimming, just as you should do when not swimming. 

Top 3 Action Items For Your Shoulders

  • Join a swim clinic or take some swim lessons. At Steve Wallen Swim School, our expert swim instructors will provide you with the stroke correction you may need. Video analysis will allow you to see your strokes first hand, aiding your ability to make the required stroke corrections.
  • If your shoulder is in pain or its range of motion is limited, seek guidance from your health care team and follow their treatment recommendations, particularly advice on when you may begin swimming again. Continuing to swim with a shoulder that causes pain may worsen the injury, leading to more chronic issues. However, consider swimming with legs only to maintain your cardiovascular endurance, and still enjoy the water!
  • Have a professional assess your posture, flexibility, and muscle imbalances. Correcting any issues will not only help you to swim better, but you may avoid developing any negative issues. An aligned body with balanced musculature can function optimally, in and out of the water. 

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