Swimming is a fascinating sport. It is not a sport where you can simply put your brain on the shelf and just “go.” To excel at the sport you must be in tune with your body, what it is doing, where it is at in space, and anticipate the next movement. You must work with the water to move through it, not against it. It is a sport where your limbs must work with your body to rotate, glide, and propel your land-based life form through a liquid medium. The water creates a challenging environment for your body. Your visual, vestibular, respiratory, circulatory, muscular, and gastro-intestinal systems are all challenged in this gravity-reduced, hydrostatic pressure-filled setting.
My two previous blogs discussed what we can think about to manage the stimuli of running and cycling. Being a triathlete, it naturally begged the question: what aspects of the swimming environment may challenge our body and make it prone to injury and/or decreased performance? Like the running and cycling blogs, this is not an article about swim technique and how to improve it. There are plenty of resources out there on that. If you are serious about improving your swimming, or are new to the sport, I would highly recommend working with a swim coach. If you are in the Northern Colorado area, I would suggest Coach Eric Nielson. He is overflowing with swimming knowledge. The intent of this blog is to discuss the challenge that the water environment places on our body, how it may lead to injuries, and what we can do to counter-act the negative effects of the aquatic environment.
I spend a lot of time (too much?) thinking about what sort of things we expose ourselves to that are unnatural. Whether it be types of food, modern conveniences, visual stimuli from computers and smartphones, clothing and footwear, or athletic pursuits, we are constantly causing stress on our body that it somehow has to manage in some way. One could argue that Homo sapiens have evolved to depend on gravity for proper bodily function. Our vestibular, digestive, and musculo-skeletal systems all need gravity to properly function. Sure, water may be one of the most important external factors needed for human survival. In fact, 50-75% of our bodies are made up of water! Our food sources rely heavily on H2O. Nations’ economies depend on it and wars are fought for it. However, are we really meant to spend copious amounts of time swimming in it? What kind of stress does the aquatic environment put on our body?
The sport of swimming has a lot of abnormal forces on our body that many other sports do not have. For one, swimmers are often face down for hours on end as they use their arms to pull through space. Breathing is often paradoxical in these athletes as they inhale through their mouth and out their nose (opposite of proper “land breathing”). These athletes often develop back muscles that are too strong because of the position in the water, pulling forces from the arm, and from their breathing mechanics. These overly-powerful back muscles often lead to improper shoulder mechanics and pain, tight hip flexors, tight calves, and overactive neck muscles. Let’s break down the common challenges of the swimming stimuli and how we may address it and balance out the abnormal stresses swimming may cause.
1. Swimmers are hyperinflated. The combination of inhaling through your mouth and out through your nose creates a hyper-inflated animal. Additionally, increased air in the thorax will make the swimmer more buoyant. The swimmer may try to keep this state of inhalation so that they can glide easier in the water. A constant state of inhalation will alter the rib position and thus shoulder mechanics. It will increase back tone and tension as well as neck tightness as neck muscles continue to pull up on the ribs to bring in more air.
FIX: EXHALE! It is my humble opinion that all swimmers (especially youth swimmers) need to begin and end their swim workout with exhalation exercises. We use balloons in the clinic to teach people to exhale and help develop “exhale muscles.” Someday in the future, swim equipment on deck will be a pull buoy, paddles, flippers, and a bag of balloons.
2. Swimmers have back muscles that are too strong. The position of swimming (facedown) forces us to use our back muscles to maintain a stream-lined position in the water. Pulling our arms through the water forces us to over-develop our latissimus muscles (yes, the same muscle that contributes to the coveted “V” shape torso of a swimmer). Overdeveloped back muscles can lead to back pain on land, negatively affect our shoulder mechanics, and push us into an extended position on land. This extended position forces our pelvis to tilt forward, ribs to flare up, and necks and head to move forward. We often see high school swimmers injured as they transition to track immediately after the swim season. Most will be in the clinic with calf issues, shin splints, or back pain due to this extended position .
FIX: FLEX! In addition to blowing up balloons to decrease hyper-inflation, swimmers need to flex. We need to perform full squats and breathe to stretch or inhibit our back muscles and to counter-act our extensor tone.
3. Lack of proper thoracic mobility and rotation. Tight back muscles and hyperinflation often lead to poor thoracic mobility and rotation. This often forces swimmers to breathe to one side and they become unilateral-extended animals. Lack of rotation and mobility negatively affects shoulder mechanics and increases extensor tone.
FIX: ROTATE! Practice breathing to both sides and get to a point where you breathe comfortably to each side. This may require some dry land exercises to improve thoracic mobility and rotation.
4. Swimmers develop powerful hip flexors. Kicking properly (from the hips) requires us to engage our hip flexors to create the kicking force. This over-develops and tightens our hip flexors, which further encourages a forwardly-tilted pelvis and tight back muscles. Over active hip flexors will negatively affect our movement on land, especially if we are transitioning to running like triathletes and many high school athletes.
FIX: Ditch the board for kick sets. This encourages way too much hip flexor and back muscle activation. Do your kick sets on your back and sides. Kicking on your side (alternate between both sides!) will allow you to be in less back extension and will give you a better “feel” for the water. On dry-land work on techniques to encourage exhalation and back stretch to help decrease hip-flexor over activation.
So there you have it. Those are likely the top four challenges that our body goes through with swimming and some brief descriptions of ways we try to address those stresses. Whether a swimmer comes in for shoulder issues, back pain, neck pain, or calf pain and cramping they all need to address similar issues. They all need to exhale, flex, rotate, and inhibit over-active extensor muscles to be happy mammals on land and water.