Swimming Injuries in the Triathlete

With triathlon season just around the corner, you may be gearing up to start those 5am workouts in the pool.  Before you dive right back into your swimming routine, you may want to consider if your stroke technique is up to par.  Swimming workouts vary from just a few laps a week by recreational swimmers, to miles spent in the pool by elite athletes.  As the workloads increase, some swimmers reports symptoms in their shoulders. Shoulder injuries are most common in female swimmers, with a prevalence of 40% to 80% of swimmers experiencing some sort of shoulder pain during training season.  In order to minimize risk for injury during swimming, it’s important to understand the basic biomechanical principles of swimming and possible errors in technique that may lead to certain shoulder injuries.

The major stroke phases of freestyle include the pull, recovery, and body roll phase during which various shoulder, scapular (shoulder blade), and core muscles work in symmetry to pull the body seamlessly through the water.  During the pull phase of freestyle, the powerful chest and back muscles, including the pectorals, latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, and subscapularis contract to sweep the arm past the body.  During the recovery phase, a smaller group of shoulder muscles commonly referred to as the rotator cuff tendons contract to reposition the arm in preparation for another pull phase.  The body roll assists in both the pull and the recovery phases of the stroke in order to maintain a streamlined position.

One common error noted in the technique of many triathletes is relying on the force generated at the shoulders and with the kick during the pull phase.  This can result in increased drag leading to an inefficient recovery phase.  The key to linking the pull phase to the recovery phase is a properly timed body roll.  The body roll not only assists the breathing action and the recovery phase, but also helps to place the strongest part of the arm pull over the center of mass, resulting in more force generated during the pull phase.  If a swimmer does not have a synchronous body roll and relies heavily on just pulling and kicking, it puts them at a higher risk for shoulder injuries due to the significant muscle imbalances between the large chest/back muscles compared to the smaller muscles of the rotator cuff.  Without an appropriate body roll the shoulder is placed in a position of impingement that if performed repeatedly, can result in rotator cuff tendonitis, or even a potential rotator cuff tear.  This will certainly limit your laps in the pool, as well as ability to be competitive.

So how do you train with better technique and avoid a season ending injury? First of all, biomechanics are key, so knowing, observing and practicing proper technique is paramount to minimizing the risk for shoulder injury.  Dry land or gym training is beneficial to address muscular imbalances with a focus on rotator cuff strengthening and scapular stabilization exercises.  Exercises that target these areas promote scapular retraction during the recovery phase and minimize the position of impingement, which is highly related to common overuse injuries of the shoulder.  Finally, don’t ignore pain; pain is always a cue that something is wrong.  So if you have had pain in the past with swimming, or are currently having pain, it may benefit you to be evaluated by a physical therapist.  A physical therapist is a biomechanical expert and can determine if there are significant muscular imbalances that can be addressed by a specific exercise routine that can be provided and progressed within a few visits of physical therapy.  Don’t hesitate to get your tri-season off to a great start and minimize your risk for injury today!

Contribution by: Jacqui Gooden, PT, DPT – Timberlake Office

For more information on how you can be assessed or if you would like a free 10-minute consultation over the phone to determine what services are right for you, call 1-855RACV4PT today!

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