Sore shoulders are fairly common among swimmers, and in our opinion, possibly more so among open water (O/W) swimmers.  Not because O/W swimmers swim more or have inferior technique, but due to the more intense use of arms in the open water due to two factors:

  1. In the open water there is no wall at which to pause, turn, push off every 25 metres, giving the arms a brief rest.
    (Turns can save up to 3m every length!)
  2. Especially in the current open water temp (8-9 degrees many mornings in Rinville) there is the tendency to ‘turn the arms at a faster rate’ to stay warm.

Considering this, armwork in the open water is more relentless than in the pool.  Coupled with the tendency to think less about our technique in O/W, it is even more important good technique practiced in the pool until burned into the memory banks.

OK- because none of us were in the pool for a few weeks and some not swimming at all – let me describe the textbook technique over one stroke cycle –

  • You are in the pool with fins and snorkel, stretched and streamlined, right arm extended forward, left arm extended back by your side below the swimsuit line. Face in the water, cap out of the water. Body off balance on right side – right shoulder lower than left.
    Many of you would know this as the ‘superman’ position with the right arm forward and your left shoulder up out of the water.
  • Let’s just recover the left arm.  Remember, hips drive the stroke.  By swinging our left hip forward, we recover the left arm.  Imagine a piece of twine around the crook of your elbow pulling it towards the ceiling.  Elbow high, forearm totally relaxed your arm is brought forward. Fingers gently slide into the water almost caressing it on entry, placing it alongside your right hand.
  • So far, there has been no effort expended in recovering your left arm.
  • Right arm, with fingers below wrist begins to scull then catch.  As this arm is going to work to propel you forward, you must have absolute control over what it’s doing.  Elbow must be bent at the catch – bent arm develops more power with less pressure on your shoulder than a straight arm.  Pull under tummy with the hand and forearm. Then push fully back.
  • Repeat the recovery with right arm and pull with left arm.

Think about the Galway Bay swim. 10,000 metres minimum.  Assuming each stroke propels you 1 metre – 5,000 times each arm is lifted out of the water and 5,000 times each pulls. Let’s not expend energy recovering that we can save for pulling!  Every little bit of saved energy helps.  Every wasted action hurts.

Our bodies can do amazing things.  Proper swimming technique uses the body as it is intended, moving joints and muscles in ways they were designed to be moved.  However, if a swimmer’s technique is significantly different from a ‘textbook’ swim stroke, sore shoulders can result.  Here are some areas of the stroke that can impact the shoulder:

Low elbow recovery (or straight arm recovery)

How can a low elbow recovery impact your shoulders and your efficiency swimming?

To begin with, we have unnecessarily expended energy in carrying arm through recovery.

Secondly, this recovery may lead to incorrect hand entry.  Hand may slap the water, enter flat or even worse, heel of hand enters before fingers.  Not only do these entry faults impair scull and catch, they would also cause shoulder stress or have a jarring impact on the shoulder.  Imagine trying to grasp and pull water from a flat hand and outstretched arm.  Multiply by 5,000 per arm swimming across the Bay.

What are we really trying to get across here with low elbow?

We’ve noted the primary issue here might be a low elbow to emphasize that the issue is not whether or not your arm is straight.  Whether or not a given swimmer is more efficient with any specific arm position is more related to that swimmer’s physiology rather than any so-called “perfect stroke.”  As we have noted before, each person’s stroke is their own.

The important consideration is how each of us can use our body, and its own limitations, to not only propel ourselves forward while limiting drag.

Here, the issue is how much pressure the weight of your arm (with gravity) is putting on your shoulder over time and how you support that weight.

Imagine holding a light weight in your hand with your arm extended directly out to your side.  Holding this light weight will not be hard but, if you keep it there for a few minutes while you work against gravity, you will tire out.

Now, imagine that you hold your arm up at an angle, you will notice that holding the weight is a little easier and you can do this for longer.

And, if comfortable, bending the arm not only increases this angle but shortens the distance from the weight to your shoulder.

I’m not going to get into the science about why this is.  (I’d have to use angles and calculations, and I’d rather eat cake.)  Try it just by holding up a small book, if you want.

What are we trying to get across here with entry?

To swim efficiently, we should try to get the most out of every stroke.  How our hand (and arm) enters the water has an impact on the rest of your stroke.

  • Too deep an angle, and your arm will drive down in the water, possibly losing as much as 1/3 of your possible forward pull.
  • Too shallow an angle, you might actually push water forward (and your body backward).
  • At an angle to the side, your arm will be too far outside (or inside) of your shoulders.

These are extremes, but they point out that the stroke starts with the entry of the hand in the water.  That is the starting point for the scull and pull that follows.

Pulling with a straight arm

Our hand having entered the water, if we now pull and try exert force with a straight arm, this action will also unnecessarily stress the shoulder. You will be able to exert more force and control from a bent arm pulling towards the body than a straight arm.

How is that possible?

Think about how you get out of the water in a pool.  Again, just like lifting a weight with a straight arm extended versus an angled or bent arm.

Have you ever tried to do a chin-up without bending your elbows?  I bet you haven’t.  Why not?  Because, well, very few people are probably strong enough to even attempt such a thing.  You bend your elbows, right?

Pulling yourself through the water is a lot like trying to do a chin-up, it’s just that the forces involved are significantly different.

Not rotating the body

I stated in a previous article that swimming is a dynamic activity and that all body parts contribute. Failure to have your body in the optimum position throughout the stroke cycle, especially the propulsive phase can cause undue stress to the shoulders.

Two useful rules –

  1. Right arm about to pull, right shoulder low.
  2. Right arm about to recover, right shoulder high.

Compare to a goalkeeper trying to save a shot hit towards him at speed. He aims to get his body behind the ball.
Always ensure your body is correctly aligned to take the propulsive force your arms generate.

In the future, we’ll talk more about how rotating even your shoulders can help your stroke and avoid undue pressure.

How can we strengthen our shoulders?

Paddles aren’t just torture devices.  Using hand paddles can help you not only go faster but they also help you by:

  • Increasing the pressure you exert on the water through a larger surface area,
  • Exaggerating the impact of your hand entry angle, and
  • Making it harder to control inefficient hand positions.

Use the correct paddle size (one that doesn’t put too much pressure on your shoulders) to help you get stronger and find weaknesses in your stroke.

Have we buried the lead?

A stroke that is correct for the swimmer’s physiology is important, but there is another consideration to avoid shoulder injury.  Most people usually start stretching and core exercises once they are injured (and might stop when those injuries disappear).  Stretching and other dynamic actions before and after exercising is important not only to prepare the body for activity but also to help it recover.  Consider the fact that your body is probably always injured, you might just not feel it yet.  So, take care of it and it can do amazing things!  Keep being awesome.

The detail here was provided by Coach Brian with support from Coach Seb.