Swimming is a healthy sport, right? True, often people are advised to take up swimming to get over an injury. There are many benefits to exercising in water – reduced impact on joints and freedom to move can really help with rehabilitation. As with all sports, balance is required. Swimming is a repetitive sport and can lead to some muscle imbalances with resulting aches and pains, or reduction in performance.
An elite swimmer will swim well over 60,000 metres in the pool PER WEEK. This means that each shoulder goes through a rotational movement over 3,000 times per session. Maybe you’re not training at that sort of intensity, but you will still be racking up those repetitive movements which can lead to issues arising, if appropriate exercises are not done to redress the balance. Look at the butterfly stroke, the range of movement required in the shoulders is massive yet has to be precise; the low back and hips must be very flexible and well controlled to get an effective kick.
Common problems that swimmers experience include stiffness in the thoracic spine (the ribcage area), poor control of the shoulderblades, reduced firing of the gluteal (bottom) muscles and tightness in calves, pectoral muscles and lats muscles (large back muscles).
If stiffness in the thoracic spine goes untreated, this can lead to the shoulders feeling more stiff and the low back becoming sore as the swimmer arches their back to try to get more shoulder movement. This can mean that they become less streamlined in the water and ultimately slow them down. A targeted exercise programme can maintain mobility in the spine and keep the swimmer strong in a streamlined position.
The shoulderblades are only attached to the ribcage by muscular connections and as a result are very dependent on these muscles working closely together to keep the shoulderblade in optimal position. This is discussed more in our previous post. In swimmers, there tends to be overuse of the upper muscles of the shoulderblades and the lower muscles become comparatively weaker. They can then get pain in any of the muscles around the shoulder, but typically in the upper shoulderblade and neck muscles. Swimming performance also suffers, as the movement of the shoulder is not properly supported by all the muscles surrounding the shoulderblades. Pilates exercises are geared towards rebalancing these muscles and retraining to make best use of all the muscles around the shoulderblade. This can improve a swimmer’s performance by helping them to generate more power around the shoulderblade which is then transferred into the arm movement and makes for a more powerful stroke.
The gluteal muscles are designed to extend the hip and contribute to the kick in swimming. If the gluteal muscles are able to fire when the leg kicks back, this helps to get all the muscles through the chain in the back of the leg working effectively and the load being equally shared between them so no area has to be overloaded. Poorly firing gluteal muscles can put additional strain on the calves and hamstrings and lead to tightness. A good programme for swimmers will help them to not only strengthen the glutes, but get the swimmer to be able to access the power in the muscles and gain good control when swimming.
Tightness in the calves is caused by holding the pointed toe position in the kick working against the resistance of the water. If the gluteal muscles are also not firing properly, the entire load of the kick can be taken by the calf; if this is not properly stretched out and supported, it is likely to become tight. The pectoral muscles at the front of the chest and lats in the back become tight with movements which pull the shoulder forward – every swimming stroke except backstroke will tighten the pectoral muscles and all strokes will tighten the lats. If the muscles around the shoulderblade are weak, this can worsen the problem, so again getting the balance between all these muscles is important. Pilates teaches good body awareness so that habitual problems can be addressed, and muscles which have become tight will be gently eased out. Within an exercise programme, myofascial release in the form of foam rolling, using spiky balls or self-massage can be effective in releasing tightened areas and should form part of a swimmers post-pool routine. Self-massage techniques such as these have been found to be more effective than static stretching in recent research.
These are not all the problems a swimmer may face and it is important for a coach to recognise when a swimmer is developing problems, ideally before they become painful, as pain can limit what the physio and swimmer are able to do in terms of rehab initially. Physiotherapy treatment will help the swimmer to rebalance muscles, become more body aware and focus on particular performance issues.
Pilates helps to benefit a swimmer in a number of ways out of the pool too. Often a swimmer will not take part in other activities and as a result will have poor body awareness, balance and co-ordination when not in the water. Pilates will teach the swimmer to improve these out of the water, but the impact on awareness and overall muscle recruitment will pay off in the water too.