Research says that as many as eight out of ten swimmers suffer from some level of shoulder pain or injury during their swimming careers. If you ever get shoulder pain before or after swimming, the very first thing to check is how your hand enters into the water.
A thumb first entry, with the palm facing outwards causes internal rotation of the shoulder and impingement of the joint. This action, repeated thousands of times in training, is the leading cause of shoulder injury in swimmers:
When we're swimming we are often unaware of how our hands enter into the water so ask a friend or coach to take a look at your hand entry on both sides, particularly as you get tired when bad habits creep in. You should be entering with a near horizontal hand, with the fingertips angled slightly down to spear smoothly into the water:
This is much safer way to enter the water for your shoulders and is also better swimming technique as it immediately puts you in the right position for a great catch phase.
If you have a thumb first entry it can be a hard habit to break and will take some persistence on your part. Here's two visualisations you can use to help you get this right in your stroke:
Visualisation 1: As your arm recovers over the top of the water, imagine you are holding a briefcase in your hand. It would be very awkward to turn that hand outwards whilst holding the briefcase so lightly carry it past your head with the palm facing inwards. (Thanks to Montreal based coach Charles Couturier for this tip!)
Visualisation 2: Imagine a small fish is swimming just in front of you and you are chasing it. As your hand enters into the water try and spear the fish with a nice horizontal hand, angling your hand and fingers down into the water.
In the 1970s a thumb first entry was taught together with an S-shaped pull to give a longer pull pathway, which was believed to be more powerful. Any advantage in propulsion has since been disproved and we now understand the outward sweep at the beginning of the S shape puts a large force on the shoulder in an awkward position. Since the 1990s all elite swimmers have been taught to enter with a flat hand and pull straight backwards - it carries a much lower injury risk and it's a faster and more efficient technique:
What are your experiences of shoulder pain or injury? Is it still causing you a problem or if you are cured, how did you go about about fixing it? Let us know in the comments section here.
Relevant link: Our website page on shoulder injury.