The Shoulder Pain Checklist

So now the festive season has finished, you're probably starting to think a little about the next season ahead and what you can do to get yourself off to a flying start. It has been estimated that 80% of the adult swimming population will suffer from some degree of shoulder pain during their swimming life to the extent that it might cause you to stop swimming for one or more sessions at a time.

As you may have read from our popular blog post Is Your Swim Fitness in a Permanent State of Snakes and Ladders? anything that causes disruption to the consistency of your training is well worth addressing, especially when this particular issue of shoulder pain management is relatively easy to fix with a few key areas to remain aware of whilst you're swimming.

We've discussed the causes of shoulder pain in various posts (e.g. here and here) in the past but today we wanted to just focus on four points which we'll call our "Shoulder Pain Checklist" that you can easily incorporate into any session from today as you swim.

These simple points will be especially beneficial to you if you start to feel some discomfort. With the estimate that 80% of us will experience some shoulder pain when swimming at some point in our lives, the chances are you've already experienced some discomfort. So let's get cracking!

The Shoulder Pain Checklist

As soon as you feel any discomfort, try these in order:

1) Check your stroke for a thumb-first hand entry and/or a midline cross-over as you enter into the water - the two leading causes of shoulder soreness in swimming. Your hand entry should be finger-tips first and for the middle finger to be extending forwards in front of the same shoulder, not across. Watch this video clip for a great demo of how to do this properly:

2) Whichever shoulder is giving you trouble, try breathing more frequently to that side for several hundred meters. This will force you to rotate better to that side and consequently reduce some of the pressure on that shoulder. Even just being conscious of rotating more to that side will help.

3) Try shortening the stroke just a smidgen (5cm less reach - whilst hardly noticeable - can make a big difference for those with overly long strokes), spearing a little deeper and elevating the stroke rate just a touch puts little less load through each stroke cycle.

Many swimmers have been taught - or led to believe - that by actively gliding at the front of the stroke they will be more efficient. Unfortunately this stochastic stop-start type of stroke leaves the shoulder in a very vulnerable position stretched out under load in front of the head in full shoulder flexion. Swimmers who wait patiently with their hand out in front of the head until the next stroke almost catches up tend to be in a totally flattened body roll position by the time they commence the catch. This puts significant stress on the rotator cuff muscles and is exactly what we want to minimise. Even if you don't feel like you have any pause-and-glide in your stroke, try spearing a little deeper and lifting the stroke rate, you might be surprised how much this will help.

4) Try straightening the arm a touch during the recovery phase over the top of the water rather than aiming for the classic high elbow recovery with the elbow pointed to the sky and the finger tips trailing over the surface of the water. Whilst this goes against conventional wisdom, a straighter arm recovery for many swimmers with reduced flexibility and less experience in the water can actually be more efficient and less injurious to the shoulder. Combine a slightly straighter arm with a focus on loose shoulders and good mobilisation of the shoulder socket.

Remember, most swimmers do experience some degree of shoulder fatigue / soreness at some point in their swimming lives so rather than thinking of this as a fact of swimming life, take the steps above to counter the problem as soon as it starts occurring.

Of course booking in for a 1-2-1 video analysis session with one of our Swim Smooth Certified Coaches is not only the best way to improve your speed and efficiency but also the best way to identify and correct issues in your stroke that can cause injury - highly recommended for anyone experiencing any level of pain.

Here's to a great season - Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
Will you please clarify what you mean by this: "...a totally flattened body roll position..." Thank you.

Paul said...

If you lay face down in the water your body would be considered to be in a totally flattened position relative to the aim to rotate along the long axis of the spine by 45-60 degrees. Those who swim with a catch-up style will typically be totally flat when they commence the catch as each hand waits for the other to catch up. As elite swimmers do not leave their lead hand extended so long they actually commence the catch in a rotated position and as such are much more effective at engaging the larger muscle groups of the lats and pecs to do generate propulsion rather than just the deltoids and triceps.

Rudolf said...

May i add my 5 cents worth of input to this article?

While swimming at the Canadian olympian swimmer HQ in Saanich, BC i once asked their coach exactly this question.
He's reply was "it might not even be from swimming"!

I have to agree with the experiences i have made since than.
I get more shoulder pain from endless hours on the pc or from sleeping in an uncomfortable position in a bed that is not very posturepedic or has lousy pillows that do not support the neck (and thus the shoulders) properly.

In the end a bad swimming style will just aggregate the situation.

Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,
Thank you for your reply about the flat body position. To help me understand further, can you please say which frame number on Mr. Smooth (free version) corresponds to the "commencement" of the catch. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Hi Anaonymous- its frame 133, I hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

Annie, Paul,
I'm thinking about this statement a little more: "Swimmers who wait patiently with their hand out in front of the head until the next stroke almost catches up tend to be in a totally flattened body roll position by the time they commence the catch. This puts significant stress on the rotator cuff muscles..."

Why does this create more stress? Is it because you're not using all of the body rotation as part of the catch/pull force (and are instead relying on the shoulder muscles)? So you're using muscle to make up for lost momentum?

It seems that the same muscle groups are engaged regardless of your body roll position when you commence the catch, but if you commence the catch when "flat" you recruit more muscle force to make up for squandered momentum.

What do you think?

Unknown said...

Hi Anonymous,

I think you're kind of confusing yourself a bit here- try this for me- stand opposite a friend square on with your arm straight and lifted and shoulder height, try to push down on your friends hand with yours- notice the muscles you have to tense. You'll notice its impossible to achieve a proper catch position like this (since your shoulder joint requires your body to be rotated to do properly in any case). Then try rotating your body to 45 degrees (the amount of rotation you should have when you initiate the catch while swimming), then again catch the water now with a bent elbow, notice the muscle groups you are now recruiting (lats and trapezius rather than deltoids). Give it a try and that should answer your questions! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Annie, Paul,

I think you're correct that the arm position relative to the body at the commencement of the catch recruits different muscle groups. But by the time you're into the "pull" portion of the stroke, arguably where the most force is generated, the arm is again nearly perpendicular to the body. So while the lats and traps are involved in the catch, the pull seems to be primarily shoulder driven – or at least as much shoulder driven whether you begin the stroke flat or rotated.

So I think you're correct about the flat vs. rotated, but not for the reasons you postulate. The loss of momentum seems to contribute significantly more to the equation than you're accounting for.

By the way, I'm not an over-glider trying to justify my over-gliding. I'm more or less a "smooth." And I have the DVD and the book, so I know the images and footage where you demonstrate the arm straight out vs. rotated. Even then, those are more a demonstration of the benefits of a bent elbow once the arm is closer to head level.

Thank you for your attention and consideration.

By the way, when are you going to do a few clinics in the US?



Unknown said...

Hi Anon,

Yes this is a demonstration of the same point. We said: (overgliding).. leaves the shoulder in a very vulnerable position stretched out under load in front of the head in full shoulder flexion..which puts significant stress on the rotator cuff muscles and is exactly what we want to minimise.

This means with your arm straight above your head you're straining your shoulder muscles when trying to catch like that.

We hope to run some clinics in the US in the next year or so, thanks.

Unknown said...
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