Why Do You Get A Sore Neck From Swimming?

Do you experience neck pain during or after swim sessions? What can you do about it? Neck pain is not often talked about in swimming but is very common issue and can be annoyingly persistent, especially for those quite new to the sport.

Fortunately the reasons for this discomfort are easy to understand and the fix is pretty straightforward. Combine the simple visualisations below with a little perseverance on your part and you will be sliding through the water pain free in no time!

Why Do I Get Neck Pain?

One of our favourite sayings at Swim Smooth is: If something's going to go wrong in your stroke, it'll go wrong when you breathe. And that's definitely true when it comes to the cause of neck pain!

When you go to breathe, you should keep your head low in the water, looking across the surface of the pool (more on this below) but if you are not too confident about taking a clear breath of air, the tendency is to lift your face further and further towards the sky:

For this swimmer twisting the head like this places a large strain on the neck which over time leads to soreness in the neck and the trapezius muscles.

As well as this, the lead arm will have a tendency to drop down in the water, giving you little support and only adding to the anxiety of not being able to breathe. A classic problem for all you Bambinos out there:

If this sounds familiar to you then what can you do to stop your head looking towards the sky as you breathe?

Use The Bow Wave!

As you move through the water a bow wave develops around you, lowering the depth of the surface around the side of your head. This creates a trough providing you with the perfect position to take a breath without altering your body position in the water too much. Physics at its finest:

Notice the shape of the bow wave created around your head, aim to breathe into the trough at position A. 

When you breathe you simply rotate your body and head to position A, and take a breath. We often get our swimmers to imagine they are breathing out of the side of their mouth like Popeye (as seen in the picture below) to encourage them to keep their head even lower in the water. This keeps the head better in line with the body reducing stress on the neck:

Swim Smooth Coach, Steve Bailey, perfectly demonstrating his 'Popeye Breathing' technique. 

Grasping this concept can be a real challenge for many swimmers especially if they experience anxiety when their head is underneath the water. Here's a great exercise to help:

Ask a friend or coach to walk alongside you on the pool deck as you are swimming. As you turn to breathe look towards your coach/friend's feet, it will help keep your head low in the water and gives you something to focus on whilst you are swimming.

Looking for your coach's feet when taking a breath is a great drill to keep your head in the right position

Note this only works in a flush-deck pool where the deck is at the same level as the surface!

As you can see in the video, the swimmer's head remains low in the water and dramatically reduces the twist and strain on their neck. Practise this a few times and once you get the hang of it, simply imagine your friend's feet walking on water alongside you whenever you need a reminder.

Don't forget we have plenty of other drills to help with your breathing technique in the fault fixers section of our Swim Smooth Guru. In fact there's a proven step-by-step process to follow for every classic stroke fault:

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Is Photoshop Harming Your Stroke Technique?

Manufacturers of swim suits, goggles, wetsuits and swimming gadgets love to show us great underwater images of their products in action:

And here's a fantastic promo shot of one of our favourite swimmers Becky Adlington:

Shots like these are beautiful and remind us how lucky we are to do a sport where we get to spend quality time in a wonderfully different environment. But is there something wrong with these shots, something that actually harms our own swimming?

Take a look at this shot of Becky when she's actually going about her business of winning Olympic Gold Medals:

What difference do you notice? That's right - bubbles! Lots of bubbles! Particularly bubbles exiting from the nose or mouth.

Of course when selling products, photographers and marketers are looking for the cleanest images possible so naturally select shots without any air bubbles in the shot. And if necessary they will resort to Photoshop to get rid of any pesky air from an otherwise perfect shot.

The problem here is that by seeing these images you might consciously or unconsciously decide this is how you should aim to swim and end up holding your breath underwater.

At Swim Smooth we understand that good exhalation technique is the single most important aspect of freestyle swimming. Failing to exhale at all or only exhaling partially holds huge numbers of swimmers back:

Holding your breath causes CO2 to build up in your blood stream which quickly becomes uncomfortable and makes you feel short of air. How often do you hold your breath cycling or running? Never hopefully! Try it and you'll find how much harder it makes the activity.

[Aside: If you get a headache when you swim it's quite possibly a CO2 headache!]

Further, holding your breath underwater increases the buoyancy in your chest. This will cause your chest and upper body to rise in the water and the legs to sink. If you have sinky legs when you swim (most male adult swimmers do) then the easiest way to bring them higher (and so reduce drag) is to simply develop a better exhalation technique.

We love this short of Becky at full speed: A dynamic stroke with great exhalation

Developing Good Exhalation Technique

Need to improve your exhalation in the water? Here's a simple exercise to develop a better technique called "sink downs". This is the perfect drill to perform at the start of a session during your warm up to improve your confidence in the water and get used to exhaling smoothly and continuously.

As long as you are confident being out of your depth, start in the deep end of the pool. Move away from the wall and treading water take a smooth relaxed breath in and then start exhaling, bringing your arms down by your side. Exhale through either your mouth or nose, whichever feels more natural. In fact we recommend you try both and see which works best for you.

The goal here is to sink straight down to the bottom of the pool. If you find yourself hanging around by the surface then you need to relax a little more and let go of the air a little quicker. Keep exhaling and you should find you drop down from the surface towards the bottom.

Once you feel you have got rid of most of the air in your lungs, push off from the bottom and return to the surface. Repeat this exercise several times through, the more relaxed and confident you are the better:

Now it's time to bring that better exhalation into your freestyle stroke and to do that we recommend using our all time favourite Mantra: Breathe-Bubble-Bubble-Breathe...

Push off from the wall into your freestyle and literally say 'Bubble' into the water every stroke - speaking the word will make you exhale as you do so! Repeat Breathe-Bubble-Bubble-Breathe... and rotate to inhale on the 'Breathe'.  You'll notice the mantra has you breathing every 3 strokes - great technique in its own right as it gives you enough time to exhale properly between inhales and also helps you develop a nice symmetrical stroke.

You can watch our full coaching videos to perfect these two exercises in the Swim Smooth Guru here (subscription required):




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Treading Water: Staying In The Game During Your Off Season

Competed in an event and unsure what to do next? Deciding whether to take a break from training or keep pushing on? If you are a triathlete, should you be focussing on your swimming, running or cycling in your recovery?

A good training program is expertly tailored to gradually increase training intensity and duration to prepare you for your big event. But when the event is over, you are often left to your own devices. What should you be doing to maintain your fitness and stay in the game until you decide on your next goal?

There are two training principles that we need to consider when looking at post-event training: overtraining and reversibility. We need to get the right balance between these two principles to ensure we maintain our fitness to keep us in the game whilst ensuring our bodies have enough time to rest and recover.

Following a well designed training programme should gradually increase your training load up until your event, to ensure peak performance is achieved on race day. However, it is unrealistic to expect our bodies to continue training at this intensity for a prolonged period of time after the event.

Continuing to train your body at high intensity post event will lead to overtraining. Your body needs time to rest and recuperate following the increased stress that was placed on it before your event. Pushing on after the event can make your body more susceptible to injuries, having a longer term impact on future training and performance.

Other signs of overtraining may be elevated resting heart rate, poor sleep quality, muscle soreness and even a decrease in performance. Therefore, when considering your training programme post event, ensure that you allow sufficient time for rest to allow your body to physically recover from the stress of race day and take a mental break too. But should you stop training completely?

This is where the second training principle of 'reversibility' comes into play and explains why it is not normally wise to completely stop training at the end of your season. Reversibility says that any fitness gained can also be lost and will start to be lost as soon as you stop training. As a very rough rule of thumb, your fitness is lost at three times the rate at which it is gained. That means if you have been training for 9 months for your event you could pretty much be back to square one if you stop training for 3 months!

Keep training in your off season but keep it light and fun!

But there are some subtleties to this. Certainly if you have been training in a sport for many years you do seem to retain more fitness and get it back more quickly again. If you are a triathlete with a long background in one or two of the three disciplines, this is something to consider for your off-season.

UK Head Coach Adam Young: I know from my own experience as an athlete how this is the case. As a child I used to run cross country competitively and then a little later got into cycling, riding through school and university. I'm now well into my 40s but if I stop bike or run training for a while I always seem to retain some residual fitness, and quite quickly get back up to speed when I start training again. But with swimming it feels very different. I didn't swim at all as a child and only properly started swim training when I got into triathlon aged 26. If I stop swim training now, my fitness very quickly drops down to nearly zero and it takes a long period of consistent swimming to build it back up again. For me it's really important to keep some swimming training going at all times, even if ticking over at a low level in the off season.

Adam competing at Ironman France

So when considering your training plan post triathlon season, you might want to back off your strongest disciplines where you have the most training background but keep a little more going in your weaker event. This gives you a physical and mental break but leaves you best placed to start training again for next season.

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