Nearly all swimmers have dealt with some sort of shoulder pain or injury at some point during their swim career. Given that people who swim regularly will perform hundreds of thousands of arm rotations over the course of a year this likely comes as no surprise. Utilizing any body part so much could dramatically increase the risk and occurrence of injury.
One study showed that 48% of all Masters swimmers have experienced shoulder pain that has lasted 3 weeks or longer. Another study performed in Australia on 80 of their elite swimmers found that 91% had shoulder pain and when an MRI was done, 69% of them had inflammation of the tendon of the supraspinatus muscle. The supraspinatus helps keep the shoulder stable and lift the arm sideways, which is why it hurts to recover your arm when tendonitis is present in that muscle.
Despite the very common occurrence of shoulder pain, the good news is that there are a few relatively easy ways to help prevent shoulder pain and injuries. The below list is by no means comprehensive, meaning there are additional ways to help prevent shoulder injury than those listed below. However, these few suggestions below are the ones I believe will help give you the most mileage on your shoulders and are relatively easy to do.
- Sleep on your back. Sleeping on your back with your arms in a neutral position by your side takes the pressure off your shoulders that comes with sleeping on your side or stomach. It also puts your neck and shoulders in proper alignment which prevents causing any further inflammation or damage and allows the muscles and tendons to rest and heal.
- Strengthen your rotator cuffs and stabilize your scapula. Make rotator cuff strengthening and scapular stability exercises a part of your daily workout routine. For me, it only takes about 4 or 5 minutes each morning to get my exercises done, but the value of those few minutes to the long-term health of my shoulders can’t be overstated. Make it a point to find time before heading to the pool, or perhaps on the pool deck just before getting in the water, to do a few minutes of rotator cuff/scapular strengthening exercises. There are quite a number of variations of rotator cuff exercises and scapular strengthening exercises out there you can find through Google. Most involve stretch bands. Here’s an example: https://www.nrs.com/shop/assets/global/safety_tips/shoulder%20exercises%20document.pdf
A good friend of mine with whom I have swum since starting Masters, swears by the Rotator Reliever, which is also a good option: https://rotatoreliever.com
I can personally vouch for the value of doing these sorts of exercises regularly. When I started Masters swimming, it wasn’t long before I started having some inflammation which led to tendonitis. It was suggested to me that I start doing a few simple rotator cuff/shoulder strengthening exercises. Within a few weeks, the pain went away and has stayed away largely permanently, only creeping back in when I get lazy and don’t do my exercises.
- Swim with perfect technique. This is the most vital thing to do to prevent shoulder pain and injury. Regardless of what else is done to prevent it, shoulder pain will come in short order with poor swimming technique. Repetition alone isn’t enough to cause injury, but repetition of poor technique certainly is! Consult with your coach to check in on your technique to ensure things are where they should be. One thing to check on is making sure your arm recovery isn’t too narrow. It is often taught that a high elbow recovery is ideal in freestyle, but be sure not to recover your hand too close to your body as this can cause impingement in the shoulder. A wide hand recovery is more natural and easier on your shoulder. Also, make sure your hand is in proper position during the pull phase of your freestyle stroke. It should not scull wide outside of your body when you are rotated nor should it be too far under your body either. Ideally, your hand stays largely in line with the shoulder and never crosses the centerline of your body underneath you, or gets much outside of being in line with your shoulder.
There exist additional considerations in keeping your shoulders healthy, but doing just these three things listed above will likely eliminate the chance of shoulder pain in the vast majority of swimmers. I hope you all keep your shoulders healthy for many years to come!
2 shoulder surgeries later, I couldn’t agree with you more, Matt