A question from our membership came up asking how to avoid shoulder injuries in freestyle. This is a hard question as everybody is different: flexible or not, already injured or not, young or old, experience in swimming or not, etc.
Being able to keep a horizontal position on top of the water is key to relieve some pressure off your shoulders. This is critical, and the first thing to try to improve. If your body is sinking behind you, it is like you are pulling yourself up a wall and putting a lot of pressure on your shoulders. Once you are in a horizontal position, it is like your shoulders have reached the top of the wall and you just have to push yourself up, so it is much easier. Now, how do we reach that horizontal position?
- Kick, kick, and kick: Don’t be afraid to wear fins and use your whole leg with a fast small narrow motion, starting from the hips (not the knees), and finishing with the ankle whip. Keep using the fins until you can keep your hips and your legs at the surface.
- Head position: If you lift your head to breathe, the rest of your body will follow. Your legs and hips will sink. Guaranteed! So make sure your eyes are looking towards the bottom of the pool and you just turn your head to breathe (one eye above the water surface). You will need the support of your kick and your front arm to achieve this.
- Keep your balance with an extended arm in front: In order to keep that long stretched position on top of the water, you will need to keep one arm extended in front of your shoulder or slightly wider than your shoulder until your recovering arm is passing your head and taking over for the balance (front quadrant swimming). This will help you keep your balance, stay horizontal on top of the water and relieve any pressure on your recovering arm and shoulder. Make sure you are also clearing the surface of the water in front of you and entering with the tips of your fingers and not your thumb as most of us do. (Entering with your thumb increases the pressure on your shoulders, as it is not the natural way we hold our hands on land, e.g. we do not walk with our palms facing outwards and our thumb towards the back).
Here are a few drills to work on those issues (use fins in the first stage, and as long as you need them):
- Holding the back end of a kickboard with one hand (so you can put your head in the water), do one-arm freestyle. Your arm should clear the board and you should start your breathing as soon as you start pulling, and put your head back in the water as soon as your hand exits the water. The kickboard should be held in front of your shoulder and not directly in front of you, so you can clear the water without touching the board. Keep wearing your fins until you can keep your hips and legs at the surface
- Do the same exercise without a kickboard in the superman position. Your arms should be on top of the water in front of your shoulders (not in front of your head), and, do one-arm freestyle on the side on which you breathe.
- Progress with one arm stroke on the side you breathe, then one arm stroke with the other arm without breathing (catch up drill). Be very patient and feel that your hips are staying on top of the water and are as stable as possible (not moving from side to side with your breathing). Do not forget to keep kicking.
- Start swimming slowly, making sure you are not starting your arm stroke before your other arm has passed your shoulders (called half catch-up or front quadrant swimming). The position of your head in alignment with your body, and your small kick as well as the contraction of your abs will improve your horizontal position and will strongly help you glide on top of the water. You will indeed feel like you are extended and can stay in balance.
If you are patient enough and wait to extend with your arms in front of your shoulders before pulling, it is easy to hinge at the level of your elbows and pull with your entire front arm (90-degree catch) to be as efficient as possible. Underwater you should just push the water backwards in a straight line. Keep wearing your fins until you can keep your hips and legs at the surface, and you can feel there is no pressure at all on your recovering arm. This is why it is called the recovery arm. The arm underwater is doing all the work and you are not pulling yourself up with your shoulders.
On dry land, there are of course a few exercises you can do to reinforce your shoulders. The shoulder is one of the largest and most complex joints in the body. The rotator cuff is a collection of muscles and tendons that surround the shoulder, giving it support and allowing a wide range of motion. Strengthen those muscles and tendons by small motions in all directions. A lot of videos of these simple motions can be found on the internet. Ask a physical therapist if you do not know how to do it. If you are in constant pain, you should see a doctor and a physical therapist who will show you the best exercises adapted to you. Any exercises which improve your core, such as planks, will also help you with alignment and keeping your hips up.
To save, i.e. to protect, your shoulders, the keys are keeping your hips at the surface via good kicking, looking towards the bottom of the pool, and maintaining your hands and arms in a natural position. You should be gliding in the superman position with arms slightly wider than the shoulders and pulling straight down the line, (not letting your arms cross the mid-line underneath your body, especially when breathing). This of course, will not be achieved in one day. Use equipment if needed, mostly fins and an eventual snorkel, and keep them on until you can swim with your hips up and stable. Your shoulders will thank you.
Keep swimming, Hips up and Stable.