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Full body, low impact, sweat free –- swimming checks a lot of boxes that make it an ideal workout for any fitness level. For all its benefits, however, swimming can cause discomfort and even pain due to a common culprit: muscle tightness.
OrthoCarolina Physical Therapy Assistant Mary Jean McKinnon is all too familiar with muscle tightness, both personally and professionally. During her time as a former swimmer, Mary Jean experienced painfully tight muscles that hindered her performance in the pool and made proper rest and recovery difficult. To make matters worse, her muscle tightness only escalated as her practice hours and intensity increased.
Through her physical therapy practice, today Mary Jean helps her patients relieve their tight muscles by reducing the overuse of certain muscle groups, not only enhancing athletic performance but also supporting more effective and enjoyable rest. The stretches and techniques below target specific muscles to help swimmers of all ages perform their best.
Spanning from the neck to the shoulder blades, the trap muscles tighten when swimmers reach past their natural arm length to increase their stroke length. To decrease repetitive overuse of the traps, reach only the distance of your arm, allowing for a more efficient stroke and reduced pain.
Stretch: Head Tilt
Located on the sides of the mid back, the lat muscles are used to complete most swim strokes. While using your lats is unavoidable in swimming, strengthening your hip and core muscles can make your swim strokes more efficient, in turn reducing reliance on the lat muscles.
If you find your lats become tighter than what’s comfortable, opt for increasing the number of kick sets. Shift your focus to another part of your stroke to swim faster and enhance your workout.
Stretch: Child’s Pose
Stretch: Pin Wheel
Tightness in the pectoral muscles is common in swimmers as the pec major muscle helps perform correct stroke technique. To give your upper body a break and to improve overall efficiency in the water, try increasing the number of kick sets. You may kick on your side and back as well as on your stomach to both provide a different challenge and promote kicking in the different positions of your stroke. (Elite swimmers rotate from side to side while swimming.)
Stretch: T Stretch with Foam Roll
If the pec minor muscle is tight, you may be digging into the water too much to compensate for upper-extremity weakness. Remember, you can only move as fast as the correct technique will take you. Otherwise, you’re signing up for an injury. To minimize overusing pec minor, keep your shoulder blades back while swimming – no hunched-over-your-desk posture in the pool.
Stretch: Y Stretch with Foam Roll
While swimming demands significant use of the upper body, it does not require much bending of the thoracic spine, or upper back. As a result, swimmers’ shoulder blades often lack mobility and the thoracic spine becomes stiff. This rigidness in the upper back and ribs can make breathing difficult.
Stretch: Telescope Arms
Pinwheel is also useful to stretch the shoulder blades, thoracic spine and ribcage. See the step-by-step instructions above.
Although the spine remains stable and stiff in most swim strokes, mobility is an important indicator of spine health. Cat Camel stretch and Swan stretch promote spinal mobility in multiple directions while utilizing breath and activating your abdominal muscles.
Stretch: Cat Camel Stretch
Stretch: Swan Stretch
The gluteal and piriformis muscles span the back of the hips, and the quadriceps muscles run along the thigh. These areas frequently become tight when swimmers kick too much or lack the upper-body or core strength to balance the lower body’s efforts.
In addition to stretching the glutes, piriformis and quads, building strength in your upper body and abdomen can help relieve tightness in your hips and thighs. You can improve speed and give your lower extremities a breather by adding a pull set. To rest the quads during your swimming workout, add in an upper-extremity (UE) set, perhaps with paddles and a pull buoy for an aggressive upper-body workout. Pilates is an effective workout to improve core strength.
Stretch: Figure Four Stretch
Stretch: Quadriceps Stretch