Swimming back pain
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How do I avoid back pain in breaststroke?

Swimming coach Cassie Patten answers a reader question about how to improve their breaststroke so it relieves pressure on their lower back

I am training for the Swim Serpentine two-mile swim in September. For now, I am swimming in the pool and gaining good pace. I am alternating breaststroke and front crawl, but my issue is that if I do more lengths of breaststroke, I get awful lower back pain. I know I have a weakness in my L4/L5 and seem to concave my back naturally. Can you recommend a technique that will relieve the pressure on my lower back as I am unlikely to be able to do only front crawl for the two miles? Victoria

Cassie’s answer:

I really feel for you, I know so many breaststroke swimmers who have a similar pain in the lower back when swimming for a long time. Swimming is highly recommended by many doctors for people who are suffering from lower back pain, due to the weightlessness and low impact environment swimming provides, but inefficient technique can have a detrimental effect to any existing back problems.

Breaststroke particularly can cause the muscles in the lower back to become hyper-extended. This is in part due to the head-up nature of the stroke and can be worsened if you swim with an arched back, which you mentioned you feel like you have.

What I advise is for when you’re swimming breaststroke is changing how you think about moving upwards when you are breathing. Don’t pull your head up towards the ceiling, therefore arching the back and creating more discomfort through your lower spine. Instead, think about extending your chin forward and slightly upwards in a diagonal motion, just enough that your mouth is out of the water, but your chin is on the surface.

I know that if you watch Adam Peaty you will see he comes really high out of the water, which technically is the most powerful way to swim and you may be wondering why I am going against the world record holder’s stroke. But I believe it’s important to remember we are not all Adam with his huge muscles and extreme power.

The way I teach swimmers who are swimming for distance and not all-out speed is to ensure the body moves in a way that does not add excess stress to any particular part of the body, hence the lower chin technique.

My second tip for you is when you are kicking try and keep your hips square and not have one leg higher than the other, which is known as a screw kick. By keeping your hips and legs in a horizontal position and not twisted, it helps release any tension that can go through your lower back into your glute muscles.

If you know you have a strong kick and you are not going to be racing in a master’s event, as this next point would get you disqualified from a competitive race, try doing two kicks to one pull, holding the streamline position for slightly longer. By doing this you are keeping your back in a straight line for longer and therefore reducing the bend that is occurring when breathing.

I know for some technical purists this may seem like a radical idea!

However, as I mentioned above for most swimmers who are not competing, technique can be tweaked from the ‘norm’ to fulfil the swimmers need and lessen the demands on the body.

Finally if you can think about engaging your core muscles when lifting to breathe it will go a long way to supporting your back. If you want a simple core work out you can do at home, watch my YouTube video found here.

I hope that helps and the Serpentine is a success. I will be there commentating alongside race director and open water legend Colin Hill so make sure you come and say ‘hi’.

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Abi writes swimming news stories and features for the Outdoor Swimmer website and manages the social media channels. She loves to swim, run, hike and SUP close to her home in Herefordshire. While she’s a keen wild swimmer, Abi is new to the world of open water events and recently completed her first open water mile. She has previously written for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC History Magazine and Ernest Journal.