Top Tips,  Training and Technique

Five ways to protect your back in open water

Modern life means that many of us sit for more than 12 hours a day, either in front of the computer or driving. When we suffer from lower back or neck pain we don’t always know why. Sitting correctly and keeping active during the day will solve some of our problems, but we also need to loosen our bodies and relax.

Swimming is a great solution, but we need to swim correctly. First, we must understand that the lower back and spine, from the first lumbar vertebra to the fifth, are the body’s centre of balance. When we are not balanced, we feel pressure on the lower back. While swimming, our body should be neutral, especially our lower back. In open water many people breathe every two strokes, cut their symmetric line and hold their head too high. While sighting in open water we sometimes breathe in front instead of looking forward and breathing to the side. The worst thing for our back is swimming differently in the sea to how we swim in the pool. 

You can still make gains and swim faster over longer distances if you swim with your body and not against it, no matter what your age. We will focus on five elements in open water that will help protect your lower back, loosen your body and enable you to swim much faster over long distances.

1. Head position

Most swimmers swim with their head looking forward all the time, especially when they are drafting. But looking forward is not a natural position: it can hurt our shoulders and neck and cause the legs to fall, making a ‘stop’ in the water. It also makes it harder to lift the elbow. When you need to sight, look forward – but it’s more beautiful looking down. You don’t walk down the street looking at the sky; there is no need to look forward when swimming.


2.Dragging the legs

Our goal is to move the legs as part of the rolling movement of the body and sliding of the arms. Imagine the legs as train compartments that will move anywhere the locomotive takes them without any independent force. It is important not to think about the rolling of the body, it should simply happen by itself. This exercise is good for treating pain in the knees and ankles, and for releasing the lower back.

So when should we move the legs? When we see that the heels are sinking and won’t stay at the surface by themselves.Having a relaxed leg position in the water is one of the best treatments for back pain and slipped disc injuries. The beauty of this movement is that it is free of manipulation. The legs set the range of movement.

3. Depth of the arm extension

The depth of the stretch will vary from swimmer to swimmer. Competitive swimmers try to extend the arm next to the water line, but if you aren’t flexible enough in the shoulders, stretching close to the water line will lead to greater tension to the neck, the elbow will fall and the palm will go up – creating a stop. 

If you are very flexible you should extend at a depth of 20cm, medium flexibility at 35cm and low flexibility at 50cm from the water line. With a deeper stretch there is less palm surface for moving forward with the stroke, so work on flexibility at the end of each training session.  Your range of movement will improve and you will be able to make an arm stretch closer to the surface.

4. Look and breathe

The breathing action can be very painful if you have lower back pain, so extend the arm very close to the water line and let the head follow the hand and lift itself up. Once you are looking in the direction of movement, let the body fall back down and breathe to the other side of the extending arm. It is very important to drag your legs (and even let them sink a little) when lifting the head because if you kick your legs will be on the water line, causing stress to your lower back.

5. Angle of the body while breathing

Our goal here is to work on taking the head out slowly while it follows the body in a 90 degree roll. The nose and the mouth should be out of the water, but the eye should be half underwater. The amazing thing with this position is that when you get it right it is possible to float without any effort at all, and when you swim you can surf forward every third stroke. This way we not only swim faster, we also don’t cause the lower back or neck any stress and we can breathe easily.

Expert advice

Ori Sela is the owner and professional manager of Water World, a chain of hydrotherapy pools, and founder of the unique WEST swimming technique. 

He is a senior lecturer in all fitness-related issues, rehabilitation and swimming and spoke at TEDx about the power of the sea. Ori’s dream is to teach and heal people suffering from lower back pain all around the world with the WEST swimming technique. 

WEST is nominated for the 2015 World Open Water Swimming Offering of the Year.

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