Common shoulder injuries for swimmers – and how to avoid them

Shoudler Injury
Image (c) Terry Scott. Taken at the IISA GB Championship

Critical to making the magic happen, the shoulders play one of the most vital roles in our swimming action and performance. “Shoulder injury” are two dreaded words that swimmers hate to hear. Shoulder injuries are unfortunately common in swimming and diagnosis can been difficult. Treatment and recovery takes time. Like many things in life, prevention is better than cure. So what are the common causes of shoulder injury and how do we prevent it from occurring?

First, let's look at what we are actually talking about when use the term ‘shoulder’. The bones of the shoulder form a ball and socket joint. There are only two ball and socket joints in the body, the shoulder and the hip. As the name suggests, the rounded head of one bone, in this case your upper arm (the humerus) fits into the cup shaped opening on the side of the shoulder blade (scapula bone). The ball and socket provides the most mobility of any joint in the body, but this has its advantages and disadvantages. While it allows for an excellent range of movement it can also become unstable. The muscles responsible for stabilising the shoulder form the rotator cuff group. We commonly use this term when describing a shoulder injury, as in: “I have torn my rotator cuff”, “I have tendonitis in my rotator cuff” or “I need to stabilise my rotator cuff”. Four muscles make up the rotator cuff group. Because of the complexity of the shoulder it can be difficult to diagnose the exact nature of a shoulder injury meaning it can also be complicated to treat. Hence it is best to take all practicable measures to ensure you don’t end up in this situation in the first place.

By understanding the basics of the shoulder and the common causes of injuries you can create a plan to significantly increase your chances of avoiding shoulder problems. By identifying factors that are unique to you and addressing these in your technique and training you can be confident that not only will you reduce the risk of having injury interruption but you also significantly increase the chances of successful accomplishment of your swimming goals.

Common causes of shoulder injury

Poor technique

  • Crossing the arm over the centre line on entry
  • Poor catch and pull placing an ‘awkward’ repetitive pressure on the shoulder
  • Repetitive breathing to one side, usually with an associated technical weakness

Over use

  • Don’t build up swim distances too quickly. You need to allow time for your shoulders to increase in strength to be able to handle the increased strain of thousands of repetitive movements. For example, a swimmer, whose longest swim is around 3km, who signs up for an English Channel swim should spend at least a year building up before they attempt the six-hour qualifying swim. If you’re starting from a lower base, allow yourself even longer – two to three years at least.

Incorrect use of equipment

  • Paddles are probably the worse culprit as they are designed to place additional strain on the shoulders. If technique is incorrect or a swimmer has not yet built up enough stability and strength within the shoulder then paddles will dramatically increase the risk of injury or irritation of the shoulder

Not ‘listening to your body’

  • The expert on you is you. You may find that on a given day you start to feel isolated discomfort in an individual shoulder. Unless you are actually competing in your event you are best advised to either ease off, change what you are doing or stop and rest. Many shoulder irritations have been made far worse (and with subsequent longer recovery times) by swimmers ignoring the obvious signals their bodies are sending.

Not recognising and addressing our unique physiological situations

  • As adults our bodies have a history. Old injuries, poor posture, unique swim technique traits and movement patterns we have developed over time influence the way we move and can increase our susceptibility to shoulder injury.

Prevention is better than the cure

  • Get your swim technique analysed and work on issues before starting any significant swim build up. This cannot be over emphasised.
  • Build shoulder strength and stability with a dryland exercise programme.
  • Have a training plan. Start with your end goal and work backwards, building in manageable progressions to your training load. Include periods of rest for adaptation and recovery. Allow flexibility in your plan – a plan is only as good as the day you write it down. If you have a 6km test set planned for the next day yet your shoulder is uncomfortable or in pain be prepared to alter the plan and rest the shoulder.
  • Include regular drill focusses throughout your training build up – drills that are specific to your specific physiological traits (eg historic injuries) and technique nuances.
  • Understand what swim training aids are for (kick float, pull buoy, paddles, snorkels, etc) and use them knowledgeably and for purpose. This ‘purpose’ may just be for fun on occasion but make sure you understand and acknowledge this fact.
  • Remember the expert on you is you – if your shoulder is in discomfort or pain it is sending you a message. Ignore this message at your peril. Seek expert advice. Make a plan.
01 Cover June 21

Issue 50 June 2021

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