Better Swimming for Those with Tight Shoulders (Hint: Probably You)

Since triathlon became a thing, and well-intentioned triathletes have been showing up at Masters swim groups all over, we've all gotten used to hearing a whole bunch of swimming orthodoxy: try to limit the number of strokes you take per length, make that elbow point at the ceiling, glide, do fingertip drag drill to open up your shoulders. Happily, Paul Newsome and Adam Young at Swim Smooth have been hard at work debunking the "fewer strokes is better" myth for years, and have also done good work with tossing Fingertip Drag out the window. I'm going to hitch my rhetorical wagon, today, to their argument against Fingertip Drag, but extend it to what I've seen in my swimmers at Nike and at the triathlon camps we run every year. 

As Paul and Adam point out in the Fingertip Drag post, it's a bad drill because it forces the whole population of swimmers into a position they can't achieve. People who have been swimming their whole lives (as kids, in high school/college, and then later as Masters swimmers) tend to have hyper-mobile shoulders. They can do fingertip drag in their sleep, as well as maintain perfect streamline position off the wall. They've just done it for a million years, and when you can't do it, they'll look at you the way a native English speaker looks at a confused tourist. "You can't do this? Sheesh." It's not their fault—their bodies have changed over a long period of time, and they simply assume that all humans can hit that position. We all do things like this (how did you treat that new hire at your company last week when they didn't know how to run the coffee machine? OK, so cool it on the outrage), but the answer is never just slamming the new swimmer into a position they can't achieve: it's like speaking English louder at the person who doesn't speak it—there's only one person who looks foolish in that situation.

Just so we know what we're talking about, here, here's a picture of a swimmer deploying the classic high-elbow, fingertip-draggy recovery:

Brian Side View.png

When doing swim analyses, this is what we look for: when the upper arm is vertical vis-a-vis the camera (i.e. the biceps is pointing at the sky; it's not really pointing at the sky, but due to the miracle of perspective it's a useful landmark) we like to see the lower arm in line with the upper arm. If that's confusing, here's what we DON'T like to see:

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In this case, the upper arm IS vertical (pointing at the top of the picture frame), but the lower arm is WAY out in front. We see this most often with people who have come to swimming later in life (90% or so of triathletes), and it's usually due to a very understandable misconception: triathletes think swimmers swim with their hands, when really swimming comes from the hips. More on that later, but since they think it's all about the hands they try—desperately—to get those hands forward as soon as possible, leading them to lead with the hand. They're also probably trying to get into that high elbow recovery, but since their shoulders are too tight they have no choice but to bring the lower arm forward, low over the water. Here's what happens:

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This is a swimmer who is headed for a crossover in the next few moments of her stroke. She probably doesn't mean to, but with an elbow angle that acute, she's got no choice. The crossover in front (when a swimmer's hands cross the centerline of his/her body) is an agreed-upon issue in the swimming community, so we don't have to do too much debunking there. So that's not great. But there's another issue. Since the swimmer's shoulder's are tight, as she tries to bring that hand forward, angling the elbow, her shoulder is effectively in her way, and to alleviate the tension she has to move away from that tension, shifting her body to the right. Here's where she was only a few moments earlier:

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This is just before the picture taken two above. This swimmer is about to finish the pull with the left hand and start bringing it forward. Her body is straight, here, but then let's go back to where she ends up:

Screenshot 2018-07-17 16.46.55.png

Her body is kinked, right, where it was straight only a few moments ago? That's because she's had to move her torso away from the source of the tightness in order to actually bring the arm forward over the water. Her torso moves to the right, and that yaw translates down to her legs, which wash back and forth behind her. Watch some swimmers in the pool: when you see people's legs fishtailing back and forth behind them, it's usually because they've got this going on behind them.

OK, great, you big jerk, how do I fix it? Two ways, both of which are simple but not easy.

1: Straighten the arm a bit

Before you freak out, swim coaches, go and read Paul and Adam's comments in their posts above. Just straighten that arm out during recovery and flop it out over the water, landing it in front of you in line with your shoulder. Doing so will alleviate tension in your shoulders AND make you a better open water swimmer.

2: Open up those hips!

If you look at the picture above, where our swimmer is trying to bring the arm forward, you can see her hips are pretty flat in the water—she's not tipped up on her side at all. In swimming the hips and shoulders need to move together, and in this case the shoulders are trying to roll while the hips are staying behind. Swimming is more like golf than like running or cycling, and never more so than at this moment. If you rotate your hips a little more (without over-rotating), opening them up to the side of the pool, you'll suddenly find you have more room to swing that arm forward over the surface of the water, and you don't need hyper-mobile shoulders any more!

3: Loosen up your shoulders!

What? I thought this whole post was about swimming even though I have tight shoulders! Well, sorry, Buttercup, but you still need to do your homework and eat your veggies. Having more flexible shoulders will help you be a better swimmer long term (and a healthier human being, which is really a big part of what we're after with this whole exercising as competition thing, right?). But I'll return to this subject in a subsequent post. For now, stop trying to bring that arm forward! Just open up the elbow angle a bit, rotate your hips more, and stiffen up through the core!