If you’ve been swimming for any amount of time, you know: shoulder injuries are no joke. They can be extremely painful, and can even require surgery to repair torn tissue.
Some physicians estimate that nearly every swimmer will experience some form of shoulder pain. In a survey, USA Swimming found that 66% of Olympic swimmers had a history of shoulder pain and 14% of them missed a competition due to shoulder issues.
There’s no doubt that shoulder injuries are frustrating, but thankfully they are fixable — and preventable. Read on to learn what causes swimming shoulder pain and how to keep your shoulders healthy and strong!
What Causes Shoulder Injuries?
Most often, shoulder injuries are caused by one or more of the following factors:
Improper technique, such as pulling with a straight arm or cross over on hand entry, can put extra stress on your shoulders.
Your shoulders are made up of numerous muscles that work together to rotate your arms. If one or more of these muscles is overactive or underactive, it places extra burden on the rest of the muscles to pick up the slack, which can result in overuse injuries or extreme muscle tightness. Swimmers are often stronger in their chests and the front of their shoulders, and weaker in the back, which can contribute to shoulder pain.
Not Listening to Your Body
We’ve all heard the phrase “no pain, no gain.” When we push through pain just to finish a set, we can put ourselves at risk for an injury that might force us out of the pool for weeks at a time.
Improper Training Routine
If your training routine is too demanding and doesn’t include recovery, stretching and shoulder-specific exercises, you could be more prone to injury. You can also get injured if you increase the volume of your workouts too quickly.
Think about it. If you swim 5,000 meters 5 times a week, and you take 20 strokes per length, you’re moving each arm 10,000 times per week. That adds up to almost half a million arm rotations in a year! With volume like that, you’re almost guaranteed to get hurt if your technique is off.
What is Swimmer’s Shoulder?
The most common swimming-related shoulder injury is often called “swimmer’s shoulder.” Most doctors would call it shoulder impingement! This occurs when tendons in the shoulder joint become inflamed (called tendonitis) and press on nearby bones or muscles, causing pain. Freestyle is most often listed as the cause of swimmer’s shoulder.
If you have swimmer’s shoulder, you might feel different “impingement points” that cause pain during your stroke. It might hurt when your hand enters the water, or maybe as you start your pull. Take this pain as a signal to slow down, take a break and reevaluate your training volume and intensity. If the pain persists, visit a doctor or physical therapist. Ignoring it could result in painful tears that take even longer to heal!
Other shoulder injuries swimmers experience include biceps tendonitis, bursitis, and tears in the rotator cuff.
How to Prevent Swimmer’s Shoulder
To prevent swimmer’s shoulder, you’ll need to stay on top of your stroke technique and get in tune with your muscles to maximize engagement during your pull.
- Improve Technique: Work on your stroke technique, especially your hand entry and catch, to reduce shoulder pain. Check out the drills in the MySwimPro app for inspiration to add to your workouts!
- Strengthen the Rotator Cuff: The rotator cuff is made up of 4 muscles. If one or more of them are weak, you could be stuck with an injury. Keep reading for a few dryland exercises to help you build strength!
- Engage the Scapular Stabilizers: The muscles surrounding your shoulder blades in your mid- and upper back and sides also play a huge role in your shoulder health. Strengthening these muscles will allow give you more control over your shoulder alignment and reduce pain and injury as a result.
- Focus on the Core: It may seem odd to work on your core to help your shoulders, but everything in the body is connected. Strengthening your core will help keep your lower back and pelvis in proper alignment, which will make it easier for your shoulders to stay in alignment, too.
- Proper Stretching: Incorporate a dynamic warm-up before your swim to activate your shoulder muscles and scapular stabilizers, and stretch afterward to improve flexibility, reduce muscle imbalances and kick start recovery.
Dryland Exercises to Prevent Shoulder Injuries
Dryland training plays a major role in shoulder health and strength. These are some of our favorite exercises for the shoulders. They might look easy, but when you slow down and focus on muscular engagement, you’ll start to feel the burn!
Try incorporating these exercises into your routine 2-3 times per week, or check out the MySwimPro app for swimming-specific dryland training plans that include these exercises and more!
Scapula Pushups: This exercise fires up your scapular stabilizers. Try to keep your shoulder blades from “winging” off of your back. They should slide smoothly along your ribs.
Alphabet: Grab a tennis ball and warm up your rotator cuff! Write out your alphabet, keep your shoulders from shrugging up.
Internal & External Rotations: These exercises are a classic for strengthening the rotator cuffs! Use resistance bands or light weights to add resistance
Swiss Ball Alternating Superman: The superman puts your scapular stability to the test. Try not to shrug your shoulders up when you lift each arm!
Cat Cow Tilts: This yoga stretch helps to mobilize some of the shoulder muscles, the core and the back. It’s also a good opportunity to practice keeping your shoulder blades locked into position.
How to Modify Your Training if You’re Injured
If you’re currently struggling with a shoulder injury, can you still swim? We recommend that you consult your doctor of physical therapist for a final answer, but you can often continue training, with a few modifications:
- Adjust Training Duration & Frequency: Swim shorter, less intense workouts. It’s really important to listen to your body here. If you are in pain, it may be best to stop to let your shoulder recover.
- Try Kicking & Sculling: A shoulder injury can be a good time to focus on your kick. Work on speed and proper mechanics so you come back stronger than ever when your shoulder is healed. Or, play around with treading water or vertical kicking. If it doesn’t hurt your shoulder, sculling can help you find a powerful catch in all 4 strokes.
- Add Equipment: Fins may be your friend while you’re nursing an injured shoulder. Not only do they challenge your legs, they can help take pressure off of your shoulders while you swim.
- Consult Your Doctor: Based on your specific injury, your doctor may have additional tips and modifications for you.
Swimming is low impact, but that doesn’t mean you can skip your recovery! Your body needs rest days to replenish energy and rebuild your muscles so you continue to improve.
If you just can’t bear to have a full rest day, you can try active recovery, such as walking, yoga, or cycling, on your rest days. You may also enjoy an easy swim that’s much shorter than your usual workout. Find a recovery option that you can stay consistent with, and stick to it!
It’s also helpful to mix up your swim workouts with different strokes, drills, distances and intensities. Not only does this keep your swims interesting, it can also help reduce stress on your muscles — especially your shoulders.
Dynamic Stretching vs Static stretching
So, once your shoulders are in top shape, how do you keep them that way? Beyond maintaining a solid dryland routine and not overdoing it in the pool, incorporate a warm-up and cool down to activate your shoulder muscles and ease them into recovery.
Before Your Workout: Dynamic Stretches
Before your swim, focus on dynamic stretches to fire up your muscles and get your blood flowing. You’ll only stay in these stretches for a few seconds at a time rather than holding them. These stretches will increase your range of motion, which can help counteract any muscle imbalances in your shoulders to maximize muscle engagement and power in the water.
Try these stretches before your next workout:
Arm Swings: Swing across your body and behind your head to open up your chest, back, shoulders and triceps.
Arm Circles: Start small, and slowly increase the size of your circles!
Standing Rotations: Keep your hips square to the front, and keep your shoulders down away from your ears as you reach back!
Dynamic Hamstring Stretch: Open your hamstrings and hip flexors to prep for kicking or a challenging leg workout!
After Your Workout: Static Stretches
When you’re done with your workout, you can hold stretches for longer periods to encourage your body to start recovering. We recommend holding static stretches for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, focusing on breathing and relaxing into the stretch.
Child’s Pose: Let your chest drop toward the floor. Lift your elbows and forearms off the floor for a more intense shoulder stretch.
Shoulder Stretch: Pro tip: Keep your shoulder from shrugging up during this one!
Downward Dog: Press your chest toward your thighs to stretch your shoulders.
Have you experienced a shoulder injury? What tips do you have? Share in the comments! For more swimming tips and workouts, check out the MySwimPro app! Try our ELITE COACH subscription free for 30 days.