It’s the injury that is so common for swimmer’s that it is literally called “swimmer’s shoulder.”
Research performed by USA Swimming showed that 10% of current age group swimmers are presently experiencing some sort of pain or aggravation in their shoulders, while a whopping 26% of national level swimmers are having shoulder issues of some type.
For swimmers who have experienced it, whether as a chronic condition like I have, or in random, acute bouts, the injury can be frustrating, leaving you feeling hopeless, and cost you valuable chunks of training time.
But the good news it this—there are a ton of things that you can help ease the pain and also insure that you avoid injuring it again (or for the first time).
Here are a few ideas for fixing and preventing swimmer’s shoulder that have worked with myself (and my 20+ years of competitive swimming experience), as well as tips I have collected over the years from fellow swimmers and coaches.
1. Warm-up with fins.
Swimmers perform a metric butt-ton of meters in the water. From warm-up to warm-down, the pre-set and main set all combined it’s not uncommon for chlorinated athletes to log up to 8,000m in a single session. When you consider that a lot of that yardage is done with shoulders above your head, you can begin to imagine the stress and strain that we are placing on our shoulder joints.
A simple way to loosen the load that we lump onto our shoulders is to use swim fins during our warm-up. Not only will you help get your legs warmed up faster, but wearing fins during the opening set of the practice will help ease your shoulders into the workout.
2. Stretch your pecs
One of the big misconceptions with this particular injury is that we should focus all of our injury and preventative measures on the shoulder capsule itself.
But that’s not usually where the problem started, only where it ended up manifesting.
Swimmer’s shoulder is usually caused by muscle imbalances in the back, poor technique, and tight pectoral muscles from repeated use. You might be familiar with the rounded, slouched shoulders that many swimmers tend to have from swimming on their front for so long.
You can correct this before and after during your swim workouts by making sure to mobilize the chest area (which you probably already are with arm swings), while also performing chest stretches afterwards to keep them loose.
Additionally, you should hit a foam roller for 5-10 minutes after each session in the water to loosen up your t-spine. Not only is it a relaxing way to end your workout, but rolling out your t-spine will help keep your chest open and loose.
3. Train with a snorkel.
As mentioned earlier, one of the leading causes of swimmer’s shoulder is a muscle imbalance in the back and shoulders. This arises often from swimming predominantly to our dominant side.
So how can we correct this?
By taking our breathing patterns out of the equation entirely and training with a swimmer’s snorkel. By having your face down in the pool you will be forced to have a more balanced, even stroke (there are a ton of other reasons snorkels are awesome—from allowing you to swim with better hip position, focus on technique, and so on).
Evening out the musculature, and undoing the years of breathing to one side is not easy, but introduce some longer, easier reps of straight freestyle swimming with a snorkel in order to help begin the process of developing a more evenly strengthened back and stroke.
Other quick things you can do to help deal and avoid swimmer’s shoulder:
Kick more. The more you kick, the stronger your hip rotation, meaning you rely less on the shoulder and chest for propulsion, particularly at the front of the stroke. Developing a strong flutter kick is hard, and takes a lot of time on the kickboard, but beyond making you a faster swimmer it will also help lessen the load on your shoulders.
Stick to your pre-hab routine even when you aren’t injured. For most swimmers the moment they decide to get serious about when shoulder health is when they are banged up and injured. You’ll see them dutifully hit their internal and external rotator exercises on the band, and spend more time stretching. Make this stuff routine and not just a band aid, and you will be injured less often as a result.
Being injured sucks. You know it. I know it. The bad news might be that you are having to spend some time on IR list, but the good news is that there are some powerful and proven things that you can do in order to make sure you don’t end up there again. Give a couple of these strategies a go over the rest of the training cycle or season and swim your way to healthier, stronger shoulders.