Have you watched the wonderful strokes of elite swimmers and then tried to emulate them in the pool? I often show footage of elite swimmers and triathletes to my swimmers to show them the key elements of efficiency they can look to apply to their own strokes. But should we only watch elite swimmers and copy them? Unfortunately not always - as coaches we need to make adjustments for the swimmer's individual biomechanics and flexibility.
Elite swimmers such as Michael Phelps have staggering
levels of flexibility in their upper back and shoulders
As a Swim Smooth Certified Coach I see this problem most often at the front end of an athlete's stroke where the swimmer is trying to extend the arm just below the surface of the water before initiating the catch. Whilst elite athletes such as Michael Phelps or Rebecca Adlington have superb flexibility and stability that they have developed from a young age, most age group triathletes and newcomers to freestyle do not have such great biomechanics.
Factors that might limit your own range of motion and control are:
- Work and lifestyle factors such as sitting at a desk or spending a lot of time driving
- A historic injury such as a broken collarbone or a muscle detachment
- Bulky and shortened muscles from excessive strength training in the gym
- A degenerative illness such as arthritis or osteoporosis
Here's one of my squad swimmers trying to emulate his hero Michael Phelps but notice how much he has to strain and arch his back to get into any sort of streamlined tuck:
When this swimmer tries to extend forwards underwater like Michael Phelps it puts tension on the lower spine as he arches his back. If you too have limited shoulder flexibility this will cause the legs to sink as the pressure transfers down the spine to your pelvis.
Trying to hit a position you do not have the flexibility to achieve can also lead to dropping the elbow harming your propulsion (see Swim Smooth's blog post on this subject here) and pressing down at the front of the stroke which will further exacerbate sinky legs. What's more, in the open water where your wetsuit is working in the opposite direction to keep your legs higher, it puts a lot of pressure on your lower back and can cause excruciating back pain!
Use this simple test to assess your own flexibility and find the best starting point at the front of your stroke:
Step 1. Sit on a bench or box so your back is flat to the wall behind. Ensure the small of your back is touching the wall:
Step 2. With your arms shoulder width apart, raise them above your head to get them as close to the wall behind you as possible. Be careful to not strain too much and risk injury. You may feel your back arch:
Step 3. If you need to, relax back to a point where your back is flat on the wall and your shoulders feel relaxed. This gives you a good indication of the angle at which you should spear and extend forwards underwater at the front of your stroke:
Step 4. Now try laying down on the poolside (with a kickboard under your chest) and repeat the relaxed position. Again try to reach high and then relax back into your natural position:
In the full stroke you'll be partly rotated onto your side as the arm extends forwards but you'll still get a very good idea of your range of motion in this front lying position.
Step 5. Now take this into your swimming. Think about entering the water and spearing forwards a little lower and then initiate the catch by pressing the water backwards from there (find more information on the catch here). You may find that your stroke rate increases which may feel a little strange at first but try to relax into the flow of your stroke.
Also practise side kicking (as described here) to get a better feel for this position whilst rotated in the stroke.
This is a very simple test to see what impact your shoulder flexibility may be having on your swimming and how you can make a simple adjustment to free things up and make significant improvements. You may be thinking that this intervention will shorten your stroke (it might very slightly) but it’s a way to find the right trade off so you are swimming at your most efficient point.
Of course you should also work to gradually develop your upper body flexibility. This won't happen overnight but a regular stretching routine (see the Swim Smooth Coaching System here) will pay dividends over time. Never force a stretch but maintain consistency as the weeks and months go by.
If you have any question regarding this article please feel free to get in touch.
Swim Smooth Coach