A competitive swimmer may swim six to eight miles a day in training and easily rack up 1 million strokes per year in the pool. Those numbers often equal something else, too: Shoulder problems.
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An estimated 65% of swimmers deal with an injured shoulder at some point. The reason? Overuse. Rotating shoulder joints over and over and over again can take a toll on even the fittest athlete.
So, how can you avoid swimmer’s shoulder without just limiting your laps? Let’s dive into the question with physical therapist Kelly Kinsey, DPT.
What is swimmer’s shoulder?
Your shoulders work as an intricate and unstable network of tendons, muscles and bones. Many moving parts give these ball-and-socket joints an incredible range of motion. In fact, no other joint in your body can match the shoulder’s movement.
An activity such as swimming, however, can push your shoulders beyond their physical limits.
Repeated arm motions against the resistance of water can leave shoulder tendons inflamed and swollen, says Kinsey. This swelling can press on other tendons or nearby bones and muscles, leading to what’s called shoulder impingement.
Tiny tears may eventually develop in tendons and muscles. The damage gums up the works in your shoulders, making basic movement more difficult.
Symptoms of swimmer’s shoulder include:
- Muscle weakness or fatigue.
- Reduced range of motion.
- Shoulder instability.
- Shoulder pain.
Tips to prevent swimmer’s shoulder
If you’re splashing through a million swimming strokes per year in a pool, it’s safe to say that you’re at risk for an overuse injury, notes Kinsey. But there are ways to minimize that risk while training.
Want to prevent swimmer’s shoulder? Then work on building strength and stability in your shoulder girdle, meaning the muscles within and surrounding your shoulder.
Shoulder girdle weakness can contribute to a faulty swimming stroke. A breakdown in form can put increased stress on your rotator cuff and biceps, starting a chain reaction that can eventually lead to injury.
The following exercises can help build shoulder strength and improve positioning:
Wall slides with external rotation
This exercise will help improve scapular alignment and shoulder rotation.
- Stand facing a wall. Bend your arms at a 90-degree angle so that your elbows, the side of your forearms and pinky fingers are against the wall. (Your thumb will be pointing out toward you.) Your arms should be shoulder-width apart.
- Slowly slide your arms up the wall then back to the 90-degree angle. Keep your arms in contact with the wall as they go up and down. Your arms should remain parallel as they move. (Option: Loop an exercise band around your forearms to keep them in position.)
- Repeat the movement five times per set, keeping your back straight during the exercise. Don’t lean forward. Complete three sets.
Lying lat pull down (with towel)
This exercise strengthens underutilized upper back muscles and your shoulder girdle.
- Lie face down on the floor. Extend your arms out as if you’re Superman flying. Hold a towel in both hands, which should be positioned slightly wider than shoulder-width. Keep the towel taught.
- Bend your arms, keeping them parallel as you pull the towel toward (and under) your chest. Arch your back up slightly during the movement, allowing the towel to slide beneath.
- Repeat five times for three sets.
V arm raise
This exercise will engage the most muscles in your shoulder girdle.
- Begin in a standing position. Stretch out your arms and bring your hands together to create a V shape. Keep your thumbs pointed up.
- Slowly raise your arms up the ceiling, maintaining the V shape. (Just lifting the weight of your arms is enough at the start. Later, feel free to add a 1- or 2-pound weight, or pull a can out of the pantry.)
- Return to the starting position. Repeat five times.
Most swimmers don’t lack flexibility and actually have a tendency to be hypermobile, says Kinsey. The key is not to overdo it while stretching.
A gentle five to 10-minute upper extremity warm-up should be enough to increase blood flow and prepare your muscles before a workout. Try to avoid partner stretching, which has a tendency to be too aggressive.
Don’t train through pain
Training can bring an expected amount of muscle fatigue and even some aches. But there’s a difference between a “good” soreness and early symptoms of serious injury, which could include:
- Decreased range of motion.
If the symptoms seem abnormal, try to determine any contributing factors. Was the intensity of your workout higher, for instance? Or did you add miles to your training or change your stroke mechanics?
If there aren’t any good explanations for the symptoms, ease off training for a few days to rest your shoulder and let the joint heal. Get checked by your doctor, athletic trainer or physical therapist if the break in activity doesn’t help.
Ignoring the pain won’t make it go away. If you continue to swim in order to work through the injury, your inflammatory response will increase. That’ll make it harder to diagnose and treat the injury and make recovery more difficult.
“You need to pay attention to your body,” advises Kinsey. “The sooner a potential problem is identified and addressed, the better the chance for a quicker and healthier recovery.”