BLOG - April 2016 - Focus Osteopathy

BLOG – April 2016

Learn How to Improve your Swim Speed and Avoid Shoulder Injury

by Vicky Tate

Swim Exit

I’ve been swimming in a Triathlon/open water swim squad for 6 years now.

Over this time I’ve heard my Tri buddies saying that the swim is their weakest discipline. They see it as a means of getting to the bike. Sound familiar to you?

As determined individuals these Triathletes would push themselves to make the most of the swim sets but didn’t see much improvement in their race pace times, and some would complain of aches and pains, often in the shoulders.

In this post I will share my story of training for an endurance event and my experience of Swimmers Shoulder, and explain how to modify your stroke to increase speed and avoid shoulder injury.

My Experience with Shoulder Pain and Training for an Endurance Swim

After doing surf lifesaving as a teen I started back into swimming 6 years ago to getting fit and manage my Asthma. I found that I loved swimming. The sense of achievement of 1500m time trials spurred me to do further distance events, and dream of completing a 10km event.

What came with the increased training was an aggravation of my old shoulder injury. At rest I was fine, but would get pain later on in the swim set with bigger volumes.

I’d swim through the pain, thinking it was just something I had to cope with due to the scar tissue present.

As a Health Professional, an Osteopath, this didn’t feel right to me. It got me thinking more anatomically about the shoulder. I started discussing technique with my Coach.

It made sense to me that there were things I could do within my technique so that I wasn’t in pain while swimming.


After six months of making simple changes to my swim technique I noticed that the pain subsided. This last year I trained 20-25km per week with no pain in the shoulder at all. I completed a 17.5km swim in Jan 2016 without any pain.

By changing my stroke I found that I was swimming faster, having dropped 1min 30secs of my 1500 time trial time.

What I was experiencing and what you may also be experiencing is Swimmers Shoulder

The Anatomy of the Shoulder

The bony part of your shoulder you can feel is the Acromion which is where the collar bone meets the shoulder.

With swimming movements we lift our arm upward above our head. This closes the space between the Acromion and the upper arm bone, known as the Humerus.

The ball part of the Humerus is not perfectly shaped. If we are not holding the arm in the correct position throughout the stroke phases there is potential for irritation in the space between the Humerus and the Acromion.

Commonly this affects the Rotator Cuff muscles and the Bursa in the area. It may also impact on tendon causing irritation and pain.


Common symptoms to look out for:

  • Pain is located at the front of the shoulder around the bony part
  • Pain on reaching above your head
  • Painful arc from 60 to 120 degrees when reaching your arm out to the side
  • Difficulty sleeping on affected shoulder
  • Pain during swim stroke at:
    • end of recovery phase
    • catch phase
    • start of pull phase

If you want more in depth anatomy and explanation of swimmers shoulder check out this research article:

How to Modify your Stroke Technique to Gain Maximum Efficiency and Minimise Pain

The key to the stroke changes described are to:

  1. Provide optimal position for the shoulder muscles to work best
  2. Prevent shoulder impingement
  3. Improve propulsion and streamlining within the water.

This will lead to preventing shoulder injury and improving your speed and efficiency.

Catch Phase

The first part of the stroke, the catch phase, sets you up for the rest of the stroke.

A common error on hand entry is the hand and arm crossing over the midline of the body.

This puts the shoulder in a position where it is vulnerable to impingement. This is not ideal for engagement of the shoulder muscles.

Think about your hand entering the water level to the width of your shoulders. While standing lift your arms straight out in front of you like a zombie. This is the line in which your arms need to be, in line with the shoulder.

For more visual explanation you can follow this link:

Pull Phase

As your hand enters the water fingertips first; your elbow should be above the level of your hand.

Think of reaching over a barrel on its side. This position is optimal for muscular engagement of the shoulder during the pull phase.

The force of the pull should be directed backwards along the line of the body not down towards the bottom of the pool.

This maximises muscular effort of the Rotator Cuff muscles and the Lats-the large powerful muscle in the back.

Body Roll

Body roll is the synchronized rotation of your shoulders, torso and hips, rotating the body from side to side.

Minimal roll creates more stress on the shoulder, and causes compensatory crossing over at hand entry.

With good body roll the recovery phase is easier. The shoulder is in a more neutral position. The elbow is high and is leading the hand. The arm from below the elbow should be floppy.


With good body roll we are engaging our core and the bigger muscles of the back which drives
the stroke.

Think about your Chest, torso and hips as one barrel. They should all pivot around the axis of your spine in one fluid movement. If you find this hard engage your core and then roll, feel the difference it creates.


The Kick assists the body roll. A lot of Triathletes tend to sink a bit from the hips to the feet when they swim.

I hear from my swim buddies comments like “it’s ok because I’m wearing a wetsuit so I don’t need to kick much”. Let’s think of the kick in a different way.

To be able to get good body positioning and body roll the legs need to be engaged.

A kick that is fluid, and within the cylinder of your body, provides propulsion. It also assists core engagement and the ability to roll.

I have lazy legs, and being an endurance swimmer I always made the excuse that I needed to conserve energy.

Recently my coach said to me “imagine you are holding a pencil between your butt cheeks”...Yep I thought ok that’s a weird analogy!

His point is to contract your glut muscles to engage your hips. This is where the start of the kicking movement should come from. Soft knees and kicking from the hips means that you won’t loss propulsion by bending your knees too much.

The Importance of Diagnosis and Professional Help

The purpose of this post was to get you thinking about your stroke and the impacts it can have on your swim speed and efficiency and the function of your shoulders.

Not all of these technique changes may apply to you, and you may not be able to recognise yourself if you need to change parts of your stroke.

For best results I would encourage you to work with a specialised swim Coach who can comprehensively assess your stroke deficiency and guide you through these changes.

If you are suffering from shoulder pain you should seek out a Health Professional that is qualified to diagnose and treat it.

There are many conditions that can cause shoulder pain and Swimmers Shoulder is just one of them.

This post is written to inform you about Swimmers Shoulder and how stroke technique can impact on this; it is in no way a substitute for a thorough diagnosis, assessment and treatment from a qualified Health Professional.

Although the stroke technique modifications outlined in this article will help to improve your speed and efficiency in swimming, I would encourage you to firstly get a diagnosis if you suffer shoulder pain before implementing these changes to your stroke.

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