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Swimmer in pool.

Swimming is a low-impact exercise that works all the muscles in the body. That's why many injured athletes turn to the pool to maintain fitness and rehabilitate an injury at the same time. It's also a healthy physically activity for people in their youth to older age.

But swimming is not without the possibility of an injury. Shoulder injuries are the most common injury in swimming. A proper swim stroke technique is crucial in injury prevention.

Here are five things to focus on to improve your swimming stroke and avoid injuries:

1. Bilateral Breathing

The ability to breathe comfortably on both sides is important while swimming the freestyle stroke. By changing sides, you are equalizing muscle development and achieving symmetry. It also allows for smoother and more even strokes. It may feel awkward on one side at first.  With consistent practice, it will become more natural and lead to a more efficient stroke.

2. Posture

Your posture out of the pool can affect your posture in the pool. If you have tightness in the chest muscles or rounded shoulder posture, this can put you more at risk for shoulder impingement. The shoulders should be back and the chest forward during a freestyle stroke. Shoulder impingement occurs when the tendons become pinched, irritated, and inflamed in the shoulder region. Position of the head while swimming should be looking forward and down, so the water will crest above the eyebrows.

3. Kick

The kick should originate from the hips. In other words, "kick your legs," don’t kick your feet. There should be a slight bend in your knee at all times. Your toes will naturally point.  

4. Catch and Pull

The "catch" is when the hand enters the water. You are essentially "catching" the water, with the third or fourth finger leading the arm, with your wrist slightly bent at the line of your goggles. If the thumb enters the water first, it can cause the shoulder to internally rotate and can lead to a shoulder injury.

The "pull" is the sweeping phase when the arm pulls through the water to move the body forward. The hand and arm should enter the water as an extension of the shoulder. If the arm crosses over the midline or is too wide, it could cause shoulder injury.

5. Body Rotation

Your body should rotate as if your spinal column is a skewer. As the right arm enters the water, the body should rotate slightly toward the right, and vice versa. A flat body posture also can lead to shoulder Injury. Body rotation also facilitates bilateral breathing.

In addition to the above tips, proper warm-up and stretching exercises are important to reduce injury during swim sessions. Strength training to the shoulder, particularly the rotator cuff, scapular, and core muscles, will enable you to have a more powerful end efficient stroke. Once you are proficient in swimming freestyle, you can learn other strokes. Alternating different strokes prevents repetitive motion that can lead to overuse injuries.  

If you do experience a shoulder injury, a physical therapist can help. Physical therapists are movement experts. They improve quality of life through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed movement. You can contact a physical therapist directly for an evaluation. To find a physical therapist in your area, visit Find a PT.

Find a PT Near You!

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Improving your front crawl technique. website. Published November 24, 2014. Accessed July 01, 2016

Five tips to the best freestyle arm stroke. USA Swimming website. Published November 4, 2013. Accessed July 01, 2016.

Seven most important aspects of freestyle swimming. website. Updated November 10, 2011. Accessed July 01, 2016.

Tovin BJ. Prevention and treatment of swimmer’s shoulder. N Am J Sports Phys Ther. 2006;1:166–175. Free Article.

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