The shoulders bear the weight of triathlon success. This off-season, learn how to treat them right.
by Chris Johnson and Dr. G. John Mullen
Winter is the ideal time to focus on our weaknesses as triathletes and master preventative drills, exercises and stretches to implement all year long. Here, I want to draw your attention to the shoulders—essential for success and longevity in our sport. The shoulders not only help propel us through water, but also support our upper body on the bike and balance us on the run.
Considering the biomechanical stress that swimming places on the shoulder (together with the repetitious nature of training) it’s no surprise that up to 90 percent of swimmers’ complaints pertain to the shoulder. “Swimmer’s shoulder” is an umbrella term used to describe a variety of complaints from swimmers. To safeguard against swimming-related shoulder injury and dysfunction, triathletes need to learn some key exercises and stretches to promote balanced, strong shoulders. These “drills,” if you will, can help correct muscular tightness and soft tissue imbalances, train the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers and address trunk control in the freestyle stroke.
In addition to range of motion, swimmers also develop a characteristic strength profile. Even without resistance training, swimmers exhibit increased adduction and internal rotation strength. Though this helps with propulsion through the water, it’s a pattern that can also lead to muscle imbalance, shoulder instability and decreased rotator cuff and scapular stabilizer functioning. Researchers in this area suggest increasing strength and endurance of the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers. Watch: .
Swimmers and triathletes should also strive to enhance their dynamic shoulder stability at positions where the shoulder is prone to injury. One particular exercise perfectly designed for this is a simple wall ball bounce in a “high five” position. This exercise is essentially a mild plyometric drill that challenges timing and endurance of the rotator cuff and scapular stabilizers in a sport-specific position. Perform it using a lightweight ball (~1-3lbs) on both sides while making sure to avoid elbow drop throughout the drill as this indicates fatigue. Watch: .
While every athlete must be approached on an individualized basis and should avoid aggressive attempts to avoid increasing motion about the shoulder, here are a few of the stretches and mobilizations I commonly prescribe.
Cross Body Stretch: This is a less aggressive variation of the doorway stretch, which is often prescribed to swimmers. In the case of this stretch, the performer should stand upright while facing a corner. The hands should be positioned so the palms are against the walls. Gently lean forward and you should feel a light stretch across the front of the chest.
Foam Roller Mobilization: This is a simple variation of a common foam roller drill designed for swimmers and designed to facilitate extension of the thoracic spine. Lie on your back with your knees flexed and the foam roller positioned at the level of the upper to mid back. Gently bridge up to lift your bottom off the floor while taking your arms overhead. In a slow and controlled manner, gently roll back and forth.
Dowel Rod Stretch/Mobilization: This is a great drill to stretch the latissimus dorsi, triceps and facilitate extension through the thoracic spine or midback. Position your knees on a cushioned surface and your arms on an ottoman (or equivalent). Grasping a dowel rod with arms shoulder width apart, gently rock back and down while flexing the elbows.
Swimmers should strive to maintain a balanced and effective body roll. This plays a critical role in minimizing stresses to the shoulder. To achieve this, triathletes should pursue a swimming analysis session with a certified triathlon coach or swim instructor. One particular exercise that can help with body roll is the . This exercise should be performed with the hands against the wall. While performing this exercise, the performer should strive to avoid overarching the low back as this is a common mistake during this drill.
The swim is the first leg of a triathlon, therefore proper shoulder function is one of the first indicators for a strong race. Taking the time to understand the shoulders while keeping them “tuned” is critical. If you’re suffering from shoulder pain and dysfunction, it’s important to seek medical consultation with a licensed professional who specializes in treating swimmers. Otherwise, give some of these drills a shot so you don’t sink the ship before you get to the starting line.
Chris Johnson, PT, is a leading physical therapist who specializes in multisport and running. He practices physical therapy at Olympic PT located in Seattle, WA. Dr. G John Mullen, PT, DPT, CSCS, of Mullen Physical Therapy, is a Swimming World correspondent and the creator of Swimmer’s Shoulder System, Swimming Science Research Review, and Swimming Troubleshooting System.