Monday, February 22, 2010

Engage Your Lats

Over the weekend I spent an afternoon at a swim meet. My niece and nephew, Jamie and Max, have been swimming for five years; they started with the requisite swim lessons and progressed to the team atmosphere. They were entered in swim meets quickly; my nephew, a tiny six year old, was dwarfed by the 8 year olds in his age group rendering him somewhat of a team mascot. I have followed their progress in person and on video and am amazed that despite the time improvements, countless laps, and supposed instruction, their technique is still deficient. I am not picking on them, though, as this phenomenon is seemingly widespread. Most of the kids I watched had terrible starts and turns and egregious flaws in their strokes, even discounting the kids who were obvious beginners. The fundamentals need constant work, but the rush to increase yardage or perhaps because there are too many kids in the pool, the task of perfecting stroke mechanics is relegated to the back burner until it is all but forgotten or it is too late.
I bring this up for a very important reason. Proper stroke mechanics serves a bigger purpose than speed, whether you are a teenage phenom or a back of the pack triathlete. Certainly, going fast is the obvious goal. But, injury prevention should also be a key objective as poor technique will accelerate injury in a repetitive sport like swimming. Two conversations I had over the last week really opened my eyes to this dilemma. I was speaking with a teammate from my high school swimming days and we started naming the people we swam with that incurred shoulder injuries. The number was an astonishing seven, both of us included. We rarely worked on technique and we rushed through the few drill sets that were prescribed. Although we did gym workouts, they were not monitored and probably did more harm than good. Then, while at the swim meet, I learned from the mother of one of my niece’s contemporaries, who is 12, that she needed extensive physical therapy to learn how to use her muscles properly while swimming.  Luckily, she overcame her injuries and was back in action.
When I replayed the conversations later, I had a Eureka moment. Since most swimmers have poor technique, they yank themselves through the water in whatever way possible, neglecting to recruit the proper muscles. Swimming is touted as a full body sport for a reason. A strong, well functioning upper body is obvious, but swimmers need to also engage their abdominals, gluteals, hip flexors and quads. After hard workouts, when I hear people complain about a sore neck, cramping calves or feet, or aching triceps, I realize they are straining in the pool and overworking the wrong muscles to compensate for weakness in the proper ones. I have been a swimmer for 33 years, and I am still learning the nuances of technique and appreciate the tips coaches on deck offer. I spend time in the gym correcting imbalances in my shoulders developed 2 decades ago and I sometimes feel discomfort in my shoulder, reminding me that I should have paid more attention to detail when I was younger.

When my sister and I tried to explain to Jamie and Max how to improve their stroke, they waved us away, not unlike we used to do. Of course, everyone will have their own stroke variations – high elbows, bent elbows, fast turnover, long strokes. But one thing is clear: the latissimus dorsi is the powerhouse of the upper body and should be the dominant muscle used in freestyle. Stretch cords are a perfect way to help develop this muscle and practice good form. Seek out the help of an expert for individual swim lessons and underwater filming. Back off on your pace while you are perfecting your technique; you have to go slower to eventually go faster and stay injury free!


  1. Thanks for the great blog and very useful information for swimmers of any age

  2. So true--I see the technique flaws with both of my kids. They both only swim summer swim team, with a weekly stroke clinic for maintenance in winter. While I don't want them to build bad habits, I debate when the right time is to put them into year-round swim team. I don't want them to burn out, which is something I hear is common among swimmers. Any advice?

  3. My sister and I started swimming year round at 7 as did many of the other kids. Mostly, though, burn out occurs when there is too much pressure from parents and then the kids start to hate it. Never too early, just start with moderation and find out if they have a passion for it.

  4. I hear kicking is important for swimming too.

    (please assume pink font) :)

  5. We featured this on today ... good stuff, Aunt Joanna!

  6. JZ,
    while I agree with your observations, there is one problem for me and other latecomers to swimming: How do you know what it's supposed to feel like when you don't know how it's supposed to feel? And how can you teach this - especially if even great swimmers like you have problems to "feel it yourself"?
    Thanks for a very interesting post!