Swimming performance can be greatly improved if you train for the flexibility needed to smooth out your favorite stroke.
The best swimmers incorporate flexibility training into their regimen for two main reasons. First, as muscles are stretched, the individual fibers lengthen. A longer muscle fiber can create more force when it contracts. So flexibility training helps to increase the muscle's ability to pull you through the water.
Second, the less turbulence you create as you move through the water, the faster you will go. One of the biggest causes of turbulence is moving your body from side to side as you swim. Flexibility training will increase the range of motion of your joints, which allows you to move the joint instead of your whole body.
This creates a more fluid motion in the water and less turbulence. Allysa Lutz, a collegiate swimmer and multiple triathlon winner, believes that flexibility can make the difference between someone swimming smoothly and efficiently, and someone splashing and making more waves than progress.
A complete stretching program will include the following components:
- Proper warm-up: Muscles and tendons stretch easier and stretch farther when they are warmed up. Think of your muscles and tendons as pieces of gum; when gum is cold and you try to bend it, it breaks in half, but if it is warm, it just bends and stretches. So before you start stretching, play around in the water, moving all your muscles, get your heart rate up a little by swimming a few easy laps at an easy pace.
- Stretch all the muscles you will use: We tend to think that we will only be using our shoulders and glutes/quads during swimming because those are the muscles that usually get sore after a good swim workout. In truth, you use almost every muscle in your body! Depending on which stroke you swim (freestyle, breast-stroke, back-stroke, or butterfly), you will use some muscles more than others, but they should all be stretched.
- Length of stretch: It's real easy to rush through our stretching program to get to the fun part of the workout; but then we wonder why we don't get more flexible. Each stretch should be held for 15 - 30 seconds to increase flexibility. A shorter stretch may feel like plenty, but it's not. This is one case where more is better. Research has shown that 15 - 30 seconds of stretching will increase flexibility, and holding stretches up to 2 minutes is even better. So take a few extra minutes, and hold those stretches a little longer.
- Stretching repetitions: When you strength train, you do more than one repetition of an exercise, so why not do more than one repetition of a stretch? After holding a stretch for at least 15 - 30 seconds, release it, relax a moment, and stretch it again. You will find that the second and third stretches go a lot farther and make the muscle feel relaxed.
- Intensity of stretch: Stretching should not hurt. If it does, you are stretching too far. You should be able to feel a stretch as a slight pull on the muscle and tendon. Hold that position until you no longer feel the stretch, then pull a little more until you feel the tension again. If you feel any pain at all, STOP, you are stretching too far.
There are many possible stretches you could do to prepare for a hard swim; the following stretches will target all the major muscles you will use during any swim stroke. If you follow each of these stretches, holding each one for 30 seconds, and completing 3 repetitions of each, this program should take you about 15 total minutes to complete.
For such a small amount of time, you will see improvement in your swimming power, speed, and of course flexibility rather quickly.
Shins and Quadriceps
Probably the most overlooked stretch in swimming is the shins. The entire time you are swimming, your foot is plantarflexed (toe pointed). The more pointed your foot is, the sleeker your leg becomes, which means less drag in the water, and more power from the kick. The limiting factor is the flexibility of the anterior tibialis muscle in the shin.
Stand next to a wall for support, grasp your foot around the end of your toes as shown in Figure 1, and pull your leg up behind you, keeping your body upright. You should feel this stretch through the foot and along the front of the shin.
This stretch is slightly different than the quadriceps stretch shown in Figure 2, where you grasp your shin instead of your toes. Here you will feel the stretch from the hip to the knee along the front of your leg.
Stretching the shins (fig. 1)
Stretching the quadriceps (fig. 2)
The hamstrings assist the glutes during the upward lift of the leg (which is where most of your propulsion comes from). To stretch the hamstrings, sit on the floor with one leg extended straight out and the other bent and relaxed (see Figure 3). Lean forward and reach out to try and touch the toes on the extended leg.
Use your other hand to hold your knee down and straight. If you bend the leg, you will not get a good stretch on the hamstring. If you can't reach your toes yet, that's OK. Stretch as far as you can and always try to reach your toes. Repeat this stretch with the other leg.
The hip adductors help pull your legs back toward your body, and are prime power providers during the breaststroke. If you have ever felt a "groin pull," these are the muscles that are usually tight.
Sit on the floor with the bottom of your feet together as shown in Figure 4. Hold your ankles and use your elbows to push your knees down toward the floor.
Latisimus Dorsi and Back
The muscles of the back provide the majority of the power needed during most swim strokes. These muscles are the ones you use to pull yourself through the water. To generate good power, the back muscles must be able to move though their full range of motion with ease. The upper back and latissimus muscles can be stretched as shown in Figure 5.
Stand on the upper rung of the pool ladder or on the edge of the pool (be careful: slippery when wet), grasp both sides of the ladder rails, and lean back, dropping your head below your arms. As you relax your back muscles, let the weight of your body pull on your arms. This will produce a stretch that is felt through the length of your arms, down the back of your shoulders, and along the sides of your torso (latissimus dorsi muscles).
Chest and Shoulders
The chest and shoulder muscles provide power during the pull phase of most swim strokes, but they also help with the recovery movement, or the portion of the stroke when you reach out ahead of you for the next stroke. The chest and shoulder muscles are stretched by standing on a lower rung of the pool ladder, facing the water, while holding onto the rails with your arms behind you, hands facing out (Figure 6).
Bend you knees and let the weight of your body stretch the chest and shoulder muscles. You will feel this across the top of your chest, through the shoulder and down your biceps. If you experience pain in your shoulder, a variation on this stretch is to keep the elbows bent at a 45 degree angle throughout the stretch.
The triceps muscle is active during swimming when it contracts to extend your arm out in front of you to begin a stroke, and as it contracts to help extend your arm underwater to propel you forward.
Stretch the triceps by reaching over your head, and down your back like you have an itch you can't reach. Grasp the elbow of the arm you are stretching with the other hand and pull to provide a deeper stretch.
About The Author
Patrick Hagerman, Ed.D., CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D, USAW Club Coach, teaches in the department of Athletic Training and Exercise Science at the University of Tulsa, and owns Quest Personal Training Inc. in Oklahoma City, OK. He trains clients from all walks of life, from the high-school athlete to the stroke survivor.
Dr. Hagerman edits the One-on-One Column for the Strength and Conditioning Journal, and is a contributor to Personal Fitness Professional, Pure Power, and Men's Health magazines. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brenda Kelly's Stretching And Flexibility Tips