Stretching Exercises for Swimmers

By Gary Hall Sr. | Aug. 15, 2016, 6 a.m. (ET)

swim school

Go back to school! Erase the smelly, crowded hallways of your high school from your mind and imagine yourself under the Islamorada sun in a clear pool ready to absorb knowledge that will enable you to swim faster. Swim School from Gary Hall Sr. of The Race Club is about lifelong enjoyment of the sport. It’s always more fun to swim to your potential.

Dryland and strength training, including stretching, should be an integral part of the swim training program for all ages. There are three principle reasons for using a good dryland/strength program: 1) Build power and core strength 2) Increase flexibility and range of motion of key joints and 3) Prevent injuries to key musculoskeletal components.

dryland exercisesSome feel that since swimming is a low-impact sport, measures to prevent injury are not important. The incidence of injuries in swimming is actually higher than many would think. Overuse inflammatory injuries are the most common but occasionally serious traumatic injuries do occur.

At the outdoor USA Swimming National Championships in 2005, Nick Brunelli tore his shoulder ligaments during the start of the men’s 50-meter freestyle and required major reconstructive surgery. While qualifying for the Olympic team in 2008, Emily Silver broke a finger at the finish of the women’s 100m freestyle. Muscle strains and pulls are common, particularly while racing.

At the Race Club, we take stretching and dryland training very seriously and spend about 45 minutes before a practice each day with a carefully planned routine. The exercises involve the key muscles and joints used in the swimming motions, with particular emphasis on the ankles, shoulders, hips and lower back. Adding range of motion or flexibility to each of these joints can produce significant improvements in swimming speed.

Butterfly, backstroke and freestyle, for example, require having good extension of the shoulder joint in order to initiate the pull with a high elbow, while simultaneously rotating the body away from that shoulder for the recovery arm. In breaststroke, for example, each additional degree of external rotation of the hip can make a significant difference in the surface area of the instep pushing backward and the power one can achieve from the kick. For flutter or dolphin kick, the range of motion of the ankle (plantar flexion) has a profound impact on the propulsive power one can achieve from that kicking motion. Lower back flexibility and core strength enable breaststrokers to elevate higher prior to the kick and derive more force moving forward with the strike.

The good news is that all of the joints I have mentioned have the ability to be changed. Some do not. The knee, for example, is a hinge joint and the strong ligaments attaching the fibia and tibia do not give in easily. The thickness of the Achilles tendon makes adding more dorsiflexion of the ankle very challenging. The shoulder and hip are ball/hinge joints, which means they are more capable of achieving a wider range of motion. The anterior ankle ligaments are among the most pliable in the human body and can be stretched more easily.

In order to swim fast, one must have the right tools to do so. Stretching properly will not only give you better tools for swimming, but will help keep the body healthy. Make stretching and dryland training part of your daily swimming plan.

Watch this #swimisodes to see why stretching exercises are great for swimmers.

Yours in swimming,
Gary Hall Sr.

gary hall srGary Hall Sr., M.D. is a three-time Olympic swimmer (‘68, ‘72, ‘76) who earned a medal in each of the three Olympic Games. At one time he held 10 world records in all strokes except breaststroke and was the World Swimmer of the year in 1969 and 1970.

Gary Sr. serves as president and technical director of The Race Club Inc. based in Islamorada, Florida. He is the current president of the United States Olympians and Paralympians Association and co-founder of World Fit, a non-profit organization promoting childhood exercise and sports. He has six children, the oldest of whom, Gary Jr., also swam in three Olympic Games (‘96, ‘00, ‘04) and earned 10 Olympic medals. Two other children, Richard and Amy, and his wife, Mary, work with Gary Sr. at The Race Club. In 2006, Gary Sr. retired from ophthalmology to dedicate his remaining professional career to teaching advanced swimming techniques for competitive swimmers and triathletes. 

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.