Technique-Based Injury Prevention for the Swim

By Lisi Bratcher | April 02, 2018, 10:04 p.m. (ET)

swim triathlon

Did you know you can reduce the risk of developing overuse injuries by adjusting your technique? In this two-part series, we’ll look at injury prevention specifically for women 40 and older. In Part 1, we focus on the background and the swim.

The Lowdown

Swimming and cycling with a slow turnover rate requires a high effort (force) to push/pull through the cycle compared to higher rates, which is similar to running with a slow cadence. The longer the stride rate, the higher the impact of each step. This increased effort puts an extra load on the muscles, connective tissue and consequently on the surrounding joints. Based on these findings, exercise professionals and coaches have suggested an increase in the turnover rate (stroke rate/rpm/stride rate) to avoid overload injuries.

As we age, peak performance in endurance events decreases by 10 percent per decade, starting as early as 30 years of age. In the fourth decade, there are measurable declines in various cardiovascular and muscular fitness, with training-related consequences requiring attention, such as:

  • Prevention of overuse of joints and connective tissue due to their reduced ability to adapt to high stress.
  • Prevention of muscle loss, increase in body fat and bone density loss.

Independent of the chronological age of long-distance triathletes, the highest prevalence of overuse injury sites among are the knee, lower leg, lower back and shoulder.

Technique-related flaws are more serious to take in masters athletes compared to younger age groups due to lower muscle mass and weaker connective tissue. Aging female athletes are more prevalent to injuries compared to their male counterparts because of their lower muscular and cardiovascular base line.

To accommodate the reduced capacity in female masters athletes to handle higher impacts and higher forces, technique adaptations in swimming, cycling and running are recommended.

The turnover rate is measured in cycles per minute, which is commonly known in the three triathlon disciplines as stroke rate (swim), revolution per minute (bike) and stride rate (run). Scientific proof exists in each discipline that shows that training and racing at a higher turnover rate can help to reduce the load on the surrounded anatomical structure.

Let us look at each of the triathlon sports and how we can apply this concept.

Technique Adaptations for the Swim

During gait, humans choose a combination of step length and step rate that minimizes VO2. A similar approach was found in swimming. A research team found out that swimmers prefer to move at the lowest stroke rate that does not require an increase in VO2.

That makes a lot of sense: We try to be energy efficient and do not want to waste energy by cranking up our arms faster than necessary.

But here is one of the issues we face: Swimming with a low-set stroke rate and low energy output does not always mean this is the healthiest and easiest option!

Swimmers who swim with reduced spontaneous stroke rate, spend more time in non-propulsive phases (what we call 'over-gliding'). This is most likely caused by an unusual muscular solicitation.

A researcher group suggested that technique changes are necessary to limit an increase of the resistive impulses in between arm propelling actions. In freestyle moves, swimming with a relatively low number of strokes increases the load on the shoulders. Contrary a high turnover swim rate increases the load on the cardiovascular system, instead of wearing out muscles and joints.

Additionally, to reduce the amount of applied force of each stroke cycle, there is another practical reason for female masters triathletes to benefit from adapting to the higher stroke rate concept: Compared to the calm pool setting, open water venues can present challenges with choppy water, currents and crowded space. A higher freestyle stroke rate makes it possible to adjust to the requirements and cover the distance with less effort.

Reducing resistance in your shoulders should make you faster and more efficient in open water swims. But as with all technique changes, it takes time and dedication to re-program your muscle memory and adjust to the higher cardiovascular demand.

To get started, count the number of strokes for a pool length and see how much you are able to increase the count. For the more serious and advanced athletes, I favorably recommend the use of a waterproof metronome like the Finis Tempo Trainer. This little device, which goes underneath your swim cap, is helpful to practice a wide range of stroke rates.

waterproof metronome

Workout Examples

Stroke Rate Sets (stroke per minute = spm)

  • 5x 100 Freestyle as (75 @ regular stroke rate/25 @ increased stroke rate)
  • 10x 50 Freestyle: 25 - regular swim, count each stroke eg 14 per 25. Then shoot for increase in stroke count by 1 each 25
  • 20x 25 Freestyle @ 15s Rest. Sets with Finis Tempo Trainer. #1 @ Stroke Rate (SR) 48, #2 SR 50, #3 SR 52, #4 SR 54, # SR 56 - until you cannot keep up with beeper at 15s Rest. Rest 2 min, then start over.

If you are interested to follow up on this concept for cycling and running, stay tuned for Part 2!

Lisi Bratcher is the owner of fit.active LLC, a multisport coaching company focusing on Swimming and Sports Nutrition, based in Huntsville, Alabama. Born and raised in Europe, Lisi received a Ph.D. in Exercise Science and from the University of Vienna in Austria. Today you'll find her teaching Exercise Physiology and Health &Physical Education classes at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, as well as coaching intermediate to advanced triathletes. She is a certified ACSM Exercise Physiologist, a certified Track & Field coach, and a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach. Find her on Facebook at triHSV or contact her at lisibratcher@hotmail.com.

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.