Swimming requires incredible range of motion in your joints to achieve maximum power and speed. In other words, good flexibility.
Flexibility is an important part of every triathlete’s training, but it is often overlooked.
Flexibility is a common athletic term but what are the goals of being flexible as it relates to freestyle swimming? There are key goals for staying flexible and how these goals translate to better swimming include the following three areas:
1. Range of Motion (ROM) and the neural stretch response:
Goal: Improves the stimulation of the stretch and motion receptors in your joints to respond better to movement. In order to enhance movement, there are several types of sensors in all of your joints, which need to be stimulated through stretching and mobility work.
Swimming relationship: Stimulating your stretch and motion receptors allows you to move through your joint’s ROM easier without over compensating with less efficient parts of the body. Using more body parts to drive ROM at a single joint creates turbulence in the water which generates drag resulting in less than optimal performances. The less turbulence you create in the water, the faster you will go.
2. Improve body posture to reduce drag and enhance propulsion:
Goal: Improves how the body creates specific postures, joint and limb positions, and how it employs specific techniques to minimize resistance or drag to improve propulsion.
Swimming relationship: Flexibility helps you, for example, elongate your body for better float and center the position of your limbs close to the hole in the water that the body creates as you cut through the water. The longer your body and the less total exposure you can create with your body and limbs in the water, the more fluid your motion will be in the water. The more fluid you are in the water, the less drag you create and the better your performances.
3. The length-tension relationship in muscles and joints.
Goal: Improves the relationship between the length of your muscles and how much tension your muscles can exert, which are critical in maximizing the level and duration of much force they can apply each stroke.
Swimming relationship: As muscles are stretched, the length-tension relationship is enhanced, individual fibers lengthen which generate higher level and longer applied forces as you swim.
To demonstrate the affect flexibility has on swimming technique, consider the following two areas of the body that are greatly affected by inflexibility: shoulders and ankles.
Poor flexibility in the shoulders affects several key areas in your swim stroke:
1. It reduces arm extension during the glide which limits the elongation of the muscle fibers involved in the pull phase thus reducing your pulling power.
2. It limits your ability to hold an effective high elbow position during the glide which creates drag. Being unable to hold a high elbow position during the glide then negatively affects your early vertical forearm capabilities and reduces your ability to generate propulsion in the pull phase.
3. Poor flexibility limits a high elbow recovery which in turn helps to minimize misalignments that come from the affects of body rotation.
Poor flexibility in the ankles affects key areas in your kick and body position:
1. Poor ankle flexibility generates greater frontal exposure with ankles chronically pointed downward (like a letter “L”) which act like an anchors behind the swimmer creating drag.
2. Less efficient structures will compensate if the ankles and not flexible and do not assist in creating an effective kick. For example, the knees will flex more creating a “bicycle “ type kick which generates drag and is very inefficient.
3. Balance and the transition of power between upper and lower body is negatively affected due to a poorly timed hip drive.
There are many other examples of how poor flexibility affects swimming performance but these are the two most common areas of inflexibility most age group triathletes face. To address this issue of inflexibility there are many stretching and mobility components to be considered which are outlined below:
1. Timing: Muscles and tendons stretch easier and 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 easily bends and stretches. So do static stretches after your workout is complete.
2. Full body stretch: We tend to think that we will only be using our shoulders and glutes, quads during swimming. In truth, you use almost every muscle in your body so do full body stretching!
3. Length of stretch: Each stretch should be held for 30 - 60 seconds to increase flexibility. A shorter stretch may feel like plenty, but it's not. Research has shown that 30 seconds of stretching will increase flexibility, and holding stretches up to 2 minutes optimizes flexibility.
4. Stretching repetitions: After holding a stretch for at least 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 even more relaxed.
5. 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.
Furthermore, there are many possible stretches you could do to increase your swimming flexibility but the following stretches are key to make a real impact on your swim performances.
The limiting factor for ankle flexibility is the flexibility of the anterior tibialis muscle in the shin. To stretch muscles and tendons associated with ankle flexibility sit on your feet. Kneel on the floor with your ankles hitting your glutes. Place pressure on your ankles using your body weight. Adjust the weight on your ankles with your arms by leaning backwards for those with more flexible ankles or forward for those with very inflexible ankles. The less flexible your are, the more you support your body weight with your arms and vise versa.
Go onto your hands and knees on the floor. Place your big toes together and widen your knees. Exhale and reach back with your hips as you lengthen your torso. Place your torso down as your head comes to the floor. Lengthen your tailbone away from your back as you extend your arms on the floor. Let each inhale extend the spine and each exhale bring you deeper into the pose.
The chest muscles provide power during the pull phase. To stretch your chest muscles, stand in a doorway, lined up with the opening. Place your arm at shoulder height in the doorway at right angles as shown. Place one foot in front and one behind for stability. Keep your spine straight and rotate your body downward, “nose-dive” fashion. Note: don’t push through the doorway, rotate downward. You should feel a stretch in your pec area. Return to the starting position and repeat.
The shoulder muscles provide power during the pull phase, but they also help with the recovery and entry phases. To stretch your shoulder muscles pull arm across chest until stretch is felt. Turn head away from the pulling arm. Repeat with other arm.
Bottom line: Stretching is a key element to swimming your optimal performances. Specifically poor flexibility affects your range of motion, swimming posture, limb positions and your ability to apply force but a consistent stretching routine can help to modify the affects of inflexibility on your swimming performances.
John Hansen, USAT, and USA Swimming Level 1 Coach and USA Cycling Level 3 Certified coach, Folsom California. Hansen has an MS in Exercise Physiology and previously worked at the UC Davis Sports performance lab for five years. Hansen currently coaches the UC Davis Collegiate Club Triathlon team. Hansen also has his own coaching business, primarily coaching long course athletes, 70.3 and 140.6. Visit HansenMultisport.com or email email@example.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.
1. Flexibility for Swimming Patrick Hagerman, Ed.D., CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D, SportSpecific.com
2. How Do Asymmetries Affect Swimming Performance? Ross H. Sanders J. Swimming Research, Vol. 21:1 (2013)
3. New Dimensions in Flexibility: What the Research is Finding and Missing: Charlie Hoolihan (2011) American Swimming Coaches Association
4. Ankle Flexibility, Allan Phillips, Swimming Science May 2017