The three main causes of swimming neck pain

Swim Smooth’s Paul Newsome dissects the three classic stroke flaws that cause neck tension or pain for swimmers

The three main causes of neck pain in swimming

If you suffer from neck tension or pain after swimming you’ll know how annoying it is but have you considered it might be something in your stroke technique causing it?


Here Swim Smooth’s Paul Newsome describes three classic stroke flaws that place a large load on the muscles in your neck, which commonly lead to pain and discomfort in the neck or trapezius muscles.

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1. Looking skywards whilst breathing

Here’s Clare looking straight up towards the sky (or pool ceiling) when breathing in an effort to find clear air:

Having to twist the neck this far round places a lot of stress on the neck, which can easily lead to soreness after swimming. This is a very common stroke fault amongst Bambinos (and also extreme Overgliders with very low stroke rates).

When we swim we should use the bow wave created by the head as it passes through the water, the bow wave shape creates a trough by the side of the head which we should be breathing into straight across the pool in position A.

Here’s Swim Smooth coach Steve Bailey demonstrating this technique to good effect, angling his mouth to the side (‘Pop-eye Breathing‘) to allow him to keep his head really low:

Notice how Steve’s lower goggle is in the water and he’s looking across the surface of the pool, not twisting and looking skywards.

If you’re quite new to freestyle, keeping your head this low can take a little getting used to but it’s an essential skill to master to make breathing comfortable and relaxed. Try developing it whilst swimming with a pair of fins on, you’ll be more relaxed with the fins on and your extra speed through the water will exaggerate the size of the bow-wave.

2. Breathing too far forwards

The bow-wave trough only becomes deep in the area directly alongside the mouth, which is why we should be breathing directly to the side in position A:

If you try to breathe further forwards of this point in position B then the surface of the water is much higher and you will have to crane your mouth and head upwards to find air.

This craning position places a large stress on the neck, quickly leading to a sense of fatigue. Practise breathing in position A and you’ll immediately feel relief.

3. Lifting the head to breathe

Did you know your head weighs around 5kg (11 pounds)? That’s a heavy weight to lift out of the water every time you breathe and the effort of doing so places a lot of stress on your neck and trapezius muscles:

Lifting the head out of the water like this actually stops the bow-wave forming, so that trough beside your head disappears – making it feel like you have to lift it up that much or you’ll swallow water! Trust that when you keep the top of your head in the water the trough will be there for you and you can keep your head much lower.


For more advice from Paul, book your ticket at the 220 Triathlon Show – head to