What are the best stretches for swimmers?
Stretching can help improve and increase your flexibility and range of motion in the water so you can swim faster and more efficiently. Tri coach Philip Hatzis explains the best stretches for swimming, and why they can be more beneficial than drills.
When should you stretch?
Stretching can help improve your swim technique and should form part of your regular training schedule. It should be done both post-swimming, to alleviate any muscle tightness, and as a session in itself at home, to improve your flexibility in the water. I don’t recommend stretching before your workout (when you are not warmed up) as evidence shows a reduced performance and no injury reduction. It would be better to mobilise and activate muscles and leave stretching for after exercise.
How does stretching improve your swim technique?
If we review a triathlon swimmer’s limitations, these are often grouped as “technique” flaws. The most popular way to improve this is usually by doing drills. Unfortunately, this partly misses the point. For most swimmers, the reason their technique is limited is due to flexibility, mobility or strength. Doing a drill will not address the problem; it just makes you more efficient with what you have got. Let’s explore some of the critical areas we can improve away from the pool, and we have some videos as well to guide you through. If you are following any of the videos, make sure you are warmed up before starting.
Range Of Motion – Shoulders and Ankles
For triathletes, two significant areas usually need work: shoulder mobility and ankle flexibility. If these areas can be improved, then the swimmer can unlock better technique. Without it, they will be working against a glass ceiling and doing the best they can manage with their body.
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One of the classic images from most coaching manuals is the “catch”. This image has been used to sell thousands of swim masterclasses around the globe. However, all the drilling in the world will struggle to get you into the right position if you haven’t got the internal shoulder rotation to enable that movement.
Work on improving your shoulder mobility, and that will ensure you can get into the right position to enable a catch. With time and practice, you will then be in a position to move more water propulsively for longer. Working on flexibility, strengthening and shoulder stability will do more to your technique than endless lengths of drills.
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At one extreme, ankle flexibility will facilitate better kick mechanics and improved propulsion. At the other end of the spectrum, poor ankle flexibility (plantarflexion) will actively slow you down, ruin any good body position you have, and limit your forward progress. You can swiftly tell if you need to work on ankle flexibility because when you do a kicking length, you either don’t move forwards quickly or perhaps even go backwards!
Streamlining is essential as it facilitates excellent posture and body position and enables a platform for much of the technical skills to be built upon. In many ways, it can be a litmus test for the potential for better technique. Much of the limitations here are to do with lifestyle: back and shoulders. The video below outlines how to improve your streamlining with some mobility work. Checking your streamlining is something you can do almost any time and is an excellent stretch to do if you have sat at a desk for a while (see the video below). When swimming, hold the streamline position every time you push off the wall, this gives you a nice stretch and will increase your speed out of every turn.
For some insights on how to improve your streamlining and range of motion, check out this video:
Why you should stretch after training
So far, we have considered mobility rather than stretches as they help improve your ability to get into a position to develop your swimming stroke. You can also do stretching to alleviate any muscle tightness and stretch your neck, shoulders and lats, improving your mobility, remember that these should be done after training. The mobility exercises above will help you as additional exercises to do away from the pool. However, the stretches in the video below hit many of the classic areas that may get tight and eventually limit your mobility.
As you can see, improving your swimming can be done away from the water, isn’t something you need to muscle your way through, and stretching is something you should do with a deliberate purpose. When done correctly, you will begin to see improvements in the positions you can get into and ultimately unlock faster swimming.
Philip Hatzis is a BTF Level 3 qualified coach and Ironman certified coach. He is the founder and head coach of Tri Training Harder.
Top image by Getty Images