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A Pain in the…Shoulder?!?! Part II

Welcome back!  Today we are going to continue discussing proper techniques during the recovery and entry of the freestyle stroke to help prevent and/or reduce shoulder pain and inflammation.  A few days ago we covered proper hand position upon entering the water and the effects that this can have on the pull and your shoulder.  Today we are covering the second common problem that is seen during the entry of the stroke.  That common technique flaw is the location of entry, meaning where the hand actually enters the water.

The location of entry is a very difficult technique to figure out.  The main reason for this is because a swimmer cannot actually see anything that is going on above the water, so he or she just goes with what feels right.  It is for this very reason that working with a coach is essential on the road to good, safe technique.  Unfortunately, what feels right and natural may just be a bad habit.  There are a few possible places where the hand will enter incorrectly.  These places include across the mid-line, too close the head, and too far out in front of the head.  The best way to enter the water is finger tips entering first, in-line with or just wide of the shoulder, half way between your hand and your head during full extension.  This will put your entry point a few inches beyond your head.  Many swimmers, especially people new to swimming, will enter either right next to their ears or across their mid-line.  These three errors will be the focus of our discussion today.

We will start first with examining why swimmers cross over the mid-line during the entry and how it can lead to shoulder pain.  The mid-line is just what it sounds like.  It is an imaginary line that goes from the top of the skull down your body separating your body into a right and a left half.  When a swimmer’s arm enters across the mid-line, the arm tends to go across the body even more as he or she rolls and extends the arm.  Instead or starting the pull in-line with the shoulder of the pulling arm, it starts the pull in-line with the opposite shoulder.  This is an extremely inefficient pulling position because there is no way to grab any water before pulling.  This also means that the SITS muscles are doing all the work to pull which is not what you want.  It is the use of the SITS muscles rather than the lats during the pull that may eventually lead to inflammation and pain.  If you do not understand why to use the lats instead of the SITS muscles, please read part I of this series that was posted last week.  The goal is for the arm to enter in-line with the shoulder of the pulling arm.  This allows for a safer and more efficient pull.

A swimmer may cross over for two reasons.  The first reason, as explained above, is because the swimmer naturally has a point of entry that is across the mid-line which has become a bad habit for the swimmer.  The second reason why an individual may enter and pull across the midline is because the swimmer drops his or her elbow to the side as the hand enters the water.  If a person enters the water in the proper place or across the midline and he or she drops his elbow while entering the water, the result is the same.  Both of these swimmers will cross over.  As the elbow drops down to the side, the hand will go from aiming in the direction the person is swimming to aiming to the side of the pool.  The arm will go in the direction the hand is pointing as the swimmer rolls and extends the arm down and out.  As the elbow drops to the side, the hand begins to aim to the side of the pool across the body.  This will cause the swimmer to cross over setting up an inefficient and dangerous pull.  The goal for proper technique is to enter the water finger tips first, in-line with the shoulder or a tad wide of shoulder width apart, keeping the elbow nice and high, and 8 to 10 inches deep.

The second common problem area is entering to close to the head or next to the ear.  This is a problem of inefficiency rather than a dangerous pull; however, depending on what a swimmer does after entering it can set up a dangerous pull.  When a swimmer’s hand enters the water right next to the ear or head, it causes the swimmer to drive their hand straight down rather than down and out to about 8 inches deep.  In a few days we will be covering the importance of an 8-10 inch deep entry so check back for that explanation.  This swimmer may actually be starting their pull 1 to 2 feet deep rather than 8 inches.  The problem with this is that the swimmer is not actually grabbing much water to pull.  Grabbing the water is the most important part of the stroke because grabbing more water to pull will allow you to go faster.  By entering close to the ear, the swimmer will tend to grab less water and as a result have an inefficient pull.  This inefficient pull will generally not cause a shoulder issue; however, swimmers that enter at the ear realize that they need to grab more water and it is the way they go about grabbing more water that can lead to a problem.  This variation is that the swimmer after entering deep, because he or she entered the water next to his or her ear, will then let his or her arm drift up to the surface as the swimmer rolls onto the side and extends the arm forward.  The problem with this is now the swimmer is pulling from a point that is too shallow and this puts a lot of pressure on the SITS muscles and shoulder.  It is this problem that can lead to a shoulder injury.  This will be covered in-depth in our post about entry depth in a few days, so hang tight and check back in a few days for corrections to this problem.

The third common problem is entering the water way out in front of the head.  The goal entry location as we stated above is to enter the water half way between the head and full extension, in-line or just wide of the shoulder, with the finger tips first.  The reason for this location is to ensure that the hand extends to the proper location in order to set up a safe and efficient pull.  When a swimmer enters the water with his or her hand at full extension or beyond the proper location, he or she is setting up a pull that will use the SITS muscles rather than the lats.  Once again the shoulder problem is created because it is setting the pull up wrong.  It is the start of the pull and the entry depth that will actually put the pressure on the shoulder but the entry location needs to be correct in order to prevent this improper pull.  When a swimmer enters too far out front, he or she will start the pull from the surface which puts a lot of pressure on the shoulder and the SITS muscles and uses no lat muscle.  It is this pressure that may cause shoulder pain in the long run.  By entering at the proper location, this pain can be avoided because it will ensure a proper pulling depth and the activation of the lats for the pull rather than the SITS muscles.

There are a few drills that can be used to work on all of these issues of entry location and dropping the elbow.  The first drill that can be used is the  stop-stop-switch drill.  This is a great drill that allows you to slow down your stroke and focus on keeping the elbow nice and high as your hand enters the water.  This drill was also seen in Part I of this series to help with hand position while entering.  This is a hard drill to do, so if you have a weak kick it is in your best interest to do this drill with fins otherwise you may sink.  In this drill you will start kicking on your side with your head looking at the line at the bottom of the pool.  Your bottom arm will be out in front of you, palm down, 8-10 inches deep, in-line with your shoulder.  The first stop in this drill is when you roll your head to breathe while kicking on the side.  Place the head back in-line with the spine looking back at the line at the bottom of the pool.  The second stop is when you lift the elbow of the top arm up to the ceiling.  Keep the forearm relaxed, so that the hand swings forward with the knuckles facing the end of the pool that you are swimming to.  This will make a shark fin with the top arm and that is the second stop.  You want to pause in this position for a couple of kicks.  The switch occurs when you swing your hand and forearm from the shark fin position forward so that the finger tips enter the water and you take a stroke to switch sides.  Then you will repeat this stop-stop switch drill with the other side.  The goal for this drill is to really focus on where the hand is actually entering.  You will want to go slow from the second stop through the switch in this drill and focus on where the hand actually enters the water.  Also focus on keeping the elbow nice and high throughout the entry so as you enter the hand goes in first followed by the wrist and then the elbow.  The hand and elbow should not enter the water at the same time because that means your elbow is dropping to the side and you are crossing over as you enter.  Here is a video for you to watch to better understand the drill and the entry location:

Another drill to work on these problems is the catch-up drill with a kick board or fin.  This will be most effective for correcting the problem of entering across the mid-line.  In this drill you will want to use a kick board or fin and turn it horizontally.  You will start on your stomach holding the kick board/fin with the arms about shoulder width apart.  You will swim normally focusing on keeping the elbow nice and high and grabbing the kick board shoulder width apart after each stroke.  After the hand that just entered the water grabs hold of the kick board in-line with the shoulder, then do the same thing with the other arm.  Always have one hand holding the board at all times.  This drill is doing two things.  It is teaching your muscles the proper location of where the hand should enter the water.  It is also teaching the muscles how to keep the elbows nice and high as you enter the water.  If you are crossing over as you enter, then you will be grabbing the board closer to your head and you will have a hard time with this drill.  The point of this drill is not to go fast, it is to do it right so be sure to stay focused.  Here is a video of this drill:

Another drill to help you work on keeping high elbows and a wide entry is the catch-up drill with finger-tip drag.  This drill can be done with or without a kick board as seen above.  The difference between regular catch-up and this drill is that as you go through the recovery portion of the stroke you want to get the elbow nice and high and drag the finger tips across the surface of the water.  As you are getting ready to enter the water focus on keeping the elbow nice and high and entering the water shoulder width apart.  Here is a video of this drill to get a better idea of what you are shooting for:

The final drill to help you work on high elbow and entry location is the shark fin touch drill.  This drill allows you to work on balance, high elbows, and entry location. Start on one side with the bottom arm out front, 8-10 inches deep, in-line with the shoulder.  Lift the top arm up at the elbow keeping the forearm and hand relaxed with the knuckles facing forward. This will make the shark fin. Pause here for a couple of kicks, then swing the forearm forward and touch the water with your finger tips only where you want to enter half-way between the head and full extension.  Make sure you keep that elbow nice and high. Then bring the arm back to shark fin and then back down by your side and breathe.  Keep the elbow pointing at the ceiling the entire time except when the arm is by your side while you are breathing.  This is another drill that you should use fins with if you have a weaker kick.  Check out this video to see what the drill looks like:

This concludes part II of this three-part series.   Part III will be focusing more on entry depth and how setting this up properly is essential to a safe and efficient pull using the Lats rather than SITS muscles.  There is a lot of information here and not all of it will apply to you.  Generally a person has one of these three problems not all three, but it is important to be aware of all the areas the stroke can go wrong.  Knowing these different areas will help you to maintain a proper stroke and keep those shoulders pain-free for a long career in swimming and triathlon.  Correcting these problem areas does not guarantee that you will never have shoulder pain or injury, but entering at the proper location will help to lower the risk of injury.  Please feel free to comment on anything mentioned today and ask as many questions as you like.  Also a special thanks goes out to our strength coach Franco Zuccoli for demonstrating the drills properly in all the videos seen today.  Come back in a few days for part III. Start getting excited now because you are almost swimming pain free!

A Pain in the…Shoulder?!?!

Shoulder injuries and shoulder joint pain are both very common in swimming and triathlon.  More often than not, these shoulder injuries are a result of a flaw in stroke mechanics.  It is for this very reason that I have decided to write about this topic for you.  Every swimmer and triathlete wants to have a long career.  The only way to last in these sports is to remain injury free and that is why this is such an important topic for swimmers and triathletes of all levels.  My goal is to explain to you the common flaws that I have seen in swimmers who end up with shoulder injuries in the recovery and entry portion of the freestyle stroke.  I will then go on to explain the technique you want to shoot for and give you some drills on how to go about achieving that safe and speedy stroke!  There is a lot of information here and I do not want to make your brain explode and ooze out your ears, so I have decided to split this up over 3 posts.  Over the next week, I am going to post a common error that I see in the recovery and entry of the freestyle and then I will explain how to correct it.  In today’s post you will also be getting a little anatomy lesson on the rotator cuff to help give you a better understand about why shoulder injuries occur in swimming.  I hope that you find this informative and useful in protecting your shoulders from preventable injuries in your quest for a long and successful swim and triathlon career!

When swimming with good technique, the goal for any swimmer is to use the Latissimus Dorsi muscle.  Unfortunately, the reality is that most swimmers end up using shoulder stabilizers instead, especially self-taught swimmers.  The shoulder stabilizers include the Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor, and the Subscapularis.  These muscles are also known as your SITS muscles.  The goal of the SITS muscles is rotator cuff stabilization, hence the term “shoulder stabilizers”.  These muscles are small and are not designed for repetitive endurance activity such as swimming.  It is important to understand the function of these muscles in order to discuss rotator cuff pain and prevention.  The main function of the SITS muscles is to keep the ball and socket joint (your shoulder) together.  All these muscles used over and over again to propel the body through the water can cause inflammation in the rotator cuff which can lead to rotator cuff tendonitis if the stroke mechanics are not corrected.  There are a few reasons why the latissimus dorsi is a better muscle to use when swimming.  One major reason is that it is a much larger muscle compared to the SITS muscles.  It has the ability to create much more power, which is what you want when trying to tear through the water.  Another reason the lats are better for swimming is because its point of attachment is not near the shoulder.  This means that it will not cause shoulder pain!  Finally the lats are fatigue resistant, which means you can swim longer and faster without getting tired!  This is exactly why swimmers try to use the lats more than the SITS muscles and why they tend to have huge lats.  The pictures below will help you to see the major differences between the SITS and Lats:

Now that we are done with our brief anatomy lesson and are experts on the shoulder joint, we can move on to the good stuff. The common flaw that I am going to go over today is proper hand position during entry.  Many of the flaws that I will be explaining over the next week are hard to catch and that is why it is always important for swimmers of all levels, but especially beginners, to work with a coach.  A good coach will be able to spot these key flaws immediately and will help you to correct them in an effort to prevent any shoulder injuries.

During the entry there are a couple of places that can create shoulder pain.  The main focus of today’s post is hand position.  We will be covering the other points later this week, so be sure to check back in a few days.  When entering the water, it is important for a swimmer to enter the water with his or her finger tips first.  The common mistake that I see over and over again is swimmers entering the water thumb first.  The problem with a thumb first entry is that it sets up an improper pull.  This is where inefficiency in the stroke as well as a possibility for injury can occur.  When a swimmer enters the water thumb first, the first motion that usually occurs once the hand is in the water is a sweeping motion.  This sweeping motion happens because a thumb first entry causes the palm to face away from the body, so the first thing that the hand has to do to start the pull is push out to the side before grabbing any water.  This is inefficient because it is not helping the swimmer move forward.  All this does is push water off to the side which really does nothing for you but waste energy.  The really important issue is how this can cause an injury.  When a swimmer enters the water with the thumb down and sweeps out to the side, this is the SITS muscles at work.  This sweeping motion puts a great deal of pressure on the shoulder joint at the top of the deltoid, which covers the SITS muscles.  It is the repetition of this unnatural pressure on the shoulder that can cause inflammation in the joint leading to tendonitis or worse.  If this thumb first entry happens a few times it is not a big deal.  However, if this is a habit for a swimmer this is occurring about 18 times per 25 yards (9 strokes for each arm).  So if this person practices 3 times a week and does 3000 yards at each workout then he or she is putting this unnatural pressure on the shoulder joint approximately 3240 times per shoulder (6480 strokes divided by 2 shoulders).  Take these numbers and then throw intensity into the mix.  The faster one tries to swim, the greater the pressure on the shoulder becomes.  This adds up quickly and it is no surprise that entering thumb first and sweeping the palm out to the side to start the pull can cause shoulder pain or even injury if not corrected.

The proper hand position to help prevent injury is a finger tip first entry.  When a swimmer enters the water finger tips first, it allows them to bypass the activation of many of the SITS muscles.  This entry means that your finger tips will enter first so that your palm faces the bottom of the pool rather than the side of the pool.  Now a swimmer is more efficient because he or she can go right into grabbing water rather than pushing it out-of-the-way.  This will create a faster pull and the opportunity to grab more water to pull with each stroke.  An easy way to remember the proper position is this:  if you are entering the water thumb first, then you are giving yourself a thumbs down!

Now that we have gone over the goal hand position, we just have figure out how to do it!  Changing the orientation of one’s hand can be difficult to fix in a sport where all the limbs and torso are moving at the same time.  There a few drills that will allow you to slow down the stroke to focus on the hands as they enter the water.  The first drill that can be done is the stop-stop-switch drill.  This is a complicated drill, so if you have a weak kick it is in your best interest to do this drill with fins so that you can focus on the hands rather than focus on staying afloat.  This drill can be used to work on several parts of the stroke because it allows you to slow down each piece of the recovery including hand position and entry.  In this drill you will start kicking on your side with your head looking at the line at the bottom of the pool.  Keep your neck as relaxed as possible!  Your bottom arm will be out in front of you, palm down, 8-10 inches deep, in-line with your shoulder.  The first stop in this drill is when you roll your head to breathe while kicking on the side.  Place the head back in-line with the spine looking back at the line at the bottom of the pool.  The second stop is when you lift the elbow of the top arm up to the ceiling.  Keep the forearm relaxed, so that the hand swings forward with the knuckles facing the end of the pool that you are swimming to.  This will make a shark fin with the top arm and that is the second stop.  You want to pause in this position for a couple of kicks.  The switch occurs when you swing your hand and forearm from the shark fin position forward so that the finger tips enter the water and you take a stroke to switch sides.  Then you will repeat this stop-stop switch drill on the other side.  It allows you to pick apart your stroke and work on each segment of the recovery.  This lets you focus on keeping the knuckles forward so that the entering hand can go in finger tips first.  To get a better understanding of the drill please check out the video below:

The second drill to work on this is much less complicated but will really take a lot of focus to see if you are entering finger tips first and not thumb first.  This is the catch-up drill.  This is basically a slowed down version of swimming.  In this drill, start on your stomach with both arms out in front of you, palms down, and shoulder width apart.  In this drill, you will take a full stroke with one arm while keeping the other arm out in front of you in-line with the shoulder.  The key for this drill is to really watch your hand as it enters the water.  Do you see your finger tips enter first or your thumb?  This will tell you if you are fixing the problem or not.  After the hand enters the water and is back to its starting position so the arms are shoulder width apart, you will then take a stroke with the other arm.  Continue following this pattern and watching your hands enter to see if you are entering thumb first or finger tip first.  To watch this drill in action, check out the video below:

Both of these drills will allow you to slow down the stroke and focus on how the hand enters the water.  Correcting hand position is difficult because of the fine motor movements involved but it will make you more efficient and will help to prevent shoulder injuries in the long run.  If you are not sure if you are doing this properly, every once in a while when you are swimming look forward and watch your hands enter.  You will see clearly if you enter thumb first and sweep to the side or if you enter finger tips first.  That concludes the first part of this 3 part post.  Check back in a couple of days for the second part in which we will be going over the proper location of entry.  If you have any questions or need more clarification on the topics discussed in this post please feel free to comment and I will do my best to answer your questions.

I also want to thank Franco Zuccoli, the swimmer you saw and will be seeing in the videos posted today and over the next week.  He did a fantastic job  showing you how to do the drills properly!  He is our program strength coach and I have been working with him for quite some time now.  For more information on his work check out: http://www.Francozuccoli.com.  In the next few weeks, Franco and I will be collaborating on a post that will provide you with a strength training program that will help protect your shoulders and will make you a stronger swimmer!  Thanks Franco!

Stay tuned for more technique tips and earn that easy speed by increasing your stroke efficiency through technique!

Today we were lucky enough to interview Scott Greenstone, the founder of GOAT Gear, about the Aquaspotter™.  The Aquaspotter™ is a great product for open water swimmers and triathletes.  It is basically a neoprene belt with a flag on it that you wear while swimming.  The flag is 18″ tall and brightly colored so it is visible to all types of surface water crafts. It has received great reviews from swimmers, coaches, and boaters on its comfort, ability to improve stroke mechanics, and ability to make boaters more aware of swimmer presence.  This is a very important product for open water swimmers and triathletes to have in their swim bags, especially when training open water on those hot weekends with a great deal of boat traffic.  Here at Endurance Swimming, we support products that keep swimmers safe from any preventable accidents and that is why we have decided to conduct this interview to share with all of you!

Endurance Swimming (ES): Tell us a little about yourself and how you came up with GOAT Gear?

Scott Greenstone (SG):  GOAT Gear, LLC was born when I spent a year training for the 2010 Lake Placid Ironman Triathlon. During my long hours of swimming, biking and running, many times I found himself wishing for training products that just didn’t exist…yet.  Early inspiration nearly struck me in the form of a boat during one of my training swims in the Gulf of Mexico. As a lone swimmer in a large body of water, I realized that I needed a way to be more visible to the motorized craft that share those waters. Research ensued and development began on the flagship product: the GOAT Gear Aquaspotter™ for open water swim training. The idea was an instant hit amongst newbies and accomplished athletes alike throughout the triathlon and open water swimming communities. Here at GOAT Gear, LLC, we strive to make quality training products that help all athletes Get Out And Train™.

I am a devoted amateur athlete who has competed in over 100 running events including 17 marathons and has raced in over 30 Triathlons ranging from small, local sprints to Ironman Lake Placid. I am a registered nurse, father of two, a member of the Board of Advisors for Pace Racing, an original member of the MAPSo Multisport Team, and a medical volunteer for the ING NYC Marathon. I credit my devotion to endurance sports for changing my life… for the better…and I try to shares my passion with others whenever I can.

ES:  Can you tell us about the Aquaspotter™? What is included and how does it work?

SG:  Currently GOAT Gear has one product on the market, the Aquaspotter™. The Aquaspotter™ is a product that allows open water swimmers to be more visible to surface craft, lifeguards and spotters by placing a bright orange flag 18” above the surface of the water. Unlike other products that provide visibility, the Aquaspotter™ has virtually no drag because the product is worn around the waist as opposed to being dragged behind the swimmer.  It is a simple, yet necessary, product that consists of a very comfortable neoprene belt with soft stretch fabric that goes around the waist. On the back of the belt is a flange that holds the 18”, lightweight, fiberglass flag pole with a bright orange flag attached.  In addition, the Aquaspotter™ includes a zippered pocket that has a waterproof bag inside, so there is no longer the need to hide your valuables somewhere on the beach or under your car.  An added bonus is that coaches have been reporting the potential for swim improvement in the pool as they can better visualize their students’ hip rotation. This in turn allows coaches to modify swimmers’ strokes as needed to become more efficient.


ES: Now that the Aquaspotter™ is out on the market, what is next for GOAT Gear?

SG:  Now that we have released the Aquaspotter™ for sale, we are moving on to some new products that are in development. We are working on a product that will help triathletes quickly locate their bikes in transition after the swim. In addition, we are working on some other products that will help athletes Get Out and Train™.

ES:  Currently, who is using the Aquaspotter™?  Are there any big name professionals on board yet?

SG: Currently we have beginners all the way through professional coaches using the Aquaspotter™. In addition to triathletes, many snorkelers and snorkel guides are utilizing the Aquaspotter™ to help keep them more visible. The Aquaspotter™ is also starting to get noticed by various channel swimmers and long distance swimmers around the globe. We have people using the Aquaspotter™ in over 15 countries right now.

ES:  For other people out there trying to come up with products to make triathlon and open water swimming safer, what advice do you have to give based on your experiences?

SG:  I think it is important to perform market research before moving forward with your ideas. Although the idea may seem good to you, it needs to be validated prior to spending too much time and money. In our case, we surveyed lots of athletes to determine the level of interest in a product like this before any design work began.

ES:  That’s some good advice!  What products would you consider your biggest competitors and what sets the Aquaspotter™ apart from them?

SG:  I think the ISHOF SafeSwimmer™ is our biggest competitor. The Aquaspotter™ differs in that you are not dragging a buoy behind you and thus are not experiencing excessive drag while you are swimming. You also don’t have the risk of tow lines getting tangled in your kick with the Aquaspotter™

ES:  How have you used the feedback from open water swimmers and triathletes to help develop the design of the AquaSpotter and what are the reviews like so far?

SG:  We have 3 different testers of various abilities help test and refine the product over a 12 month period until we were satisfied with the performance and comfort. The reviews have all been stellar, ranging from Simon Gowen’s triathlon show to Utah Open Water, to reviews in Germany and Finland, as well as many others that are in the works.

ES:  We just have one more question for you today, what do you like to do when you are not working on improving the safety of triathletes and swimmers everywhere?

SG:  I am a runner at heart, so I am trying to come up with running products. But in my free time, I spend time with the family and try to relax as much as I can. But I always remember to Get Out and Train™

We really want to thank Scott for his time today and for all the great information.  If you would like to learn more about GOAT Gear or the Aquaspotter™ you can check out their website at:  http://aquaspotter.com/

Thanks for reading and be sure to stay safe out there!

Welcome to Endurance Swimming!

Hello Everyone,

We have decided to put together a blog to share our information about open water swimming and training with the world!  There will be posts about training, product reviews for swimming and triathlon, awesome videos, and other fun and inspirational topics.  Please inform us about any topics that you would like to hear about and we will do our best to write about it.  Don’t be shy, all questions and comments are welcome!  Don’t be afraid to ask any questions about triathlon and open water swim training, triathlon and open water races, and anything else that you want to read about.  We are excited to get rolling with this blog.  We hope you learn a great deal and enjoy reading our blog just as much as we enjoy writing it for you!  Thank you for following Endurance Swimming!

Stay tuned for more…