My Shoulder Hurts When I Swim Freestyle

I recently asked the My Triathlon Swim community to share their biggest challenge, when it comes to swimming freestyle. I received some great responses. (A BIG thank you to everyone who replied.)

Many of the usual suspects were represented in the feedback….

I swallow water when I breathe…”

“My legs sink!

But several members of the community listed injuries as their biggest challenge. This isn’t really a surprise, since swimming can be brutal on upper body joints, especially the shoulders.

There are a couple of common stroke-related factors that can contribute to shoulder injuries. One causes shoulder injuries when preforming an incorrect stroke technique, while the other causes injury when attempting a correct stroke technique.

Here’s what I mean….

Figure 1

Incorrect Hand Entry: Through, Not Over
As your hand enters the water your goal is to reach through the water to around 12-inches below the surface. (See the lower half of Figure 1.)  You’re reaching and gliding, in search of stable water in which to “anchor” your hand.

Instead of reaching through the water, many swimmers reach over the water. (See the upper half of Figure 1.)

This creates three issues:

  1. Brings air down into the catch zone.
  2. Forces the swimmer to start pulling immediately, without gliding and finding stable water.
  3. Places a tremendous amount of stress on the shoulder joint.

If you suffer from shoulder pain when you swim, take a look at how your hand enters the water. Is your arm already straight when your hand enters? Do you see a big pool of bubbles where your hand entered? If so, consider entering with a bent arm and reaching through the water. Then glide.

Correct Catch: Strength and Flexibility is Key
Once you’ve reached through the water, glided on your lead hand, and found that stable water, it’s time to start your pull.

Figure 2

The correct technique here is to keep a high elbow and make a “paddle” with your hand and forearm, as illustrated in the lower half of Figure 2. Many swimmers drop their elbow and “slip” the water. (See the upper half of Figure 2.)

Performing a high-elbow catch is the most advanced skill we discuss on this beginner site. You can read more about the correct catch technique in the book, plus get workouts in the workout section.

A high-elbow catch requires strength and flexibility. For that reason, it’s important to stretch and strengthen your shoulder joints, using dry land exercises.

If you’re looking for a good way to strengthen your shoulders for swimming, consider getting a set of StretchCordz. I often encourage swimmers to keep a set at the office or home and do a few sets each day. You’ll be surprised how quickly you see a difference in your stroke.

I hope these stroke tips help with any shoulder injuries. However, stroke adjustments might not be the fix for your shoulder issues. I encourage you to see a medical professional if shoulder pain persists.

Should I cup my hands when I swim?

One fairly common question I get from beginner triathletes is, “Should I cup my hand when I pull underwater?”  This is a fair question. It seems like cupping the hand would help the swimmer scoop more water. This might make sense if the underwater pull was a straight-line, scooping action. But, it’s not.

Let’s review a section from the Essential Swim Skills for Beginner Triathletes book…

How the hand enters the water is important because it “sets up” the all-important catch phase. The “catch” happens when a swimmer reaches through the water and anchors their lead hand in stable water. Keeping ahold of this water while applying accelerated pressure is the key driving force for triathlon swimmers.

(Editor’s note: Get the free of Essential Swim Skills for Beginner Triathletes.)

There are two pieces of the above statement you should make note of….“keeping ahold of water” and “applying pressure.”

To “apply pressure,” swimmers should maximize the hand’s surface area by keeping it flat. Swimmers should think of their hand (and forearm) as an oar, rather than spoon. In other words, cupping the hand reduces the surface area and should be avoided.

To “keep ahold” of water throughout the pull, swimmers must adjust the pitch of their hand. The underwater pull is not a straight back pull. Swimmers who effectively use the pitch of their hand to find stable water and propel themselves forward are said to have a good “feel for the water.”

So, rather than cupping the hand and scooping water, swimmers are far more effective if they maintain a flat hand and adjust the pitch of their hand throughout the pull.

One of the best drills to improve your feel for the water is sculling. When sculling, a swimmer keeps their hands and arms along a horizontal plane, i.e. moving from left to right. In other words, their hands do not travel along their body line at all. They use the pitch of their hands, as they move them in-and-out to create forward momentum. Think of how the pitch of a propeller moves an object forward. Sculling is often a very slow exercise, and that’s fine.

So, the bottomline is that scooping the water with cupped hands is not advised. Creating an oar-like plane with the hand and forearm is preferred for distance freestylers.

We’ll incorporate sculling into our free workouts here.

My Number One Technique Tip

Body position is crucially important for triathlon swimmers. By finding the right body position, it’s possible to swim faster and with less energy…and that is a wonderful thing.

It’s common for beginner triathletes to feel like they are ploughing through the water, with their legs dragging as dead-weight behind them. Much can be gained from shifting your center of buoyancy from the air-filled top half towards your legs. You can do this by pushing your chest down and forward. Imagine you are swimming downhill….but not so far downhill that you reach the bottom.

If done correctly, you will feel your feet come closer to the surface.

Now, it’s important that you make this adjustment by pushing your chest down and not just dropping your head down. Maintain a correct head position while pressing your chest down and forwards. Experiment with several degrees of “chest-press” and see which one feels natural to you.


Reach Through, Not Over, the Water

Effective swim coaches are have a plethora of analogies at their disposal. Drawing from the “dry world” can be an excellent way to communicate a technique in the pool. “Pretend you’re a pig roasting on a spit,” helps a swimmer perfect a body roll while maintaining a stable head position; “Imagine you’re swimming through a tube,” helps prevent a high arm recovery… and so on.

But probably my favorite analogy is to imagine a ladder running 1-2ft underneath the water. Your hand should enter the water in front of your face, with a high elbow. Then reach through the water to the farthest rung of the ladder you can reach. That means rotating onto your side to grab a rung further up the ladder. Notice that I said to reach through the water for the furthest rung and not over. This is important. It’s much easier to catch the water if you reach through the water because you bring less air into the water that when reaching over. By slicing through the water air pockets are minimizes, but when you each over and slap the water with a straight arm, you create one big air pocket.

Try it. The next time you swim, reach over the water and look how many bubbles you see ahead of you. Now slide your hand in with a high elbow and reach forward, through the water. You should see fewer bubbles.

The ladder analogy helps the swimmer experiment with hand entry and reach. If you try this, also experiment with the velocity with which you enter the water. Many coaches encourage a rather vigorous entry and reach to help with body roll, i.e. to gain an extra rung on the ladder.

Let me know what you think of this visual. And if you have a favorite analogy, share it below.

A Good Set to Practice Buoy-Spotting

Here’s a good set to help practice spotting the buoy during race day.

If you are training in a 25 yard/meter pool:

Swim 4-6 x 100 yard/meters freestyle. In the middle of each length, lift your head and take 2 arm cycles with you chin on the water. Place your face back in the water and complete the length.

Take 20-30 seconds rest between each 100. Adjust this if you are swimming in a 50 meter pool or in open water.

Here’s the important thing to remember. Each time you finish swimming with your face out of the water, be sure that you return to the correct body position. Lifting your head can cause you to lose a well-balanced body position.

Practice Bilateral Breathing

Most swimmers have a natural breathing side — normally the side of the dominant (writing) hand, but not always. It’s fine to exclusively breathe to this side because it’s important that your breathing fits into your rhythm, the same way it does on the run and bike legs. Come race day, finding a rhythm is important, so nothing should feel forced to you.

Having said that, while training, it’s good to experiment with breathing to both sides. Doing so helps reinforce “balance” and a full rotation of the hips. (It’s also possible that, over time, you find that breathing bilaterally (to both sides) fits better with your natural rhythm.)

One of the best times to practice breathing bilaterally is during pull sets, where you are using a pull-buoy. By isolating the pull and floating the legs, you can focus on finding a breathing rhythm that uses both sides. Consider swimming a set of 50s, where you breath every 3 on the first length and 5  on the second.

If you haven’t done this before, it will take some getting used to. There’s a good chance that you will swallow a bit of water. We all do when learning this.