Welcome to my Clinical Splash, where I will share incites from my experience working with patients in the clinic, observing injured swimmers in the water, and from my own injuries, as it relates to swimming. Some posts may provoke you to think, move, or swim a different way, hopefully better, more efficiently and injury free. Some posts will center around a particular concept, a particular swimming drill, or a dry land exercise, all focused on creating increased body awareness and optimal movement pattern. I welcome questions and challenges via email. As our bodies change with age and injury, our fitness and performance in the pool is ever evolving. Let’s start a conversation and feel and swim the best we can….
About Allyson Friday, PT, DPT, OCS: I am a physical therapist of 10 yrs and swimmer of 35 yrs. I swam competitively from age 5 through college, and continues to swim locally in Boulder. I enjoy 5-10k open water swims when I am not chasing around my two little girls. I practice physical therapy at ALTA Physical Therapy & Pilates. While I enjoy treating a variety of joints and injuries of various athletes, my expertise lies in treating the injured swimmer. I can be reached via email at email@example.com. Questions welcome.
2018 greets me with a rude awakening in the water. After working towards and completing a dreamy 10k swim in Barbados in early November, I took a two month hiatus from swimming. So here I am, starting from what feels like scratch, and I am reminded of the most fundamental, essential mastery in swimming: breathing. Take a moment and breathe 3 times. Observe. What do you use to breathe? Observe again. Your questions to me might be, “What does that even mean? Why is this important?” If you raise your shoulders and tense your neck taking a breath while reading this post, what do you think happens when you are ¾ of the way through a hard set in practice? You probably do the same thing with even greater intensity. And consequently, you are using muscles to breathe that were not made for breathing, decreasing your power and efficiency to move in the water. Basically, you are compensating. Try to breathe into the lower part of your lungs, expanding your ribcage laterally, and keep your shoulders relaxed. Do this 10 times. If you presented to the clinic, my job would be to unravel the compensatory movement pattern that has been layered on top of a potentially faulty breathing pattern, increase your stability and efficiency to move….and ultimately make you swim faster! To be continued……
“Why does it matter if I breathe more into my upper chest than into my lower, lateral rib cage?” This question has many layers. I will tackle a few here. First, most swimmers have an Upper Trap-Pec dominant movement pattern. If that is true for you, when you lift your arm over your head, you initiate the movement with your Upper Trapezius and Pectoralis muscles. And if you breathe primarily into your upper chest you are likely over using your Upper Trapezius, Scalenes, and Pecs. When I see this in the clinic, it is safe to assume that my swimmer will breathe and move this way in the water too, which is less efficient and can lead to injury. Second, breathing into your lower, lateral rib cage will optimize your core stability system, consisting of your Diaphragm, Transverse Abdominus, Pelvic Floor and Multifidi muscles. This is your fundamental stabilizing system, and for swimmers this is what we push and pull from. In the middle of the pool, we don’t have accessories like the ground, bike peddles, or rock walls to help us stabilize. Though some of you may be one with the lane rope….for the rest of you, your core is all you’ve got. And if you are not using it correctly, you are compensating. In other words, you are over using your Upper Traps, Pecs, and Neck muscles. I want you to optimize your breath, use your core, and power through your scapular stabilizers, Lats, and hips. Homework: 1. Breath into lower lateral rib cage. 2. Practice the Ski Jumper exercise. 3. Don’t pull on the lane rope!
“If I am making the sets, why do breathing patterns and compensation patterns matter?” Well, if you breathe more efficiently and optimize your core stability system, you will swim faster and be less prone to injury. Biomechanically speaking, if you breathe right, the muscles you rely on for swimming will have a mechanical advantage: Latissimus Dorsi, Middle and Lower Trapezius, Serratus Anterior, Triceps, Posterior Rotator Cuff. It is more challenging to access these muscles on land and in water if your shoulders are up to your ears and rounded forward (due to Upper Trap-Pec dominant pattern). Give your Upper Traps a vacation. Let your shoulder blades fall down your back, and settle your breath deeper into your rib cage.
Now, in order to facilitate the exodus of the old pattern, you have to give your body something else to engage. This is where strengthening with the correct motor pattern comes in. For more detail: 5 Essential Components for Shoulder Health. The next few posts will contain exercises that strengthen the correct muscles. If motor pattern and compensation are a great challenge for you, you will benefit from having a PT from ALTA , namely me , look at how you are moving. If weakness is more your challenge, get to work! Start with these two exercises: Prone I and Prone T, videos on ALTA PT’s YouTube.
If you have mastered the Prone I and T exercises, and you are tuned into your core through your breath, try this exercise: Lat pull down. Lat pull down? Yes, Lat pull down. Don’t stop reading! I know this is a familiar exercise. I know you often hear coaches say, pull with your Lat or swim with your Lat. It took me some time, and strengthening, to really understand what that meant. First, you have to understand it on land, where you have a stable base of support. If you already do this exercise on a regular basis, I imagine you think you know what you are doing….and you might! But, here’s the thing, 80% of the people I watch do a Lat pull down don’t use their core, and initiate the movement from their Upper Traps. This is a pattern we are trying to break! In the water, your core is your base of support…if you integrate it with your pull, your Lat will have a significant mechanical advantage. So, if you do the exercise correctly in the weight room, it is an excellent exercise to facilitate an optimal movement pattern in the water, by integrating the use of deep core stabilizers (diaphragm, pelvic floor, transverse abdominus, and multifidi muscles) with the use of Latissimus Dorsi. So, next time you do a set of Lats (I recommend 3 x 15), sit down, grab the bar, and before you pull, inhale and then on the exhale settle into your core as your shoulders settle down your back…then pull. Attached is a video demonstrating incorrect and correct form. Once you dial this in, we can get creative and more sports specific. Stay tuned….
Again, questions welcome. And if you would like a specific topic addressed in the blog, I take requests! firstname.lastname@example.org
Simple concept. Deceivingly challenging to implement. Profoundly life changing.
Try this: Focus on the exhale. In order to breath deeper (not bigger), focus on the exhale. Right now, as you read this, take 10 breaths. Start with an exhale. As you exhale, feel your rib cage move inward, your abdomen move in toward your spine (contract), your pelvic floor come up inside your body (contract), and your shoulders settle down. Exhale more than you think you can. Then let the inhale happen, almost effortlessly. Repeat ten times.
As you are able to start to shift the effort of breathing to the core musculature that was intended to support this essential activity, you will be more stable in your lumbopelvic and scapulothoracic regions, and you will compensate less with muscles whose primary intention is not breathing.
In the water, if you are frequently huffing and puffing between swims or at the end of a set, stop trying to breathe in, and focus on breathing out. You can do this resting at the wall….and try it while you are swimming too. But don’t try too hard! This is about creating less effort, not more. It is a shift. Not a place to put more effort.
Again, simple. Challenging. Life changing.
Once you dial this in, everything else is duck soup.
Two words have come to mind in the past few weeks. Durable and opportunity. Anyone over the age of, let’s say, one, has experienced injury on some level. Those over 30 or 40 may have experienced significant injury. Those in their 50’s, 60’s or 70’s have likely experienced injury and slower than desired recovery from that injury. As we get older, we are less durable. Ah, but there is opportunity in that!
For instance, imagine you were to get your toes stepped on unknowingly by a gentle, yet sizable, old horse. You might think, “Owie! Ow! OW!” Which might naturally lead to concern about the future integrity of your toes, and your ability to walk, run, or swim. Or you might think, “Wowie! Wow! WOW!” Which might lead to a new appreciation of the mass of such a beautiful beast, and a new found clarity about how one might position one’s foot in proximity to a hoof in future horse related circumstances. Ah ha! Opportunity. While circumstance may lead to injury…there is always opportunity.
For the injured folk out there, swimming or not swimming related, there is so much to learn. Injury is an opportunity to learn about your body and how it moves, your mind and how it gets stifled, your strengths and your weaknesses. Injury is a complex puzzle of body, mind, circumstance, history, and patterning. And if you embrace it, the opportunity is expansive.
“Healing is a matter of time, but it is also sometimes a matter of opportunity” Hippocrates