The Athlete’s Body

The Olympics give us a fascinating look at the physical and athletic qualities of individuals who have achieved the top level of sport.  But how did these athletes reach that level of athletic performance?  One popular book has advocated the theory that excellence in any sport or activity requires 10,000 hours of practice.  But how much does genetics matter?  Does an athlete’s body adapt to years of repetition in the same sport or did the athlete find success because their body was suited for that particular sport?  For example, would Michael Phelps have been so successful if he trained as a runner from an early age?

The evidence would seem to point to the contrary; Michael Phelps’ physical and athletic make-up optimized his chances for swimming achievement.  Michael Phelps might have been a successful runner but chances are he would not have won 14 gold medals in two Olympic Games if he ran track.  Add 10,000 hours in the pool to extremely long arms, huge hands and flipper-like feet and you have the makings of an athlete that has reached the pinnacle of his sport.  Those same attributes wouldn’t be as valuable to a runner, with or without 10,000 hours of running.  Watching Charles Barkley play golf is evidence enough that greatness in one sport does not necessarily translate to excellence in all.

One physical quality that should be added to the list of attributes that will allow an individual to swim more successfully is the mobility of the shoulder joint.  Confirming this observation, a study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found that elite swimmers possessed a greater degree of shoulder mobility than recreational swimmers.   The authors concluded that this mobility was both acquired through years of swimming and was an inherent trait in those that competed at the elite level.

Similar results are found in other athletes that compete in sports that place a high demand on the shoulder like baseball, tennis or volleyball.  These athletes benefit from a greater degree of mobility of the shoulder and years of repetition in these sports enhances this mobility.  However, the pendulum can swing the other way as this mobility comes with the price of the increased risk of excessive motion, meaning instability.

Countless sports medicine journal articles have been devoted to examining the incidence of shoulder injuries in swimmers and in one such article, a review article examining the causes of shoulder pain in swimmers, researcher Dr. Casey O’Donnell states, “controversy surrounds whether swimmers acquire shoulder laxity as a result of repetitive motion, or whether swimmers with inherent shoulder laxity are more efficient in the water, which leads them to stay in the sport longer and compete at a higher level.”

But like many attributes, too much of a good thing can become a problem.  Too much shoulder motion can become instability after years of repetitive use.  For swimmers, excess mobility in the front of the shoulder can lead to pain and sometimes structural damage.  As swimming enhances the looseness of the front of the shoulder, additional stretching of the shoulder can contribute to the development of shoulder pain and laxity.  Because of this, care should be taken to minimize stretching the front of the shoulder as with a doorway or partner stretch.  When the front of the shoulder is inflamed or sore from the repeated stress of swimming, the shoulder can feel “tight”.  Responding to this feeling with more stretching can further irritate structures that are already “overstretched”.

While there is conflicting research on the topic, researchers at the University of California, Irvine found that the swimmers whose shoulders displayed a greater degree of laxity or looseness were more likely to experience shoulder pain.

Rather than more stretching, the emphasis should be placed on increasing the stability of the shoulder to balance the inherent mobility.  The rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder act to maintain the stability of the shoulder and strengthening of these important muscles should be a high priority.  In his article Dr. O’Donnell recommends that all young swimmers be instructed in a shoulder-strengthening program, specifically one focusing on the shoulder blade and rotator cuff muscles.

High volume of any sport or activity, even a non-impact activity like swimming, can lead to an overuse injury.  It is important to follow the same principles that guide runners, cyclists and dancers in the prevention of swimming injury.

Key Points

  • Swimming naturally develops the mobility of the shoulder.  Be careful with “extra” stretching of the front of the shoulder as this may contribute to the development of shoulder pain
  • Strengthen the stabilizer muscles of the shoulder; the rotator cuff and the scapular muscles
  • A frequent cause of shoulder “tightness” is inflammation of the front of the shoulder from too much stretching.  Avoid further stretching.
  • Include cross training and rest days into swimming program
  • Avoid large abrupt increases in swimming volume