Posture and Swim Speed

There are two simple ways to swim faster:

increase your stroke rate (SR)


increase your stroke length (SL)

In other words, SR x SL = swimming velocity.  But Terry Laughlin, founder of Total Immersion, holds that increasing SR is self-limiting because energy cost goes up by a cubic relationship.  Taking your SR from two times per second up to four times per second results in you burning through your limited energy supplies eight times faster (2 x 2 x 2 = 8).  Laughlin goes on to state that “faster swimmers take fewer strokes than slower swimmers—at every level from Olympic finals to lap time at the local Y.”

But what if your pelvis is tilted anteriorly (a condition exacerbated by the tight lats which result from lots of pool time)?  What if your upper back assumes a position of kyphosis eerily similar to your seated workplace environment?  Then the short, tight muscles of the pectorals and deltoids will inhibit your reach, thus decreasing stroke length.  The only way to make up for this deficit is to increase your turnover, which costs you energy you cannot spare. 

In addition, the forward head carriage associated with a kyphotic posture puts your melon deeper in the water and greatly increases drag.  Ask the best swim coaches in the world and they’ll tell you that reducing drag will produce greater dividends in the water than anything else you can do.  You want to swim through the smallest cylinder possible.  But that’s hard to do when your cranium is virtually scraping the lane line at the bottom of the pool while your upper back breaks the surface of the water like the dorsal fin of a shark.  


That’s some serious drag you’re creating.  And it’s all because of your faulty posture.  Even worse, if you cannot extend the thoracic spine because you’re stuck in a position of kyphosis, every stroke you take will put excessive strain on the muscles and connective tissue of the shoulders.  As the prime movers involved in swimming become fatigued and their movements become less efficient, the four tiny muscles of the rotator cuff become overworked in an attempt to dynamically stabilize the glenohumeral joint.  Ten thousand meters a week later, and you’ve developed a nice case of swimmer’s shoulder. 

When defined as “significant shoulder pain that interferes with training or progress in training,” 35% of elite and senior level swimmers report episodes of swimmer’s shoulder.  What they are experiencing may not technically be swimmer’s shoulder but a similar condition called thoracic outlet syndrome.  The thoracic outlet is the space between clavicle and rib cage through which nerves and vascular structures pass from the neck and thorax to the arm.  The symptoms of thoracic outlet syndrome are similar to swimmer’s shoulder and numerous other clinical diagnoses, but they all have one thing in common.  As Kendall states,  “treatment should emphasize increasing the space of the thoracic outlet by improving the posture [and] correcting the muscle imbalance… that adversely affect the posture of the head, neck, and upper back.” (Italics mine.)

STRETCH: Sub Occipitals, Levator Scapulae, Pectorals, Anterior Deltoid, Latissimus Dorsi, All Hip Flexors 

STRENGTHEN: Deep Cervical Flexors, All Scapular Adductors, Lower Abdominals, Glutes

Other actions would likely need to be taken, too.  But the above prescription is a good place to start.  And just like posture, if you begin in the right place, you have a greater chance of ending in the right place.  

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