Swimming is without a doubt one of the best things you can do for your body. Water has a natural buoyancy that decompresses the joints and enables smooth, pain-free movement. Swimming also improves core strength and is one of the safest ways to maintain your cardiovascular fitness.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect.
Like any other physical activity, repeated movement patterns over time can lead to muscle imbalances. As a physiotherapist working with swimmers, I commonly see pain in the neck, shoulders, and upper back.
The majority of swimming injuries are from overuse, relating to a gradual tightness that builds up over the years. Once the muscles have developed significant restrictions in flexibility, pressure starts to build in the spine and shoulder.
The good news is that once you learn a few simple exercises, you can counter the typical muscle imbalances and stay pain-free in the water. The foam roller is, without a doubt, the best way to maintain your tissue quality, improve flexibility, and maintain your muscle balance.
In the clinic, I find myself repeating the same set of exercises to my patients—so I'm sharing those exercises with you in the hope that you can avoid future issues. Remember, consistency is the key. The best time to do these exercises is right after you swim.
1a. Lats Trigger Point Release
Lie on your side and roll up and down along the outer part of your shoulder blade. Gently rotate your body forward and backward, searching for any tender trigger points. If you feel a sensitive spot, breathe and hold the pressure for around 30 to 60 seconds until the trigger point releases. Take care not compress any nerves around the shoulder; you shouldn’t feel any pins and needles or significant pain.
1b. Lats Trigger Point Release
2a. Child's Pose / Lats Stretch
Sit your hips back toward your ankles with your arms on the roller. Breathe in through the nose, and expand the lower ribs. As you breathe out, gently sit the hips back farther and lengthen the arms away. You should feel a nice stretch though the back of the shoulders and lower back.
2b. Child's Pose / Lats Stretch
Twist the roller to the right side and feel the stretch at the back of the left shoulder. Take three long deep breaths through your diaphragm. Repeat on the other side.
Arch your upper back and look down toward your hips while contracting your abdominals. Then, reverse the motion by lifting your head and hips. Repeat 10 times. Note: Take care not to overstrain your neck or your lower back with this exercise. Do not force into the end of its range.
4. Thoracic Rotation Stretch
Place the roller lengthwise to your left side. Place the right arm on the roller and reach through to the left, aiming to feel a gentle stretch between the should blades. Rest your head gently on the mat. As you exhale, reach a little farther to the left. Aim for 30 seconds, and then switch sides.
5. Pecs Stretch With Breathing
Bring your awareness to your neutral spine. You should have a slight arch in your lower back (about one finger's width should fit between your back and the floor). Maintain this position while you breathe in and slowly bring your arms out to the side and up over your head, feeling a gentle stretch in the front of the shoulders. As you breathe out, lower the arms while maintaining a neutral spine.
5b. Pecs Stretch With Breathing
6a. Thoracic Roll
Lift your hips and keep your head supported with your hands. Roll the upper part of your back from the shoulder blades down to the lower ribs. Keep breathing, and relax your jaw. You should feel some nice releases in the joints here. Avoid the neck and the lower back.
6b. Thoracic Arch
Drop your hips to the mat, and arch the middle of the back over the roller. Breathe in through the nose as you expand the diaphragm for three breaths. Repeat at a few different levels, depending on where you feel tight.