Monday, February 1, 2016

Functional Flexibility - Part II: The Swim Catch

by Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)

In my last article on functional flexibility I touched on the importance of flexibility in the swimming stroke. To be certain, there are folks who are technically limited in their swimming by errors made in body position and recovery, entry and catch mechanics. It has also been my experience that many, while knowing what to do, are limited in their ability to do by limitations in their flexibility, especially among older athletes without a swim background.

I want to go into a little more depth in this piece on probably the most important area of the stroke where flexibility limitations can come into play -- the catch.

The swimming catch is a bit of an elusive term. Everyone wants to have a good catch but few can precisely describe it. To me, the catch occurs when the hand significantly anchors upon the water and the trend of the stroke shifts from the hand moving backwards through the water to the body moving forwards over the relatively stationary hand.

Specifically, to achieve this requires:

  • A significant amount of surface area
  • Most of that surface area being directed backwards (assuming the swimmer wants to go forwards)
  • An optimal acceleration of this "blade" on the water

While the third element is largely relegated to that esoteric feel for the water, the swimmer can have direct impact on the first two elements of the catch with conscious attention to both technique and flexibility.

After viewing many underwater videos of swimmers in conjunction with biomechanical analysis of the joint angles involved, I’ve concluded that this anchor point tends to occur when the blade of swimmer hand and forearm reaches a critical angle of approximately 50-65 degrees in relation to the waters’ surface, that is, more of the hand/forearm is facing back than facing down.

Clearly then, if we want to optimize the length of the swim stroke, the fundamental question becomes: how far in front of the body can we get this hand/forearm blade to hit this critical point? Or, put another way, how high can the arm be while the forearm is still hitting an angle greater than 45 degrees? At this point, shoulder flexibility comes into play.

While the majority of athletes will exhibit maximal ranges of shoulder internal rotation of more than 45 degrees at 90 degrees of abduction [see the top picture to the right] being able to achieve this level of rotation as the arm is elevated to the side (abducted) becomes more challenging [See an example of this position in the stretch in the bottom photo to the right. Note: to be more specific, the forearm should be pronated/turned down in a catch position].

This ability, to achieve greater than 45 degrees of internal rotation at very high levels of shoulder abduction is something that is very prevalent among elite swimmers -- see the picture of Ian Thorpe below, achieving greater than 50 degrees of internal rotation at greater than 180 degrees abduction (normative values for shoulder abduction are in the range of 150 degrees!). This is not a "normal" position and begs the question, should folks attempt to imitate a Thorpe-like stroke without Thorpe-like flexibility?

While this combination may border on the freakish, it’s quite common in the world of swimming to see good swimmers at greater than 45 degrees of internal rotation with abduction angles of greater than 130 degrees such as in the picture below:

However, in the world of Masters triathlon, the following is much more common:

That is, next to no internal rotation at the shoulder and instead a straight arm stroke that relies on the entire arm hitting a 45 degree angle (shoulder abduction of 135 degrees or more) before a real purchase on the water is made.

One need only look at the pictures to see the potential difference in stroke length. Thorpe is clearly anchoring a long way in front of the head, our second swimmer is also anchoring in front of the head while our third swimmer won’t likely achieve a good purchase on the water (a 45 degree forearm angle) until the hand is below the face.

When it comes to swimming function, then, shoulder abduction and internal rotation are key flexibilities and should be included in the triathletes strength and flexibility regime. Composite stretches such as the one shown above, along with it’s constituent parts of shoulder internal (and external) rotation and shoulder abduction and flexion should be emphasized both as passive stretches and active movements.

Additionally, high levels of shoulder flexion and abduction are contingent upon good mobility of the thoracic spine -- put more simply, the Hunchback of Notre-Dame wouldn’t have made a great freestyler! Effort should be made to keep the thoracic spine long and both the thoracic spine and scapulae mobile. Functional movements with light implements that emphasize reaching/extension and thoracic/scapula release either via massage or self-myofascial release using a foam roller are useful adjuncts.

Hopefully you’ve found the above information useful in your quest to narrow the gap on the lifetime swimmers. The take home message is that you can only take your function (technique) to the limits that your flexibility will allow. A focused flexibility routine can make significant inroads in improving your swimming efficiency and technique.

Train Smart.

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