Warming up & Stretching for Swimming is immensely important. Let’s be honest, we weren’t exactly built for the water and the strain a swimming workout or race puts on our bodies is intense. That being said swimming is also an extremely beneficial exercise for your fitness precisely because of this strain. We’ll cover the benefits of swimming another time though.
This is another installment in the series on stretching. Here are the other articles relevant to Triathlon Stretching:
Again, this guide will include information on Dynamic / Active Stretching and Static stretching. Dynamic stretching is probably more important for swimming than the other sports because you need to make sure that your muscles are warm before getting into the pool, lake, ocean or whatever you will be swimming in. The reason for this importance is because of how the water affects our body temperature.
Without going into too much detail we feel the cold a lot more when we are in the water compared to on land. When our bodies feel cold they restrict blood flow to our extremities to protect our core body temperature. This can often restrict movement in your arms and shoulders and also cause muscle cramps. This is the leading cause of people dropping out of Triathlons so make sure you warm up!
Warm up Stretches for Swimming
Ok, so how do you warm up for swimming? Well, a lot of people take a short run before a swim and others just dive in. Another option is to cycle to the pool or other area you will be swimming in to build up a bit of a sweat before you get started. If you really don’t have the opportunity to break a sweat before diving in then take the time to do these active stretches.
Single and Double Arm Rotations
If you haven’t warmed up at all then the best active stretch to start off with is a single arm rotation. Put your left palm on the front of your right shoulder to stabilize it and slowly begin rotating your right arm forwards as if you were rotating a massive wheel. You will feel where your shoulder needs to rotate so don’t resist this and allow your right palm to rotate inwards and outwards to allow your shoulder “space” to freely move.
As you feel your shoulder loosening up, increase the speed of your rotation while always maintaining control. Once you have alternated arms you can move on to the double arm rotation. This is essentially the same thing only both arms rotating at the same time. This progression allows your shoulders more freedom and can really get you warmed up.
A further progression on this is to swing your arms backwards instead of forwards. This can cause pain for some people and also slight tweaks if not done carefully. After swinging both arms forwards you can do the single arm rotation backwards. To do the double arm rotation, rotate one arm forwards and one arm backwards as doing both backwards is difficult and not recommended.
After completing the rotations above you should have broken a sweat. Now you can move on to more challenging stretches that get you completely ready for a good swim.
There are a number of arm swings that you have probably seen Olympic swimmers do at the start of each race. These are very good active stretches to wake your “swimming muscles” up. The first and easiest is probably the front “back slap” made famous by Michael Phelps pre-race routine. This swing includes both arms swinging and crossing opposite directions and reaching around and tapping your back. You should feel this a little in your shoulders as well as your back. As you do the swing try to reach further and further towards the middle of your back.
Next you want to move on to the overhead back slap. To perform this swing you must alternate arms swinging sideways up over your head, bending your elbow and tapping your top middle back or neck if you aren’t too flexible. This swing is a great indicator of your Latissimus Dorsi muscle’s (“Lats”) flexibility – the largest muscle on your back and the primary driver of swimming strength. If you aren’t very flexible with this swing then concentrate extra on the static stretches after your workout. You should feel this swing in your lats, triceps and shoulders.
Active Stretches for your Legs
Of course, swimming involves your legs as well so you don’t want to neglect them. You won’t need to do as much as warming up for running or cycling but an active quad stretch or two will help. For more info on these stretches see Stretching for Cycling.
Post Swimming Stretches
This is probably the most important stretch for a swimmer after a workout so make sure you do this one first. Doing it first also ensures that your muscles are still warm which will make the stretch more effective.
- Grab your right elbow over your head with your left hand
- Place your right hand behind your neck and relax this arm as much as possible
- Gently pull your right elbow to the left using your left hand
- After holding the stretch be sure to switch arms
You should feel this stretch significantly in your Lats and Triceps, depending on your flexibility and swimming style. Hold this stretch for a good 30 seconds to a minute to get the most out of it.
This stretch targets your rotator cuff on your shoulder. This is probably the second most important muscle to keep flexible for swimming. This stretch is extremely important in mitigating the risk of shoulder injury as the shoulder muscles are somewhat weak and delicate.
- Extend your right arm across your chest with your palm facing away from you
- Use your left arm to gently pull your arm closer to your chest
- If you are feeling particularly tight you can rotate your right palm to stretch other parts of your shoulder although most people won’t feel much of a difference
A variation on this stretch is to grab your elbow behind your back with your arms down. This can also target particularly tight shoulders but be careful not to pull to hard as there is a higher risk of injury with this variation.
Often swimmers will feel very tight in their upper shoulders and neck. You can stretch this out by doing the following:
- Keeping your right arm at your side, reach over your head with your left arm and place it just above your right ear.
- Keeping your back straight, gently pull your head to the left, allow your neck and trapeze to stretch.
- Once comfortable with this stretch, the right arm can be moved slowly in front of your body and behind it to target different areas in your trapeze muscles and neck.
Depending on your workout you may feel quite tired in your quads and other muscles of your legs. The primary stretch necessary for most swimmers is the standard quadriceps stretch:
- Stand straight and bring your right leg up to your buttocks.
- Grab the leg with your right hand and hold on to a rail with the other hand for balance.
- Pull your ankle towards your buttocks to feel a stretch in your quads
These basic stretches should suffice to keep you nice and flexible and keep your stroke long. If you are starting your triathlon stretching reading here you might also want to read:
I also found the following articles useful:
Are there any important swimming stretches that you can’t live without? Have you found other articles that have been helpful to you on this topic? Please share!