In just a few weeks Olympic Games will be here again, and the Australian Dolphins will be looking to dominate the pool. Cam McEvoy and the Campbell sisters will be looking to establish themselves as the fastest men and women in water, and the team will seek to ruin the comeback of the legendary Michael Phelps and place Australia as the dominant swimming nation in the world.
Although shoulder problems are rife throughout the world’s elite swimmers, neck pain is a relative rarity. However, neck problems are extremely common among recreational swimmers. We discuss why this is the case and outline some helpful hints to prevent neck pain from developing.
Why does neck pain develop in swimmers?
Repeated rotational movements in a horizontal position involved in swimming is a movement that very uncommon in most individuals’ day to day activities. The main reason neck pain develops in swimmers is likely to be caused by inefficiencies in both breathing technique and biomechanics, meaning these rotations can become particularly stressful on the body. Fortunately, some simple technique tips and exercises can help alleviate and prevent neck pain associated with swimming.
How does breathing cause neck pain?
Obviously in order to take in oxygen, our mouth needs to clear the water. However, a common error in novice swimmers is to attempt to lift the whole head out of the water by over-rotating and extending the neck. This can be problematic for two reasons. Firstly, lifting the head out of the water will cause the hips and feet to drop altering the streamline horizontal position and reducing swimming efficiency. Secondly, the coupling of neck rotation and extension will stress the neck into positions that are uncommon, and repetition of this movement can potentially sensitise areas of the neck leading to pain.
Technique changes to prevent neck pain
When breathing, there should really be minimal neck movement. For the mouth to emerge for oxygen intake, rotational movement should come from the trunk and shoulder, with the neck remaining relatively still on the rest of the spine. When watching elite swimmers, it also becomes evident that lifting the head is completely unnecessary for adequate inhalation, most even leaving half the face submerged.
Most swimmers will have a preferred side to breathe on, however it is important to learn to breath on both sides to reduce stress on the neck – this what swimming coaches refer to as bilateral breathing. Even the world’s best will often breathe to one side during competitive events and even maximal efforts in training when performance is key. However almost all of them will spend time in training breathing to their non-preferred side to reduce the repetitive stress on that side of their neck.
Finally, the importance of a strong kick cannot be understated. Generating speed and power from the bottom half will help maintain a horizontal position and prevent the legs from dropping. This obviously improves stroke efficiency but also will help prevent compensatory neck extension in order to breathe.
Biomechanical influences on neck pain
Movement impairments elsewhere in the body can contribute to compensatory increase in neck movements. The thoracic spine (mid-part of the back) is often a major culprit, and limitations of movement here can make swimming with decent technique particularly difficult. Below we demonstrate some exercises to improve swimming biomechanics, increase thoracic spine mobility and reduce stress on the neck.
In swimming, as in many sports and movements, efficient technique and good biomechanical ability must be coupled – often improving one does not necessarily translate to the other. An individual who moves well biomechanically will still require effort to help translate this into functional swimming technique. Likewise, it can be nearly impossible to develop a quality technique if individual segments of the body are biomechanically impaired.
Of course, one of the worst things a swimmer can do for his or her neck is to hang eight big gold medals off it. Hopefully Michael Phelps keeps that in mind this time around!
Our Osteopath Matt has an extensive experience in both coaching and competing in swimming and water polo, as well as high level training in functional biomechanics. Come and see the team at Absolute Health & Performance, 199 William St, to reach your injury-free potential. Osteopathy Melbourne CBD.