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Summer Activity Series: Massage & Swimming

Jul 3, 2014

In the world of sports, swimming is known for its low impact total body workout and benefits. As your body is suspended in a pool of water, your arms and legs propel you through the water as your core keeps you afloat. But, when you regularly swim continuous laps throughout the pool, low impact can quickly turn to high stress and strain on your body if you don’t take the time to rest, recover and recuperate between workouts. Incorporating regular massage into your pool routine can not only help maintain your muscle movement and flexibility, but it also can help restore your mental strength and aptitude. 

Repetition Can Stress Out Overused Muscles

Swimmers spend the majority of their time in the pool with their faces in the water as they reach and extend their bodies from one side of the pool to the other. In each stroke that you take, there are a lot of different muscles in motion as you elevate, extend and lift your arms through the water, while kicking your legs at the same time. Whether you enjoy the freestyle, breast or butterfly stroke as you swim, various shoulder and upper back muscles all endure repetitive action as the back side of your body constantly works to power you through the pool. Even when doing the backstroke, you’re facing up, but you’re still continuously rotating your shoulder blades as you swim. And, this constant repetitive movement during all four of the swim strokes is what can cause pain, discomfort and the development of tight knots in your overworked muscles after an intense swim workout or competition.

“Whether you’re a recreational or competitive swimmer, the repetitive motion of the strokes will have a tendency to cause either knots or strains, especially in the back of your shoulders,” explains James Rosenblum, massage therapist at Elements Needham. “And, the shoulder is a funny animal because there’s so much traffic that goes through this part of the body between all of the muscles, nerves and joints in the area. If you swim four to six lengths of the pool doing freestyle, for example, you’re rotating your shoulder at all times and the repetition causes the muscles to tense up. What winds up happening at the end of a pool exercise is you end up with tension in the upper neck, shoulders and back area because that’s where all of the body movement takes place.”

Stretch It Out to Stay on Course

Since swimming includes a lot of extending and contracting of the upper and lower body muscles, it can leave your body feeling tight and in knots, as well as lead to injury, if you don’t take care of your muscles before and after you’re in the pool. Rosenblum emphasizes the importance of regular stretching for all athletes, but especially to swimmers to keep muscles flexible, long and lean. During a massage session with swimmers, Rosenblum believes in combining neuromuscular workwith a lot of stretching for the best results.

“I’ve found that most swimmers don’t stretch enough because they think they don’t need too because swimming is low impact,” says Rosenblum. “Even so, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your muscles don’t need to be stretched after you use them. When I massage swimmers, I focus on doing a lot of stretching and myofascial work because I’ve come to believe it’s the easiest way to release knots and loosen muscles.”

Some of the best stretches for swimmers include laying on a massage table or the ground face up and bringing your arms completely overhead while reaching the tips of your fingers and toes as far away from each other as possible. As knots tend to build up in the shoulder area of swimmers, it can be helpful to keep their range of motion loose and fluid with rotational stretch movements before and after a swim workout.  It’s also important for swimmers to stretch out their less active pectoral area to counter balance the strain and muscle pull from the back of their bodies as they extend themselves forward with shoulder dominant strokes.

“Pretty much everybody is very head-forward, so the pectoral major and pectoral minor muscles tend to be weaker in most of us to begin with,” says Rosenblum. “Swimmers tend to fall victim to this too because they’re not really using these muscles while they’re swimming. So, it’s good to work on them during a massage session and stretch them out regularly to balance out the body. I’m a big believer in counterbalancing because if one part of the body is being used at all times, the other side, even though it will be shortened, will be trying to counter what’s happening from a motion standpoint on the other side of the body.”

Regular Recovery Restores Health, Wellness, Performance

Every smart workout plan includes ample time to rest, recover and recuperate your body and your mind. Swimming is no exception. While it’s important to get in the proper amount of laps in your workout, it also is important to not overdo it by swimming every day and not giving your body enough time to recover. Athletes also tend to think that they can push through pain and discomfort. But, it’s important to listen to your body to ensure that you’re properly training and recovering from your swim workouts.

“The biggest mistake that recreational athletes tend to make is they overdo it and don’t allow for proper recovery,” reflects Rosenblum. “It’s important for swimmers to know that massage isn’t just about feeling great, but it’s also helpful in restoring the equilibrium in your body. If swimmers don’t take care of the muscles and address the knots on the back and front side of their bodies, they won’t be in balance, they won’t see the performance they want and any problems they have won’t just go away.”

Keep your swim workouts going strong this season by incorporating regular massage into your training program. It’s a great way to spend your recovery days so you’re ready to dive into your next workout or competition feeling healthy, strong and prepared to accomplish your personal best. 

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