Swimming, Shoulder Health, and The Bay Swim

So… swimming… Seems like I have been doing a lot of that recently.  I guess it is normal with the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim coming up, a 7km crossing of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.  And with the #50kinMay challenge I participated in on Twitter.

How are things going, you ask?  Well, not too bad…

Thoughts on shoulder health

When I upped my swimming volumes in April I noticed a lot of resulting shoulder soreness.  I fully expected tired sore muscles, but this felt a bit different.  I honestly started to wonder if my shoulders would be able to take the increased load and volumes in the build up to the Bay Swim.

I have hypermobility in my joints and I don’t really think much about it, it’s just the way that I am.  But I have always known that it impacts my swimming.  I tend to rotate less and move my shoulders a lot more when I do freestyle (forward crawl).  It’s not like I think about it – in fact, I have tried to correct this and try to rotate more.  But the way I swim, well it is just the way that I am I guess… 

Hypermobility has caused me issues over the years.  I have knees that dislocate.  And an elbow that dislocated and required reconstructive surgery.

One arm super bendy, the other arm reconstructed and “normal”

What I never realised until training for the Bay Swim was the extent to which my hypermobility impacts my shoulders.  Especially with the increased swimming volumes (I am doing one 5k+ swim a week at the moment).

I had one of my regular appointments with the National Hospital of Neurology Physiotherapy team, so while I was there I asked if we could focus the session on my shoulders.  I was feeling a lot of movement in the joint when I was swimming, some tightness and fatigue in the small muscles, and I suspected it may be a result of my “bendiness”.  I wanted to find a way to start to address this, and to make sure that I would be able to do the swim and to exit the bay feeling strong and healthy.

General wisdom in the swimming community was to ask the physio for exercises to strengthen my rotator cuffs and scapula muscles.  So I mentioned the problem to the physio and asked if exercises like these would help.  Her answer?  Shoulder Rehab 101.

I actually have to start my journey to shoulder strength by completely relearning where to put my shoulder blades. 

Where to put my shoulder blades?

Here is how I sit normally…

See how my shoulders are pulled forward?  My coach remarked that so many people do this due to desk jobs.  But if it was just due to a desk job, my shoulders would be rounded, pulled down.  In the photo, my shoulders are forward, but straight.  But rather than the three finger width that is “normal” between the shoulder blade and the spine, I have well over a hand width.  My shoulder blades just don’t know where to go, so they go all over the place. 

And here is my goal shoulder position…

The difference is subtle.  Maybe you would say I look like I just “have my shoulders back”.  But it is not easy for me to put my shoulders there – it is like they have no muscle memory of this position at all!  I’m working to correct this, with some really simple exercises to “teach my shoulders where they belong”.  I have a theraband and am doing simple point and pull exercises.  And I try to remember that when I put glasses on shelves that when I am done, my shoulders must “go back”.

Without putting my shoulders in the right place, it means that when I swim, the “correct” muscles don’t engage.  I take a lot of the swimming in my rotator cuffs and small scapula muscles, and don’t really use my laterals.  So my pull phase is weaker than it could be, if I were engaging the right muscles.  It kind of explains my frustration as to why I am not getting quicker with my swim – the right muscles aren’t working.

So I have started to fix things.  It’s going to take a long time.

And there is more…

I’m also contending with a different feel in my arms when I swim – tighter triceps on the left, achey shoulders on the right.  That is down to my elbows.  They are different (as you can see in the photo above) and that is leading to a different positioning of my arms when I pull through the water.  But I hope with time, as my shoulder blades find their spot, this will help my arms to find the best position for the swim pull phase (even with different elbow extensions). 

So in addition to discovering that I need to learn where to put my shoulder blades, and working to fix that, which will help my swimming, it seems that I will eventually need to relook at my whole swim technique!  I’ll eventually need to find a new swim stroke to better use my muscles and to become a better swimmer.  So that means I will probably be spending time on my swim technique again after triathlon season. 

For now, I agreed with my coach and physio that I would just swim with my current form, and leave the stroke adjustments for later.  We all agree that I will be okay for the Bay Swim, with the aim of the past month being to spend a lot of time in the water, one longer distance swim a week, and to use paddles for building strength in my arms which will help me.

It is amazing the things we learn about ourselves when we decide to take on new challenges!

#50kinMay Update

When I took on the #50kinMay challenge on Twitter, I knew this would be a real challenge for me…  In May I was out of town (not by my local pools) for 16 of the 31 days. 

Regardless, I swam 31,050 meters in May.  I hit #30kinMay.

I have read blogs and tweets by so many people (in particular the blogs of professional athletes, coaches, and other highly motivated triathletes) who say that setting yourself a goal is a good thing, that because setting a goal will make you achieve it because if you don’t you will have failed. 

I have to disagree.

There is a saying, and it sums up my philosophy:

“The only real failure is the failure to try.”

So rather than beating myself up for being 20k short of the 50k mark, I am celebrating what I accomplished:

  • I decided to take the step to commit to something BIG
  • I swam 30k this month, even with all the away from home time
  • I swam about 10-15k of this with paddles, building huge amounts of arm strength and stamina
  • I swam while travelling for business for the first time in a serious way, showing myself that it can be done

Am I ready?

I am *almost* ready.  I need to email my friends and let them know I am coming to town.  I need to plan some occassions to meet up with people.  I need to book my flight from DC to Montreal (work seminar that starts on the Monday after the swim).  I have the small detail of my first UK triathlon of the season to do this Sunday.  And yeah, probably another 10k or so of swimming to knock out in the pool.

I am ALMOST ready.  With about 10 days to go before I leave, I am right where I want to be.  I may be slightly undertrained compared to the ideal, but I know I will be able to finish the swim. 

I am also doing the Bay Swim as a part of the Swim for the Cure effort by the Charcot Marie Tooth Association Board member Steve O’Donnell, who is doing his 10th swim and nearing the $1 million mark for fundraising.  I am so excited to be a part of this effort, and to meet Steve and his family before the swim!

So if you’d like to support the search for a cure for CMT, the nerve disease that I have and that impacts 1 in 2500 people, you can donate here.

Thanks for your support – I can’t wait to swim on the 12th! 

And to quote Dory from Finding Nemo: “Just keep swimming!”


2 responses to “Swimming, Shoulder Health, and The Bay Swim”

  1. Three fingers? I feel like I could fit a Mack truck between my shoulder blades. You’ll have to show me where to put MY shoulders at dinner next Thursday!

  2. Also: GREAT job on the 30K in May! You’re showing up to the start well-trained and uninjured—goal accomplished, in my book!

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