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The Two Sides of Swimming: Stiffness

Last month we dove into hyper-mobility in swimmers. On the other end of spectrum, are those swimmers that are very stiff. There is, of course, a wide spectrum between hyper-mobility and stiffness, and as mentioned previously, one end is not necessarily preferable to the other end of the spectrum.

Stiffness varies from tightness in that tightness is a limitation of the passive range of motion or length that a muscle can achieve. Envision bending over to touch your toes - if your hamstrings are tight, you might come up short of touching your toes, but a gentle over-pressure from a friend might help you achieve more range of motion. Stiffness, or in the sports therapy world is defined as the lack of mobility about a joint or joints, and is more a measure of the joint or muscle's ability to be moved in the first place. In the same example of a standing forward bend, if you're limited in spinal mobility, you won't feel the discomfort in your hamstrings with trying to bend forward, your back just won't let you do it.

Stiffness, like hyper-mobility can lead to its own issues. A muscle that cannot move through its entire range of motion might result in sharp or pinching pains at the joint due to compensatory movements required to achieve a full range of motion. Swimmers might experience pinching in their shoulders or hips due to stiffness. Higher stiffness has also been correlated with an increased risk of bone injury or chronic tendon issues.

It is possible to use stiffness to improve performance. A 2014 study by Pruyn et. al looks at the relationship between lower body stiffness and physical performance in high school aged female athletes. They found that 'Higher levels of lower-body stiffness appear to be advantageous for females when performing rapid ... movements, including sprinting, bounding, and jumping.'

So. It comes down to finding a balance between mobility and stiffness, flexibility and tension. Much like a sling shot, you want to have enough range of motion, but you also want to generate force and power at those end ranges. Swimmers have to have free shoulder range of motion at the top of their stroke in freestyle, backstroke and butterfly, but more importantly, they need to be able to stabilize that shoulder to set a strong catch and pull themselves through the water. Over and over and over again.

We know that all athletes are different, and thus not all athletes should necessarily use the same dynamic warm up to prep for swimming. Swimmers that fall on the more hyper-mobile end of the spectrum should activate their shoulder and low back stabilizers before diving in. While those that are more stiff will benefit from some mobilizations to open up their range of motion.

Are you not sure where you fall on the mobility spectrum? Make an appointment with your PT for a full body screen to determine where you land and to get some advise as to how you should best be preparing your body to swim.

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