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by Nadine Day

February 15, 2010

Communication with your swimmers is key to a successful partnership between an athlete and a coach. Talk to your swimmers on a daily basis. Getting feedback regarding training will allow you to adjust and modify workouts according to the way your swimmers are feeling. Some of us may have swimmers who are not willing to share about their aches and pains. In these situations it is vital that you watch their swimming. Does good technique seem to aggravate symptoms of an injury? If your swimmers are injured or aching, a simple stroke modification can decrease unnecessary stress to joints and muscles and keep your swimmers in the pool.


If you swimmer reports that his or her neck has been bothersome and regular breathing aggravate them, incorporate the use of a snorkel. The snorkel allows your athletes to maintain a neutral position and may help decrease ache.

If kicking is straining the neck, make a simple switch from kicking with a board to vertical kicking. If your athletes are having trouble vertical kicking without assistance, suggest that they hug a kick board for extra support.


Shoulders are often the source of our discomfort; if this is the case for your athletes, remind them that fins are not bad and certainly not cheating. They decrease the stress on the shoulders and make swimming more comfortable for injured athletes. Additionally, an easy modification to a normal workout is to simply have your swimmers alternate a 25 kick and a 25 swim.

Shoulder impingement can occur during any of the four strokes. This discomfort can lead to swimmers dreading practice or possibly not even showing up. The following modifications of each of the four strokes are easy to implement and can help swimmers recovery from injury or prevent injury from settling in if minor aches and pains are tended to.


Hand entry with the thumb and crossing the hand over the midline causes shoulder impingement. By flattening the swimmer’s hand and entering pinky first into the water the stress on the shoulder is reduced. Remind your swimmers to keep the hand entry in front of the shoulder rather than in front of the head.

Freestyle Drills for the Aching Athlete

Underwater Recover

During the recovery phase of the freestyle athletes should bring their hands up underneath their body instead of above the water.

Doggy Paddle

This drill is easy and self explanatory. This is a great drill because it works the initial catch phase similarly to a full freestyle pull.


Much like the freestyle modifications provided above, suggesting a wider entry for your athletes will reduce stress on the shoulders. Further, it is recommended for athletes with shoulder aches and pains maintain a flat position with their hands upon entry—thumbs should be pointed towards each other rather than pointing to the bottom of the pool.

Fly Drills for the Aching Athlete

Underwater Recovery

Similar to the freestyle drill for aching athletes, have your swimmers recover their hands underneath the water instead of on top of the water.

Single Arm/Together

Rather than a full fly stroke have your swimmers work on their fly one arm at a time. You can incorporate single arm 25s or the single arm/together drill: two strokes with the right arm, two strokes with the left arm and two full fly strokes.


Appropriate modification of the backstroke to combat shoulder pain will depend on where the athlete feels the pain. If the pain is at the entry, suggest a wider entry while keeping the hand more shallow. If the pain occurs during the pull through, the athlete should either narrow or widen the hands depending on how the swimmer feels. It is important to note the timing of the hip rotation in conjunction with hand pull-the hip should rotate at the same time that the hand anchors into the water.

Shoulder pain and the backstroke may be unique to each athlete and it is up to you to implement drills specific to each situation.


When recovering the hands, most breaststrokers have their palms facing each other, but reduce the pain in your athletes’ shoulders your swimmers should flatten their hands so that their palms are parallel to the bottom of the pool. In addition to flattening their hands, swimmers should begin the pulling phase when their hands are shoulder-width apart.

Breaststroke Drill for the Aching Athlete (Shoulders)

Breast Pull on Kick Board

Balance the midsection of the body on a kick board and pull normally focusing on flat hands and pulling when the hands are in front of the shoulders. This is a perfect drill to incorporate the use of a snorkel.

Hips and Knees


Breaststrokers often feel pain in their hips and knees. As a coach, make sure that your athletes are warming up properly—never sprint right away. The breaststroke kick is notorious for creating a lot of stress on the hips and knees, but by coaching a more narrow kick and reducing the amount of breaststroke kicks in training you can keep your athletes feeling good enough to compete.

Breaststroke Drill for the Aching Athlete (Hips and Knees)

Alternate Breast/Fly kick

Take a normal breaststroke stroke, but after you complete the first breaststroke kick transition into a long butterfly kick as your hands are out in front in the streamline position; this will decrease the number of strokes per lap.

>>>Nadine Day, Illinois Masters, is a physical therapist and swim coach.