Stretching can pay dividends for any Masters swimmer
Swimmers can spend hours each week in the pool, doing drylands, and lifting weights in an attempt to win a national championship or to stay in shape.
But all of that work can go to waste if they don’t stretch.
“A small amount of stretching before exercise can help prevent simple injuries,” says Molly Hoover, a U.S. Masters Swimming Level 3 coach with the Joliet Blue Tides in Joliet, Ill. “We want to keep the range of motion as big as we can, so our strokes can hold together better, and we can swim more efficiently. The more range of motion and flexibility we have, the better our strokes will be. We can tweak things more precisely when swimmers can get their arms into the right position.”
This leads Hoover to advise her swimmers to try to stretch for 10 minutes each day. Other Masters coaches agree, saying that stretching should be consistent, with some recommending that their athletes stretch as often as they swim.
Here’s what swimmers need to know about stretching.
Static vs. Dynamic
There are two types of stretching: static (holding a stretch with no movement) and dynamic (doing a stretch while performing a movement). When to do them, USMS Level 4 coach Chris McPherson says, depends on timing.
“I encourage simple cardio movements to loosen the joints and warm up the muscles before practice,” says McPherson, the head coach of Ensworth Aquatics Masters, a Gold Club. “Arm circles or stroke simulations with bands looped around a pole are helpful for the arms, and leg exercises can simply consist of swinging the legs back and forth, taking side steps with bands placed around the ankles, or even skipping slowly on deck.”
She says that a warm shower can comfort swimmers’ tired muscles after a practice but doesn’t recommend stretching immediately after a workout.
“Instead, I advise my swimmers to make time for some beneficial exercises at a later point in the day, at work or home,” McPherson says. “I often suggest my swimmers do static stretching at home each night, focusing on the shoulders, neck, back, hamstrings, calves, and hips. Stretching all over is best, but each individual has specific areas where they may need more of an emphasis. Even a little bit will help with tightness from training and daily fatigue, and it can also serve to promote new flexibility.”
When you stretch might not be that important, so long as you maintain a stretching routine.
Richard Garza, a USMS Level 4 coach, has read arguments for both before- and after-practice stretching. “I let my swimmers go with what they feel is best for them,” says the head coach at Texas Ford Aquatics Masters, a Gold Club.
A Few Good Stretches
Favorite stretches vary from coach to coach and swimmer to swimmer, but a few popular ones stand out.
“The one stretch I ask people to do the most often is to just go and hang from a pull-up bar or a doorway and stretch out,” Garza says.
He also recommends swimmers stretch out their ankles by sitting on their feet, with their feet right under their glutes. “Some swimmers are insanely tight in the ankles, so we’ll just sit on our ankles for two minutes,” Garza says.
He suggests swimmers stretch out their shoulders by standing in a door frame with their right forearm pressed against the frame, their right elbow bent at a 90-degree angle, and upper right arm parallel with the floor. Then they should step forward with their left foot and feel a slight stretch before switching arms.
Hoover recommends performing a forward fold, which stretches out backs and legs. To address hip tightness, she suggests sitting in a chair with good posture, putting one flexed foot on the opposite knee, and pressing forward with the hips before repeating with the other foot and knee.
Hoover also suggests her swimmers perform calf stretches. In the water, she’ll suggest they face the starting block, hold the backstroke grip bar, and stretch out their calves. Out of the water, she suggests the same stretch, standing with their hands pressed against the wall.
One of the simplest stretches USMS Level 3 coach Chris Colburn recommends to his swimmers is standing in a streamlined position, with their biceps against their ears and their arms straight up over their head, one hand on top of the other in a streamlined position, holding for 10 to 15 seconds.
“Many older swimmers may have range-of-motion issues in the upper body due to arthritis or age, and just doing something simple like holding a streamline can give them a bit of an advantage,” says Colburn, head coach of Academy Bullets Masters. “We really want swimmers to think about that streamline and get it as straight as they can, from a standing position, so when they’re pushing off the wall 100 times in practice, it’s not as much of a struggle.”
If you’re not yet stretching consistently but want to begin, start out small.
“Take super baby steps,” Garza says. “The main thing is to go through the motions and just start. If you’re making excuses not to start, then your first step is too big. If your goal is to stretch for 10 minutes before practice, then start by just showing up early. Once you’ve done that, start with one stretch, maybe grabbing your ankles and applying a little bit of pressure.”
McPherson endorses a regular stretching routine at night, maybe while watching TV, or fitting in some stretching during the day. “Focus on the muscles that tend to be the tightest,” she advises.
Colburn agrees: “Look at where you need to improve on your ranges of motion, and focus there first.”
Just be careful not to overstretch. “It shouldn’t hurt. Just stretch as far as you’re comfortable and can feel the stretch is working,” Hoover says.
“You’re going for the good kind of pain, not the bad kind,” Garza explains. “Learn how to listen to your joints, learn how to listen to your body, and if you’re the type of person used to a little bit of pain, learn the difference between the good kind of pain and the ‘I stubbed my toe and it really, really hurts’ kind of pain.”
With a little bit of stretching each day you exercise, you’ll be on your way to a smoother, more efficient stroke before you know it.
- Technique and Training