Go Long, Go Strong: Stretching for Swimming

By Wayne Goldsmith

Most swimmers stretch. But why?

It may play a role in injury prevention or minimization. It may help you recover from injury. It may increase your range of motion.

However, the critical issue for swimming, where the body is weight supported, (i.e. unlike running or field games which are weight bearing) is that being flexible allows you to get into the right positions for efficient technique for little or no effort.

Like everything else in swimming, ideas on stretching have changed considerably in recent years. What are some current ideas on the role of stretching in swimming?

1. Traditional stretching – the old way

Traditional stretching is the old lean against the wall and pretend to stretch shoulders, back and arms. While these more traditional static stretches have their place, there are more effective flexibility options available.

If you must stick to the old favorites try to follow these tips:

** Hold each stretch for 30 seconds
** Keep breathing, long, slow and relaxed while stretching – about 5-6 breaths per minute
** Try to stretch while in a swimming position, i.e. keep your body long and tall and your spine straight.

2. Stretching mid Session (i.e. between sets)

This is becoming an increasingly popular idea. In the past, stretching has been done before or after training. Some teams are now having short stretching breaks between sets to enhance their ability to perform the set. For example, ankle, hip and thigh stretches before kick sets or shoulder, lat and triceps stretches before pull work. These short breaks have the potential to turn each set into something special.

For an even better effect, if you have a spa or warm showers available, stretch under the water.

3. Minimal pre/maximum post

In general, stretching before training prepares your body to train. Stretching after training is for long-term flexibility gains. The main reason: warm muscles stretch better.

Pre-training stretches should be done slowly and with some caution as your body has not fully warmed up. Post-training stretches can be done with a little more pressure and held for longer as your body is warm from your workout.

For example:

Chest and shoulders stretch before training: Stand up tall with your chest out and back straight. Clasp your fingers together behind your back with your arms straight. Hold for 30 seconds. Concentrate on deep, slow breathing.

Chest stretch after training: Stand up tall with your chest out and back straight. Grab your towel with both hands and twist it until it looks like a long piece of thick rope. Place your hands about one meter apart, at opposite ends of the towel. Reach tall up above your head with the towel and slowly lower it behind your head keeping your arms straight. Hold twice for 90 seconds concentrating on deep, slow breathing and inflating the top of your rib cage fully with every breath.

Taking a few minutes after training to maximize the effectiveness of your stretching routine can really make a difference.

4. Yoga

Want to really improve your flexibility? Learn yoga. Hundreds of years of studying and enhancing movement through flexibility makes yoga the perfect stretching activity and yoga teachers the ideal people to help you improve your flexibility. Find a qualified, experienced yoga teacher and talk to him/her about your needs. As a team activity, why not have everyone in the team pay one dollar extra each per session and have a yoga teacher come to training twice a week and lead post-training stretching.

5. Props

Let’s face it, stretching can get boring, particularly doing the same stretches every morning and every night six days a week. Why not introduce some props to make your stretching program more interesting (and effective)?

** A piece of rope can be looped around the foot of an outstretched leg and can help with calf, hamstring and quad stretches.
** A Swiss ball can be used to liven up most traditional swimming stretches.
** A block of wood can be used to help with calf and ankle stretches by standing on it with your toes and slowly lowering your heels over the edge of the block.

You are limited only by your imagination.

6. No stretching at all…..just long movements

There is a growing argument that stretching for healthy, uninjured swimmers may be a waste of time. The logic behind this argument is that as swimming is a body weight supported activity, swimmers only need to do minimal stretching and a better option would be to just concentrate on long, stretched out, exaggerated movements in the early stages of training.

For example drills like long-glide breaststroke and catch-up freestyle (long hold in front) can double as stretching – a very specific stretching – but still stretching.

7. Mental side of stretching

There is no doubt you feel great when you are loose, relaxed and flexible after working on your stretching program. There is a real mind-body connection with flexibility and it makes sense if you think about it.

Imagine trying to relax and stay loose before a race. How hard would it be to relax if your neck, chest, shoulders and arms are all tight and tense? How tough will it be to do a great dive and start if your glutes, thighs, hamstrings and calves are tight? How can you breath deeply and powerfully if your chest and abdomen are tight and resisting the breathing action?

Try some mental rehearsal when stretching. For example, if your event is one minute long, try holding chest and shoulder stretches for one minute, all the time concentrating on keeping relaxed and imagining how you will keep that relaxed feeling next time you race…..mind and body in action.

8. Breathing – not stretching

It is amazing how many people stop breathing when they stretch. Breathing and stretching are closely linked and relaxed. Calm breathing can actually help you stretch more effectively.

Next time you stretch, concentrate not on the stiff, creaky muscles but on your breathing. Keep your breathing deep, slow and relaxed. You will be surprised how quickly your flexibility increases.

9. Combining Stretching with Strength training

Strength training can be a useful addition to any swimming program. However, recent studies have concluded that stretching and strengthening exercises, when done in combination, can be even more effective than when the exercises are done separately.

For example:

Chest / shoulder routine:

** Stretch
** 10 Push ups
** Stretch
** 10 Dips
** Stretch
** 10 Bench presses
** Stretch

Repeat the above x 3.

10. Team development

Team stretches are a great time for the team to meet, chat and work together and help each other achieve great things. This is particularly true at swim meets. A really effective team stretching technique at meets is to form a circle at one end of the pool deck, everyone in team gear and have the team captains (not the coach) lead a really well executed and technically perfect stretching session.

Does three things:

1. Helps the swimmers relax and stretch effectively as they are among friends
2. Freaks all the other teams out. They are thinking, “If this is how that team warms up, imagine how they swim.”
3. Provides psychological support for younger and less confident swimmers.

The final words


You can improve your flexibility with as little as ten minutes a day.

The key to being consistent with your stretching is to make it interesting, so add some variety: yoga on Monday, stretching in the spa on Tuesday, traditional stretching on Wednesday, stretch between sets on Thursday, etc. People tend to do the things they enjoy and enjoyment comes from developing interesting, stimulating and innovative stretching routines.

Everyone is different. Stretch to meet your own needs and find a stretching routine and flexibility program that helps you achieve your swimming goals.

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