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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Finding the Most Appropriate Use of Fins During the Rehabilitation and Stroke Reeducation Process for Injured Swimmers

 

"...[S]wimmers have some of the most dysfunctional shoulders in the entire sporting world; they have glaring scapular instability, big internal rotation deficits, and insufficient dynamic stability..."

-Eric Cressey

Swimmers offer many different reasons for using fins. Some use fins because their egos are too weak and they need the fins to swim with faster lane mates. Coaches generally approve fins for loading the legs, teaching ankle mobility, teaching drills without having to worry about maintaining body position at slow speeds, and to practice overspeed swimming. Stroke dynamics change at race pace and sometimes the best way to expose swimmers to the feel of these changes without overloading the central nervous system is to put the fins on. There are other accepted uses that I haven't covered, but addressing all the uses of fins is not what this post is about.

This post IS about the use of fins as a Band Aid. Seems like every team these days has a few swimmers who get some shoulder pain and think, "I'll just pop the fins on for today's workout and hope everything sorts itself out." This post is also about swimmers who at least take the step of seeking medical attention but instead of finding the biomechanical causes of the pain decide to continue swimming with the assistance of fins. Dryland-based movement screening and assessment is imperative to determine how much of the problem is a physical limitation issue and how much is a stroke specific issue. Many injured swimmers default to an injurious stroke pattern simply because their bodies have few other means to swim with "good" mechanics.

There's no doubt fins allow the swimmer to minimize swim specific conditioning losses during rehab. In all sports, losing conditioning can expose the body other injuries even if you solve the original problem. Likewise, there is definitely value in allowing the swimmer to "figure things out." Each swimmer makes micro adjustments that are imperceptible even when using video systems. The stroke reeducation process involves letting the body develop a feel for non-painful mechanics. However, too much swimming with fins may actually detrain what little stability the swimmer originally possessed.

Far too many swimmers don fins as a crutch to complete normal sets as they wait for the body to magically reset to a pain free state. In strength training, we know that a firm grip on an object creates a bracing effect to protect the shoulder. An effective catch is a proxy for grip strength on land, but the natural tendency while swimming long sets with fins is to get sloppy with the catch and allow the fins to offer most of the propulsion. We won’t even talk about the ways to screw up the neck even more than it was already screwed up by increasing the kicking volume with sloppy streamline positions….

Fins reduce the "penalty" for injurious mechanics without inherently training the stability mechanisms to protect the shoulder. Fins in themselves are not a logical step along an exercise progression in the same way that a two-leg squat precedes a one-leg squat. Without proper intervention into causes of the problems, fins simply reduce or eliminate the penalty for doing something that created pain. For injured swimmers, they should be a training aid within a carefully designed rehab process that addresses basic physical preparedness in conjunction with sport specific mechanics….they aren’t a crutch to avoid missing yardage.

We often praise non-medicinal interventions in the rehab process, but many swimmers use fins no differently than over the counter painkillers. In the context of shoulder pain, fins allow you to perform an activity (in this case, swimming) that your body has not earned the right to do. Veteran swimmers may scoff at the idea, but a repetitive use injury in swimming means your body has not mastered the mobility, stability, balance, and coordination needed to prevent your shoulder from blowing up. Just because you had the right at some point in the past doesn't mean you keep that right forever. We must constantly prove ourselves against the standard of quality movement.

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