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

Swimming: Protecting the Neck Through Dryland Functional Movement Screening and Assessment

Last week I was at two consecutive practices with different swim teams during which someone in the lane next to me had to back off mid-workout due to neck pain. First, I must note that neck issues can present serious neurological complications and deserve the attention of a trained medical professional if serious discomfort persists. However, there are undoubtedly many swimmers who have some lingering tightness that does not rise to the level of injury but presents enough of an annoyance to disrupt training. Note that non-contact neck issues are not limited to "mortals" in the swimming world...

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/09/AR2009070903099.html

http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/more_sports/2009/07/10/2009-07-10_michael_phelps.html  

Conventionally, most swimmers took to breathing technique when neck discomfort is present.  Lifting the head to breathe and/or excessive neck rotation are seen as two proximal causes of the neck issues. Although the swim specific movement of someone’s breathing may in fact put the neck in a compromised position, we must first investigate what contributes to this movement. In fact, the manner in which you breathe, even if it looks cosmetically flawed and creates low grade tightness in the neck, may actually be the body's naturally evolved way of protecting from further injury. If the breathing does appear flawed, we must also consider whether "good" breathing technique is even possible. The swimmer may have fundamental movement limitations that impede movement efficiency in the water. "Good" technique may actually contradict the swimmer’s own basic movement patterns. 

 For swimmers with fundamental movement limitations, I think of stroke modification as crisis management. Imagine you have a puddle of water in your house. Your first response is to mop it up. If the spill came from a person spilling a glass, then there is no cause for long term fixes. To apply only cosmetic corrections to the stroke without making a full body assessment of the underlying causes is like fixing a leak in the roof by mopping up the floor and sticking a bucket under the leak. We're fixing the fallout but not fixing the dysfunction.

 The stylistic presentation will be different for each swimmer, but dysfunction often exists in predictable patterns. A cardinal rule is to first assess both above and below the problematic area. The neck (cervical spine) responds to the movements of the thoracic spine. If the swimmer lacks mobility in the thoracic spine, he or she will often compensate by adding more mobility to the neck than the neck is capable of handling.

Note than even if rotation while breathing in the freestyle stroke is what aggravates the neck, limited thoracic extension might be closer to the source of problems. Watch someone with a rounded upper back try to get into a tight streamlined position (arms extended, hands overlapped, head between biceps). To accomplish this position, he or she will often extend the head forward, placing strain on the muscles of the neck. When the neck is overextended (or receives more mobility than it can tolerate), the thoracic spine may take some of the stability properties that the cervical spine should have had but was unable to maintain.

In a movement screen and assessment, we’ll look to more distant areas along the kinetic chain to find the swimmer’s weakest link of movement from which the discomforting pattern emanates. If the neck itself is not the weakest link, we can try to layer a stroke "band-aid" to fix the neck, but the chances of that band-aid holding up in the face of oxygen debt and lactic acid accumulation are questionable.  A tight neck might actually be functioning correctly despite the presence of discomfort.  In fact, a tight neck might be a sign of PROPER neck function to protect the neck from stroke flaws in the T-spine, hips, and ankles.  Discomfort should guide the analysis in this situation but should not distract us from the dysfunctions elsewhere.

In a swim practice setting with as many as five to a lane and pool full of athletes completing different workouts with different intervals, we often can’t get to the root of the fundamental movement flaw.  Ultimately, we must use our time wisely on dry land to screen and assess the athlete’s fundamental movement patterns.  The water is an unforgiving medium that will expose our movement weaknesses.  While many great swimmers can compensate for fundamental movement flaws, the vast majority of swimmers can not.  Before we start re-inventing new ways to throw a medicine ball or mimic a swim stroke on a weight bench, our dryland conditioning should restore the fundamentals that underlie efficient movement patterns. 

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