Shoulder Injuries In Triathlon

How To Avoid Shoulder Injuries In Triathlon

Shoulder injuries in triathlon are common complaints in triathletes especially those that are new to the sport, or are trying to increase to a longer distance triathlon such as half Ironman or Ironman.

Many shoulder injuries that I see as a sports medicine doctor are related to overuse (too much swimming volume) and/or poor swim technique. There’s been a couple studies that have demonstrated the anatomical differences that occur in a triathlete’s shoulder with repetitive swimming.

We know from studies looking at shoulder MRI findings of triathletes that there are a high incidence of rotator cuff injuries including partial tears of the rotator cuff, as well as early arthritic changes to the AC (acromioclavicular) joint. A lot of these injuries can be prevented by simply developing proper stroke and swim technique.

Many triathletes swim with excessive shoulder rotation and limited hip rotation. The excessive shoulder rotation places undue strain on the shoulder joint, in many cases resulting in injury. One of the key issues I tend to focus on with any athlete with a swimming related shoulder injury is to determine how effective their hip rotation actually is. I’m surprised by the number of triathletes that seem surprised when we start discussing hip rotation instead of shoulder rotation as essential component to their swim technique.

I almost always recommend that triathletes take some type of triathlon based swimming instruction, since the type of swimming necessary for effective, fast, and injury free open water swimming is different than the Red Cross instructions we received growing up.


Slow Down Stroke Rate

While it may seem counterintuitive, slowing down the swim stroke rate ( which increases the stroke length) can enhance and improve body roll while swimming, while maintaining or increasing swimming speed. Read that last line again. Proper body roll at a slower swim stroke rate can increase swimming speed. This concept is what many swim coaches talk about “swimming on the hips”. injuries can occur when the swimmer tries to maintain a high stroke rate while also attempting to increase their hip roll. Essentially these triathletes are putting stress not only on the shoulder from a propulsive (straightahead) force but also increase rotational torque across the shoulder as they try to drive their hip roll by excessive shoulder rotation.

Proper warm-up before a swim workout can also help to reduce the risk of injuries to the shoulder. As a coach of triathletes for years the one one thing I’ve noticed with elite triathletes over age group athletes is the amount of warm-up time. This includes stretching, stretch cords, and stroke drills that these elite triathletes perform. Top-ranked triathletes typically spends 10 to 15 minutes warming up with stretch cords even before they get in a pool for a swim workout.

So do you want to avoid shoulder injuries and seeing a sports medicine doctor? Then look into local swim coaching resources. There are some great local swim resources and courses available for triathletes looking for help with their swim technique.