Do you even backstroke bru?Donovan van Gelder
Apologies for the ‘gym vernacular’ but I think it fits here. As triathletes we focus on freestyle or front-crawl because it is the fastest and most efficient way for us to get through the swim and onto dry land again. Most triathletes tend not to come from a swimming background and learning correct freestyle technique can be tough enough, without having to worry about other strokes. BUT… do some backstroke in every session anyway.
The most common, swimming over-use injury I see amongst triathletes is in the rotator-cuff, most call it ‘swimmer’s shoulder’. Much like ‘runner’s knee’, it is generally a result of muscle imbalance in the shoulder. The shoulder is a ball and socket joint between the scapula and the humerus. It is the major joint connecting the arm to the torso. It is one of the most mobile joints in the human body, and that comes at the cost of stability. Good balance between the muscles acting on the joint will create better stability and reduce the chances of over-use injuries and injuries that result from stronger muscles ‘overpowering’ weaker ones and affecting strength and mobility in certain directions.
Freestyle is predominantly a ‘back of the shoulder’ driven movement (although the primary drivers are the trunk muscles: the lats and pecs). Exclusively swimming freestyle can cause an imbalance in the shoulder resulting in that deep, achy pain that we know as ‘swimmer’s shoulder’.
Adding in some backstroke lengths to your warm up and cool down sets and sometimes as a recovery period between hard reps places more emphasis on the front of the shoulder and balances the load on the shoulder muscles. Active recovery between repetitions is also far better than a chat while sitting at the wall.
We don’t need to swim backstroke like Kylie Masse to make this effective and we also don’t need to stress that much about our technique because, unlike freestyle, which we will use when we race, the backstroke is a training tool that will result in us being better freestylers. There are however some things to keep in mind when we are swimming backstroke that will make compound the beneficial results.
There are many similarities in correct backstroke and freestyle technique, which is probably the reason why most world-class freestylers also excel in backstroke events. One of the most critical is the body rotation – So when swimming backstroke in our warm up and cool down, we should concentrate in rotating our trunks in unison with our legs so that our bodies roll from side to side like a log would in water. We don’t want to twist at the waist, just like we try to avoid in freestyle.
The second critical stroke similarity is length per stroke. When our hands enter the water above our heads, our elbows will be straight as apposed to slightly bent in freestyle. Just like in freestyle though, we want to extend the hand forwards slightly after it enters the water to reach forward as far as we can. This will be aided by good body rotation.
The high elbow catch is probably the most drilled part of the freestyle stroke and we want a similar catch in backstroke although the elbow is obviously below wrist and elbow because we are on our backs. We still want that 90-100 degree bend in the elbow as we catch the water and begin the pull.
And finally, we also want to pull all the way to our hip, as we do in freestyle. This again is added by good body rotation as we roll our hips out of the way of the path of the hand, just before it exits the water and starts the recovery phase.
Focusing on these stroke disciplines will actually help our awareness when we roll onto our tummies again and swim freestyle. You will be amazed at how good your freestyle stroke feels when you alternate 25 or 50m between strokes.
So no matter how bad you think your backstroke looks (add fins if it helps to lift your legs), swimming some backstroke in every session will keep the shoulders healthy and keep you swimming consistently, which will make you a better swimmer and let’s be honest, a bit of variety in our swim sessions is always welcome.