Ask the Coach – Swim Speed – Part 1 – Flexibility

Ask the Coach – Swim Speed – Part 1 – Flexibility

I got an email recently from Mary, who is concerned about her swim speed. Like many new triathletes, she’s new to the sport and did not come from a swimming background. She would like to compete in longer distance triathlons, but is concerned about swim cut-offs. Without seeing her stroke, I gave the following potential causes for a slower swim speed:

1) Body position – is your head down and are your hips at the surface?
2) Stroke mechanics – are you “grabbing” as much water as you can in front of you and keeping the elbow high to maintain arm contact with the water?
3) Power – are you using your lats and other back muscles to help bring your arm through the water – the lat is more powerful than the shoulder.
4) Overall flexibility in your upper torso – This would include the back/shoulders/chest. If you reach your arms above your head, hands together but palms forward, as if you are getting as long as possible, do your upper arms go behind your ears? If you lack flexibility, you would be taking less effective strokes (“missing available water to grab”) and would be swimming in a less streamlined position.

She replied back that she thought flexibility might be an issue, as she used to do a lot of weight training and did not stretch. Although there is some genetic component to our flexibility and how we are put together, we can all stretch and strengthen to improve our range of motion.

The shoulder is one of our most impressive joints. Just look at all the ways we can move them. If you watch the shoulder blade move as one moves the arm in different directions, you will see quite a bit of motion, so making sure the muscles surrounding the shoulder blade are flexible and strong is important. Here are a few exercises you can do to improve range of motion in some of the key muscles used in swimming.

Pec stretch – roll up a towel or wrap a towel around a swim noodle cut about 12-16″ in length, or use a foam roller. Lie on your back and place the towel/foam roller directly under your spine. Spread your arms out to the side, palms up and relax. Stay in this position for 15 minutes, feeling a gentle stretch across your chest. Do this daily. Most of us have mega-tight chest muscles, impacting our posture and our swim stroke.

Doorway stretches – another way to stretch your pecs. You can approach this from different angles, but bend your arms at 90 degrees, with your upper arms parallel to the floor. Place your forearms on a door frame (with an open door) and gently lean into into the door frame. Hold this for at least 30s.

Chicken Wings (or kneeling side crunch) – Get on all fours, then place one hand behind your head. Rotate your elbow down so it points to the floor and then bring it up wide, opening up the chest.
Downward Dog: With palms on the floor and shoulder-width apart, and feet about shoulder width apart, press your hips up and back, lengthening your arms and back. Try to get your upper arms in alignment with your ears. Example of downward dog.

Camel Prep: On your knees but sitting up tall, reach your right hand up in the air and your left hand on your left heel. There will be a slight bend in your back. Look towards your right hand. You will feel a nice stretch across your hips and your chest. Hold for about 30 seconds and then reach with opposite arms.

Camel: Once you are loose from the Camel Prep, stay on your knees still sitting up tall and reach behind you and grab both heels- right hand on right heel, left on left. Your back will arch and look up and behind you. Make sure to relax and breathe, and feel your chest opening. Example of Camel.

Lat stretch: Grab the top of a doorway or something high that you can “hang” from. Keep your feet on the ground, but gently “hang” to stretch out your lats and back muscles. Do not take your feet off the ground – the idea is a gentle stretch here. You can try varying the width of your hands to feel different stretches.

By doing these stretches (every day!) you will help open up your torso to improve range of motion while swimming.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I will go over strengthening exercises.

Coach Nicole is the author of The Triathlete’s Guide to Race Week. She is also the founder and head coach for NEO Endurance Sports & Fitness, a Colorado-based endurance sport coaching company. She is a USAT Level 1 Certified Coach, a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach, and also coaches triathlon for Team In Training. Learn more at You can contact Coach Nicole with your questions for the Ask the Coach column on facebooktwitter or via email at

Facebook Twitter Email Plusone Linkedin
Nicole Odell


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.