Flexibility and Muscle Imbalance Issues for Triathletes + Workout

author : Gareth
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Flexibility, muscle imbalances relating to range of motion and how it affects your swimming technique.

Flexibility, range of motion and how it affects your swimming technique

Swimming with easy speed and efficient technique requires excellent range of motion. The most effective swimming actions need a degree of flexibility that is close to the limit or beyond what some people have. If you have not been swimming continuously ever since you were young then you almost certainly have flexibility and muscular issues that limit your swimming.

These are generalisations based on how a lot of running and cycling training affects the body. They do not apply in every case, and if the athlete has a regular and effective stretching program, or practices Yoga or Pilates then a lot of these issues will be smaller.


1 - Typically have a restricted range of motion of the ankle joint. Excellent ‘Plantar Flexion’ is the most important requirement for an effective kick.

 2 - The range of motion of the shoulder joint is often restricted. Excellent shoulder flexibility is needed for an efficient high-elbow recovery and for an effective initial catch and high elbow in the first phase of the arm pull.

 3 - Core strength is often quite weak in runners. A very strong “core” is needed for an efficient transfer of force in freestyle, and the other strokes.

 4 - The upper body is often under-developed. Swimmers do not need to have “big shoulders” but strong, chest, shoulder, arm and back muscles are needed for strong swimming.


Usually have the same points listed above for runners. They often have some other issues that impact on their swimming.

1 - Large lower body muscle development. Quads are often huge and very strong, while the hamstring muscles in the back of the legs are often much weaker.

2 - Very tight hips, much tighter than runners.

3 - Strong arms but weak upper back and stomach muscles.

4 – Poorer posture, because of rounded back and weak core muscles.

What range of motion do you need for effective swimming?

The Kick

First try to point your toes. How far can you go? To test this, sit on the floor with your legs outstretched and pointing at a wall. Point your toes as far as you can, or have a friend push down on the toes and mark the position on the wall. Then measure this mark.

 0.0 to 2.0 “

If your toes get to less than 2 “ from the floor then you have excellent range of motion and this will give you a very propulsive kick. Keep stretching to maintain this flexibility.

 2.0 to 4.0 “

This is a good range of motion and you will have an average or good kick that is moderately to quite propulsive. Stretch regularly to try to increase your ‘plantar flexion’.

 4.0 to 6.0 “

This is where you start to move from a ‘positive kick’ that will move you forward to a ‘negative kick’ that will slow you down. You must stretch to work on increasing this range of motion. Kicking with fins will help to stretch out the ankles.

 6.0” and above

You will have a kick in the water that creates more drag to slow you down than propulsion that moves you forward. When you kick it is like dragging an anchor in the water. Work hard on loosening up your ankles, stretch and wear fins in the water for at least 400m of your workout.

How does the kick work?

Developing good ankle flexibility will help you get better balance in the water and swim faster with less effort.

The foot needs to push against the water to move you forward. For this to happen the front part of the foot needs to angle past the vertical. If you have great ‘plantar-flexion’ then you can do this with little or no knee bend. The tighter your ankles are the more you have to bend your leg to get your feet in this position. 

When you bend your leg in this way the upper leg moves down and creates drag. This drag can create such resistance that it cancels out the propulsion from your foot.

For some people their foot acts as an “anchor” when they kick and can slow them down or actually pull them back. 

Stretch your ankles by either:

1 - Sitting with your feet under you, try to gently rock back to feel a stretch.

2 - Or put your feet under a sofa and gently try to straighten your legs. This is a strong stretch that can put a lot of force on the ankle joint. Take it easy, little and often is better than being too aggressive.

Shoulder Flexibility

Restricted range of motion in the shoulder girdle impacts on swimming by not allowing you to get in the most effective arm positions.

The Push-off and Glide

The standard streamline position is one hand on top of the other, fingers interlocked, arms outstretched above the head, elbows squeezing the ears and eyes looking down at the bottom of the pool.

The new advanced position has the arms behind the head with the elbows as close together as possible, eyes still looking down but body on its’ side.

Many of the triathletes that I coach cannot get into these glide positions, as their shoulders are not flexible enough.

The Arm Recovery

The best recovery is started with first turning the palm into the body then a forward shrug of the shoulder while lifting the elbow directly up, the hand hangs down below the elbow with the fingertips almost brushing the water. The elbow leads the hand until it passes the ear, then the hand is extended to enter the water in front of the head.

 The elbow cannot be as high in people with restricted shoulder movement. They have to use a straighter arm, with a wider recovery. This is more tiring or a low elbow with hand leading the elbow, which can lead to a dropped elbow in the early phase of the stroke.

The arm Catch and Pull

The upper arm should be at 90’ to the water surface before moving back towards the body into the arm pull. The most effective catch has the shoulder shrug forward as the elbow is rotated up and outward.

With elite swimmers the lower arm is vertical while the upper arm is still fully outstretched. This position needs great flexibility. Less flexible people have to move the whole arm lower down before they can get the lower arm vertical.

So work on gradually stretching the triceps, shoulders, chest, and upper back. This will help you to swim with a more effective and less tiring technique.

This Month's Swim Workout:

Stroke:    Free. Multi-sport    Date: 07/10/03     Plan: 18    RPE: 7-10

Main Focus point: Soft Catch; Finish end of stroke thumb/thigh. 


Distance:    3,150       Aerobic: 42 %.  Anaerobic: 50  %. Lactate: 08 %.


Warm Up:  Swim  “ spinning” low force on arm pull   Type: EN 1.

400m as:

50m free /50m free with fist/50m back kick /100m free /100m Backstroke/ 50m back kick 

RPE: 07     

100 m – Kick - 25 m as: Front / Left side / right side / Back

100m  - 2 by 50 m one arm - with shoulder shrug


Entry & Catch - at easy cruise pace    Dist: 500m    RPE: 06        Rest: 30 secs.

5 by 50m as: 25m Head up free (watch hand entry), 25m easy free

5 by 50m as: 25m Head up free, 25m Catch-up (flat palm entry)


Second Set: Interval set @ cruise pace  Distance:  1600m. RPE: 08   Rest: 45 secs.  Type: EN 2. 8 by 200 m. Alternate Free & Non Free    

Even splits for each 50m, Hold same time, stroke rate & D.P.S for all.

Breathe as: 1st 50 - 5 strokes, 2nd 50 - 3 strokes, 3rd 50 & 4th 50 - 3/2/3.  

Focus – Do not apply force until forearm is vertical, then accelerate throughout the pull.             Distance:  1600m.


Sprint set: Build and Pace.      Dist: 250m     RPE: 09          Rest: 90s

10 by 25m fast: maximum stroke rate (dynamic rest).

All Free: fast catch (rotate around thumb).  Hold speed and stroke length.


Cool Down: Distance: 200m Easy Pace    

50 m Slow backstroke

150 m Super slow freestyle.




RPE =  In my workouts they are on a scale of 1 to 10. Easy warm up might be 5 to 6. A swim at cruise pace is 6 to 7. Hard Anaerobic swim would be 8 to 9 with a maximum effort at 10.

EN is a scale describing aerobic work. EN 1 ( medium aerobic ), EN 2 @ anaerobic threshold,  EN3 is VO2 Max work. I will go into this more in a later email.

DPS is Distance Per Stroke.

Dynamic rest means to rest say after a sprint swim by moving in the water. Could be kicking on back, easy backstroke, easy freestyle etc.


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date: September 4, 2004


British ASA Level 2 Swimming Coach / Teacher. Working towards British ASA Level 3 Club Coach in Swimming.


British ASA Level 2 Swimming Coach / Teacher. Working towards British ASA Level 3 Club Coach in Swimming.

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