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Hypermobility In Swimmers

Updated: Oct 19, 2022

Written By: Brian Cunningham

Hypermobility is dear to my heart as I’ve been dealing with it my whole life and how it has resulted in chronic pain issues, it was unrecognized and not coached correctly both in and out of the water. Being a swimmer and as a physical therapist who specializes in swimmers. I can attest how important this topic is for Coaches and how often it is overlooked.

Swimming is difficult at the best of times but fast swimming requires the swimmer to perform complex movement patterns in water where the gravitational impact is hugely different than that on land. Propulsion created first from arm movements and then coordinated with additional leg force. It is vitally important for swimmers and coaches to understand how their body moves through the water and how it reacts to gravitational forces. And the tricky part is that each person is built differently and to maximize success, a coach has to take the time to understand those nuances. Hypermobility is just one of those components that coaches should consider, but thankfully is easy to identify.

Typical Presentation

We are discussing primarily those swimmers who are labeled “Double jointed.” These athletes are naturally flexible and can do every stretch asked of them effortlessly and wonder why others are challenged. They’re also those swimmers that can do “Circus tricks” with their arms, like even slipping their shoulder in and out of the socket or whose legs bend farther back than others. In meetings or static situations, these athletes are constantly fidgeting but resolve to rest in super slumped, slouched or contorted postures. To most people who don’t experience hypermobility, it just looks uncomfortable and unnatural, coupled with a gift in the water that is mysteriously clumsy on land.

“The Jenga Affect”

Swimmers ,coaches, parents who have hypermobility can still function but not always in the most efficient manner. Just like the game “Jenga,” the body presents with segments positioned incorrectly or out of natural position. Some easy to spot visual cues are hyperextended knees, the pelvis jutting forward and the upper back rounded and a forward head. The body itself resembles a wave - what at one point it was called, “typical swimmers stance!”

You may ask yourself what this has to do with Swimming…simply everything!

Hypermobility as a Superpower

Hypermobile athletes present in the water typically with extreme streamline, and they are usually capable of efficient underwater dolphins due to the increased flexibility of their ankles, knees, hips and lower back. During the recovery on most strokes, the arms are able to bend in ways that seem unnatural and that other athletes cannot replicate easily, if at all.

These same athletes on land will have a hard time even standing up straight, because the connective tissue surrounding their joints is looser than normal which results in the lack of stability around that area. This greater range of motion creates a relative weakness when compared to others that do not have the same hyper mobility or extra flexibility and it will be especially apparent on land with simple movements. This movement can actually be an advantage in swimming if recognized early on and trained correctly both in and out of the water.

Hypermobile athletes are a unique breed and tend to gravitate towards sports where excessive movement becomes an advantage like swimming, gymnastics or ballet. With gymnastics and ballet, the sport skillset is systematically trained in conjunction with stability and bodyweight exercises from a very early age coupled with a big emphasis on body awareness. In swimming, this early stage development has not occurred as much of the initial sport instruction starts with swimming as a survival skill and then transfers into the initial instruction in the water.

Athletes with hypermobility must be hyper vigilant with stability training and movement awareness particularly during dryland activities. Hypermobile swimmers are particularly good at compensating for the lack of stability, with inefficient movement patterns during dryland or in the weight room, which is where the majority of injuries occur and then become aggravated with the use of poor technique in the water. Over the next couple of articles, I aim to help recognize, screen and train athletes more effectively. Hypermobility can be the athlete’s magical advantage. Just like one of the most recognizable athletes on the planet did while winning 28 Olympic medals - - - Michael Phelps. Follow along to unlock the hypermobile talent.

I correct movement dysfunction and muscular imbalances to enhance swim performance

More specifically I . . .

  • Learn the swimmer's history, injury profile and performance goals.

  • Observe the swimmer's mobility and postural alignment.

  • Discover the swimmer's unique physiology through muscular palpation and fascia work.

  • Conduct neuromuscular assessment and retraining through facilitation and inhibition of the nervous system.

  • Develop customized exercises and strategies to help swimmers be more connected in and out of the water.

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