Tri staying injury free in the water this season

400 metres to go. The shore was in sight. This was further than I’d ever swam before in either open water or the pool. The first 200 metres during the mass start had left me traumatised. Swimming being referred to as a non contact sport is clearly a misconception, certainly with triathlon with countless kicks to the face over that first 1/4 of the race. This only highlighted my lack of experience which was further magnified when with only 200 metres left my ability to continue my undignified, uneconomical and down right ugly technique gave up the ghost. I lay on my back, grateful for the buoyancy of the wet suit and backstroked until I was within standing depth. I had less leg control than Bambi on ice when I reached the beach in Skerries but I was away from the jelly fish and wild swinging strokes of other competitors, back to my terrestrial home. Now onto the bike…


With the weather improved dramatically in the last while more and more people will take up outdoor activity, some with the goal of taking on a triathlon. Like so many who have spent their lives up to that point on land I struggled with the swim (as in I’m nearly sure I was last out of the water on that occasion in Skerries). And although I had done some training in the build up to it I hadn’t touched the outskirts of what goes on in triathlon and swimming circles. There is a swimming culture, one that involves huge volumes of training (sometimes 2 sessions a day totalling 3-6 hours or 10-14 km). They tend to start from a very young age and to facilitate this start very early in the morning. I get that. Busy lifestyles mean finding time for exercise should you want to keep both up. This large volume amounts to over 1.5 million strokes per year leaving themselves wide open to over use injury. But throw faulty mechanics into the mix and thats a lot of incorrect revolutions on the arm. The incidence of disabling shoulder pain has been reported to be as high as 90% (Wolf et al 2009). The shoulder is in it’s  most ‘at risk’ position for the longest period during the recovery phase of the stroke with the supraspinatus tendon (one of the rotator cuffs) with the mechanical potential for impingement for 25% of the stroke.

stroke swim

So here are four simple tips to try to avoid injury if you plan on taking on a triathlon this summer:

  1. Get used to breathing off both sides. A unilateral breathing pattern is a risk factor for shoulder pain in swimmers (Yanai et al 2000). Constantly working the structures on one side creates an imbalance. It may take time and may not suit race day if in open water and waves are bashing one side of your face but at least make time for it in training.
  2. Gradually build up the volume of training. Like running or any other sport doing too much too soon puts the shoulder at risk of injury (Walker et al 2012). Some events offer a ‘Try a Tri’ option. Otherwise start with a Sprint distance. The bike and run may seem like nothing but with the three disciplines together each using muscles in different ways, like me you may be surprised how demanding it can be.
  3. Sort out your posture. Swimmers tend to be round shouldered with huge muscle imbalances meaning their shoulder blades present similarly to Fig 1. Strengthening exercises for the shoulder blade and shoulder have been shown to improve symptoms of “Swimmers Shoulder” (Van de Velde et al 2011, Allegrucci et al 1994).
  4. Increase your shoulder movement. Shoulders tend to be stiff because we don’t use them to their full availability. Increasing range of movement correlates to decreased symptoms of shoulder pain (Tyler 2010). With swimmers the pec minor muscle and upper trapezius tends to be tight so these are the ones to focus on with stretching (Reeser 2010).
scap dysk
Fig 1: Muscle imbalance causing winging of shoulder blade

I did three triathlons that summer before reneging to the fact that I was going to have to invest a lot more time in the pool if I was to get a handle of triathlon. It is something I’m putting off every year and yet to make a return to but with Ironman still something on my to do list it is something I will revisit when life circumstances allow it. Excuses, I know.

For more information on any of the issues addressed throughout this article please contact Rob via email at, Twitter @mccabephysio, Facebook at McCabe Physiotherapy or visit

Rob McCabe MISCP

Chartered Physiotherapist

MSc (pre reg) Physiotherapy, BSc Sport Science and Health, MSc Sports Physiotherapy, PG Dip Orthopaedic Medicine

Orchard House, Moorefield Rd, Newbridge, Co. Kildare


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