Every swimmer understands the necessity for perfection in the water. The endless chase for the perfect race, where everything falls in place. This is something in the back of your head every time you step up on the block and wait for the horn. But perfection not only comes from what you do in the water, but also what you do when you are on “land”.
Strong entry and flip turns are a crucial part of success in the water. The start of every race begins with your entry off the blocks; and a key muscle necessary for a strong entry are the hamstring muscles (the muscles in the back of you legs). Unfortunately, this muscle is commonly incorrectly strengthened, stretched and utilized by athletes and coaches.
Each year we see countless athletes sidelined due to hamstring strains or “pulls.” These injuries occur when there is a large force placed on the hamstring muscle. It is commonly injured with attempting to stop quickly or applying a quick forceful contraction through your leg muscles. This can be compared to a force the hamstring endures during a block start. Learning to strengthen your legs muscles most effectively can help prevent potential injury and improve performance in the aquatic athlete.
The hamstring group is comprised of three muscles. This muscle group connects with two joints, the hip and the knee. The most widely known action is knee bending. The other is the hip moving backward. These actions are essential for sport motions such as running, jumping and for this specific instance, flip kicks and block starts.
At the start of a swimmers race, the athlete is bent at the hip and the knees. At this position the thighs and legs are fixed, allowing for the hamstring to assist in push off. When the horn is heard the swimmer will quickly bend the knees and forcefully push off the block. When this occurs the hamstring quickly goes from a slight static stretch to a forceful contraction. A similar movement is performed during a flip turn.
Commonly, the hamstring is more widely understood as a muscle that bends the knee, rather than moving the hip backward. Many coaches and athletes strengthen and stretch this muscle for knee bending. A popular stretch used prior to a completion or practice is sitting poolside, bending at the hip with knees straight and grabbing the toes. Similarly, strengthening is performed in a seated position kicking backward at the knees. Yes, these two positions are one way to strengthen and stretch the hamstrings, however both of these exercises are focused primarily at the wrong location, the knees.
The role and position of the hamstrings off the block and during a flip turn is for the hips. Strengthening and stretching the muscle group in a more sport specific motion would (in my opinion) be a more effective approach to improve sport performance and prevent muscle injury.
Sport Specific Strengthening and Stretching:
When strengthening the hamstring for a swimmer it is important to mimic the point at which the muscle will be recruited. In this scenario, the hamstring will be recruited for max push off on the block. Therefore, strengthening the hamstrings into a backward motion is critical for carryover to the pool. Below are some strengthening and stretching exercises specific to the aquatic athlete.
Single Leg Romanian dead lift
Kneeling hamstring curl
Supine ecc hamsting
Active SLR stretch
Cable hamsting stretch.
These can be found using a simple Google search. Take a look and get back to the pool stronger and faster!