If I had to choose a second improvement project for pool-exiled swimmers with more time on your hands, I would assign the work of improving posture. 

This essay is part of a series discussing the kind of complementary training you can do while kept away from the pool that will prepare you to be even better when you go back. These are not merely nice suggestions, these are actually essential, fundamental skills that, if made present or if made stronger, could dramatically improve your performance as a swimmer.  

The spine is the center piece of your strength, the highway for directing of forces the body, as well as channeling signals to and from all regions. The moment posture degrades, enormous energy waste occurs in the system and flowing forces start conflicting inside the body, causing additional stress on the joints.  

I cringe at how many runners and swimmers I see who show poor posture and it only gets worse as fatigue sets in. I see runners hunched forward, or extending the back, or tilting to one side. I see swimmers crawling through the water, spines wiggling like lizards, hips and legs swaying from side to side in response (or scissor kicking to counter it). Yet, in both activities, a straight (as in neutral), firm and stable posture is the fundamental of all fundamentals of good form.

The head position sets the stage for the rest of the spine – a head jutting forward (on a runner) or a head tilted up to look forward (on a swimmer) urges the sections of the spine downstream to adjust their position to compensate. The body knows those compensations are necessary to maintain structural stability and flow of force, but those deviations from the ideal position are detrimental to efficiency (even for the short-axis butterfly and breaststroke) and they increase risk of injury. If one adjusts the position of the head and then resists the corresponding adjustment in another part of the spine, distress along the spine will increase even more. 

Good posture, appropriate for running and swimming, and the strength to hold that posture permanently, is one of those general strengths that every person should work on before going far into specialized training for running or swimming. This is about getting the first foundation layer of fitness in place in order to build second sport-specific layer on top. Good and strong posture is a fundamental condition that should be taught and required at the very start of an athlete’s career, competitive or recreational, young or old, because it is the foundation upon which all safe, strong and efficient movement is built.   
It’s easy for me to make an appeal to work on your posture, but I realize that many adults have complex problems causing poor posture and for some, quick or self-guided fixes may not be possible. Some people have permanent deformities and must compensate despite the consequences. But nonetheless, this is so important to your performance and longevity in your chosen activity, let alone your physical well-being as a human, that it is important you place high priority on making an improvement in your posture if it is possible to do so.

Perhaps you know how to get your body into good posture. But can you maintain it for the duration of your day, let alone for the duration of your athletic activity? If you can put your body into good posture for standing, walking, sitting, running, and swimming, yet cannot hold it for long, then you need to work on getting a lot stronger. Tolerating a potentially improvable weakness here is setting you up for problems elsewhere. 

If you need more help for this than what you can do for yourself it may be good to get in contract with someone who can help you move your spine toward the ideal (like a chiropractor) or someone who can help you stabilize and get strong in that better position (like a physical therapist). I can think of many other schools of practice like pilates, yoga, feldenkrais, etc., that can be very good for your posture. 

But keep in mind that working on posture is not a side project, or an elective course. Posture is fundamental and ubiquitous to your life – you are programming your body’s posture at every moment of your day – when standing, walking, driving, sitting, and even when you are sleeping, whether you intend to shape it or not. The body is adapting and stabilizing itself around the patterns you repeatedly subject it to.

I spend quite a few hours of the week at a computer, and alternate between a standing desk and sitting on a 55 cm stability ball. Years ago, when I first started using ball for a chair, I could only sit with good posture for maybe 30 minutes or so, before feeling tired in places along my spine. Exercise for this over the years has normalized good posture to the point that I can sit or stand for hours now (which I have had to test lately with a great deal of study and writing for my school work).  When I swim or run for hours, other things might tire out, but my posture remains solid, thankfully, and thereby my risk of injury under fatigue is lower.

We spend about a third of our day sleeping. Even here we should be careful to keep the head aligned when side sleeping, which I prefer much of the time. When sleeping on my back I use a towel or a travel pillow to support my neck and do not use a pillow because I do not want it to push my head forward, out of alignment with my spine. If I make that mistake I will feel the consequences down my spine the next day.

Photo by Paul Carroll on Unsplash

I would recommend that you put in the effort to improve posture and make it strong. An adjustment in the right direction might not yet make it perfect, and anything less than perfect means that the body will adjust to find a way to support itself under that less-than-ideal arrangement. There will be new stresses and aches associated with these changes, even in a positive direction. But even small improvements toward the ideal are likely going to bring you mechanical, efficiency and safety benefits, more than you have right now. 

And, if you would like more motivation you can listen to Amy Cuddy PhD  talk about the psychological side of good (powerful!) posture.


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