The Mysterious / Miraculous Swimmer Muscle; The Psoas
Why is the Psoas the most important swimming muscle that you’ve never even heard of?
First the why. My experience was a locked Psoas within the course of an ultra-marathon swim. I finally got it unlocked after about 8 miles of excruciating pain. Since I’ve had some personal experience with the Psoas, I of course did the research and figured out how to work with it. Since then I’ve had multiple personal swim students, and an online acquaintance both suffer from a Psoas related injury, both of which I was able to assist in diagnosis. It’s sad but Western Medicine practitioners often miss this one, or diagnose it as a sciatic nerve issue, as the Psoas is not as clearly understood from an athletic community perspective.
So what’s a Psoas: It’s the deepest muscle in your core, and the only muscle to connect your spine to your leg. A stabilizer muscle that connects your torso in the thoracic section of your spine, to your femur in your leg. This means that a weak Psoas muscle could be the cause of your pelvic, or lower back pain.
It’s important because it helps in controlling your core rotation, stability of the spine and leg flexibility. In other words, every single swim stroke rotational movement is affected. Even your shoulders are affected as you’re not able to gain full extension and rotation of your spine to gain maximum propulsion. The Psoas moves your legs forward, and are involved in everything from getting out of bed in the morning to running the marathon segment of your Ironman. They stabilize your ability to go up the stairs to picking up that item you dropped this morning. As they are central in your body they also interplay with your organs as they are a muscle formation that your organs sit on. They are directly next to your colon, and your core circulatory system of Aorta and Inferior Vena Cava. They are also directly connected to your diaphragm through ligaments and fascia, so they also affect your ability to breath. Now that you know all of that I’m sure you’ll agree that the Psoas, is the most important swimmers muscle.
You may be damaging / tightening your Psoas if you:
Sit for long periods of time.
Engage in excessive running or walking.
Sleep in the fetal position.
Do a lot of sit-ups (the Psoas completes the top portion of the motion).
What to look for in your freestyle swim stroke.
You’ll see a staunch swimmer center over their core. This is generally seen as a good thing.
You’ll see little movement in their hips from side to side. This is also generally considered a good thing.
You’ll see a centered shoulder line, with tightness in their hips, so inability to engage their obliques in the finish of their stroke, and minimal (short) shoulder rotation emanating from rotation in the spine.
You’ll see their quads dragging a bit low in the water.
You’ll see minimal kick movement from the hip, and if asked to do the butterfly the kick will only emanate from the knees.
Similarly this will affect the ability to operate in Breast-stroke as the kick width suffers.
Finally, let’s not forget, that they may seem out of breath.
As I coach a lot of triathletes looking to improve their swim, I see a lot of runners who are tight through their ankles to their lower back, when they are struggling with establishing a kick, the Psoas is often a part of a larger issue.
What to look for in your every day:
Pain in your lower back or hips.
Sudden difference in the length of your legs.
Problems with posture.
Now how do we take care of it?
Try not to sit so much.
Flexibility work / massage.
My favorite way to get at my Psoas is with a foam roller. I’ll place it lengthwise down my leg, with the top part just to the side of and under my belly button. I lay on it allowing the foam roller to sink in between my pelvis and pubic bone. Once that becomes comfortable then bend the leg at the knee and roll to the side on the foam roller. You can also get to them from the back, by laying on the foam roller in the thoracic region of your spine and rolling up and down while tilted to the side.
Another way that is less painful, and a good starting point is to lay down on the floor and extend your legs vertically up a wall. Hold this for ten minutes and then try the foam roller. If you are unsure, and may think it’s your sciatic nerve, lay flat on the floor and touch your opposite ankle to your opposite knee to stretch the affected area. If this does not help, it may be your Psoas.
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