One issue I've faced over the years is knee pain among swimmers who swim breaststroke. In particular, this pain seems to be more of an issue in female swimmers than males. I'm not sure why this is but would love to find out. If there are any doctors reading this and know that sort of thing, please leave a comment below. Knee pain in swimmers, even though our sport is very low impact, is very real. This should never be ignored by an athlete or a coach. It has been documented that 73% of Breaststrokers and 48% of non-breaststrokers all suffer from some sort of knee pain. That's a lot of swimmers.
Why Does Breaststroke kick cause pain
Breaststroke is a unique stroke to the rest. It requires a high degree of knee flexion combined with a large hip rotation, in association with hip abduction and adduction. This combination of movements allows the foot to travel away from the body, while the hip adduction helps snap the legs back together. These actions causes compression on the outside of the knee and stretches on the inside of the knee. The stretching of the medial knee is the site of most knee pain.
Reduce/Eliminate the pain
Dealing with this knee pain isn't fun as any swimmer who has experienced will tell you. There are a few simple tricks that I've come across over the years of coaching that do seem to help.
Through proper stretches and activation exercises before you get into the pool, you can help increase hip mobility and flexibility. Many swimmers and coaches rush or don't pay much attention to their warm-up exercises. We need to spend more time thinking about how to properly warm up our bodies before we throw ourselves into stressful sets. In this case, swimmers should focus on movements and actions that target the circulation of blood through the body. By getting your blood moving, you help reduce the build up of joint fluid in and around the knee. This can be done through a light cardiovascular movement or any activity that targets muscular activation and dynamic mobility.
The other method I've found over the years to work is reducing the amount of movement that a swimmer actually uses to generate their kick. This one is a challenge. Most swimmers I've dealt with in the past have liked to get a wide movement with their legs and engage their hips significantly. This means that a swimmer is having a larger hip abduction, which is what doctors believe contributes greatly to the pain. This theory makes perfect sense. Let's break it down for a second. If a swimmer has inadequate internal hip rotation and then the athlete is trying to spread their legs as far apart as possible, then this separation causes a decrease in the contact area of the medial knee causing joint stress.
My solution to this is simple. When I work with athletes with this chronic knee and joint pain, I always have them practice breaststroke using a pull buoy between their upper legs. This reduces the amount they can spread their legs apart during the hip abduction part of their kick. I've found that this helps to teach them to engage their hips more during the hip adduction. You may be thinking that this decreases some of power you can generate in your kick. But I beg to differ. If you look at star athletes like Rebecca Soni or Ryan Lochte (who had knee surgery forcing him to change his kick), they both have much smaller kicks that that use in greater forward propulsion.
Actually, most swimmers should adopt this smaller breaststroke kick. You can generate more power and propulsion that can be used to drive your body forward. This idea of a smaller kick is becoming a standard philosophy amongst coaches. We've even seen the introduction of new training equipment like Kick Pro. This strap holds the legs closer together throughout your kick. I haven't tested this piece out yet myself so I don't know how well it actually works in helping swimmers improve their kicks.
Swimming techniques are always evolving. Coaches and athletes are getting smarter about finding ways to improve their stroke performance by also reducing their pains. Helping to cut down on the significantly large pain that comes with breaststroke will make your swimming career last longer and be much more enjoyable. I do caution though that I'm not a doctor so consult with a doctor and your coach if you suffer from knee pain before performing these exercises or making changes to your stroke.