By Mike Mejia, M.S, C.S.C.S
Question: What's the best way to loosen up the front of my hips? They always feel really tight after practice?
Amy, age 16, Long Island, New York
Answer: Not only should you aim to "loosen up" this area after a tough practice, but it would also be beneficial to increase the range of motion of these muscles prior to getting into the water. Known collectively as the hip flexors, this group of muscles (primarily the iliopsoas, rectus femoris, sartorius and tensor fascia latae) tends to be chronically tight in swimmers. Because of all that flutter kicking you do, these muscles are continually working through a shortened range of motion. Add in long hours seated in class during the day and you can see how problems can quickly develop.
Not only can tight hip flexors have a negative impact on your performance, but from a postural standpoint, they can wreak havoc on your lower back. Unfortunately however, intermittently stretching them every once and a while isn't gong to do much to alleviate the problem. I've found that the best way to address tight hip flexors involves a two pronged approach that combines traditional static stretching with mobility drills designed to actively increase range of motion. The trick is knowing when to employ each technique for optimal results.
Generally speaking, you want to do dynamic flexibility, a.k.a. mobility drills prior to strenuous exercise and static stretches during the cooldown period to allow your muscles to relax and elongate. For hip flexor mobility, I really like the kneeling broomstick drill. However, realizing that broomsticks are probably in short supply on a pool deck prior to practice, something like a foam roller would be an acceptable substitute. The great thing about this drill is the fact that it not only does a fantastic job of mobilizing the hip flexors, but it also helps increase the extension in the thoracic spine. Loss of motion here can be contributing factor to a whole host of injuries, so it's definitely a worthwhile addition to your pre-practice routine.
Once you've finished swimming, be sure to include some static stretches for the hip flexors. To do this, you're once again going to get into a high kneeling position. From there, the first step is to do what's known as a posterior pelvic tilt. This will activate your core and glutes and result in a reflexive relation of the hip flexors. After getting used to that for about 20 seconds or so, the next step is to lean forward slightly onto the forward leg, making sure to maintain the same pelvic position. After another few seconds, bring the same side arm up straight overhead, and then lean away from the back leg. This will not only intensify the stretch on the hip flexors, but it will bring the lats into play- another chronically tight muscle group in swimmers. Be sure to hold this final position for at least thirty seconds, and then switch to the other side.
When done on a regular basis, these two vastly different types of stretches can produce some major differences in the way your body feels and performs. The mobility drill will improve your movement efficiency and get your muscles primed and ready to swim, while the static stretch will help with posture and promote muscle recovery. So make sure you remember to include both in your routine.