7 Steps to Preventing a Swimming Injury
Swimming is considered a low-impact sport that doesn’t present as many acute injuries as the strains and sprains common among football and basketball players. But swimmers are by no means immune to injury. Dara Torres has undergone three shoulder surgeries and a hernia repair, and has knee surgery scheduled for later this year. Early in her career, superstar Natalie Coughlin suffered through a torn labrum in her left shoulder that resulted in 1.5 years of physical therapy.
Avoiding injury isn’t always possible, but swimmers of any age can take steps to keep the body healthy. For preventive advice, Swimnetwork spoke with Ryan Dean, athletic trainer for the women’s and men’s swim teams at the University of Wisconsin. A graduate of the University of Wyoming, Dean is not only a sports training expert but also a swimmer himself, competing in his first meet at age six. He offered these seven steps to injury prevention.
1) Avoid too much, too soon. Dean warns that more injuries occur at the start of the season vs. the end.
“As some athletes return to practice, their bodies are not physically prepared for the rigors of intense daily workouts,” he says. In response to this sudden stress, injuries can develop. So start up slowly, avoiding rapid increases in training distances or frequency of training. And if that isn’t possible, make sure your off-season training is up to par.
2) Correct improper body mechanics. Another cause of early season injury can be improper form, says Dean. If a swimmer has just returned from a long break, their form may have become sloppy or even ineffective. Improper mechanics can result in a variety of injuries.
“Several times athletes have come to me complaining of elbow or shoulder pain. Before these evolve into full blown injuries, I ask the coaching staff to correct any flaws in their mechanics. On most occasions, the coaches are able to identify and fix the problem, which leads to a resolution of their symptoms,” says Dean.
3) Tweak the small stuff. Trainers estimate that swimmers complete as many as 16,000 shoulder revolutions in a one-week period. So it’s no surprise that swimmers are at risk for repetitive stress injuries. Dean notes that tendonitis (inflammation of tendons), neuritis (inflammation/aggravation of nerves) and shoulder impingement (similar to tendonitis) are the most common, and swimmers are particularly vulnerable to bicep tendonitis and ulnar neuritis.
Minor changes to technique, however, can be effective. Deans notes that a freestyle swimmer whose elbows enter the water before their hands will most likely suffer from elbow and/or ulnar nerve pain. But by correcting this small error in form, the swimmer will find their stroke much more comfortable and efficient over the long term.
4) Focus on flexibility. While a runner can tape an ankle to prevent an ankle sprain, injury prevention in swimming is a little more difficult, due to the high number of muscle groups incorporated in swimming. One of the best strategies for injury prevention is to increase flexibility, recommends Dean. “The more elasticity that a muscle or tendon has, the easier it is for that structure to avoid injury.”
Do land exercises to keep the body strong. While flexibility is a plus, exercises such as yoga and pilates can increase strength and help prevent injury. “Flexibility is important, but flexibility with strength and body awareness is even better,” says Dean.
5) Don’t skip the warm up. Avoid starting your practice too hard or too fast. Doing a proper, relaxed warm up in swimming – as in any sport – is critical to preventing injury.
6) Proper hydration can prevent muscle cramps. The two main causes of cramps are dehydration and/or electrolyte depletion. Because of that, diet – or more specifically hydration – is vital to performance in swimming. “Many athletes neglect the role that electrolytes, primarily sodium, potassium and chloride, play in the body,” says Dean. These salts are all found within the cells of the muscle and are vital to its proper function. So while drinking plenty of water is great, don’t forget to replenish your electrolytes with electrolyte tablets or a sports drink.
7) Ownership. Finally, Dean recommends that avoiding injury is easier if an athlete takes ownership of their own health and well-being. “Develop your own mind and beliefs instead of relying on those of others.”