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Sport Specific Injuries: Swimming

As a farm boy growing up in Canyon County, I never had much reason to know how to swim. We might go wading in a ditch on hot summer days, but that was pretty much the extent of my aquatic experience. Then years later in college, I had an epiphany – what if my child was drowning? Would I be able to save them? I had aspirations of being a father someday, and that thought brought me to a cold sweat. Immediately I sought help from a friend who worked as a lifeguard. Three days a week for several months, we met before classes, and he taught me every stroke he knew. In learning to swim, I felt I’d taken an important step in my journey towards fatherhood. And I’m proud to say that when I finally did become a father, each of my kids learned to swim at a young age.

Once you know how, swimming is one of the healthiest, most enjoyable activities that nearly everyone can participate in. It has numerous exercise benefits (such as building strength and increasing endurance), and it has the advantage of being low-impact. It can be as competitive as an Olympic race or as casual as floating the Boise River. And with certain modifications, swimming can be made appropriate for all ages. There’s almost no downside. Almost. But as with all activities that involve repetitive motions, swimming can lead to stubborn overuse injuries.

A person who swims regularly as part of their fitness regimen may make several hundred thousand strokes per year. That much repetitive movement can cause an overuse injury in and of itself, especially if proper rest is not taken between workouts. Overuse injuries can also manifest as a result of unbalanced muscle development, improper stroke execution, and sudden training increases. Your stroke of choice also affects what kind of injury you may develop; freestylers are known for their shoulder tendonitis (called “swimmers’ shoulder”) while breaststrokers more commonly experience knee problems.

Because overuse injuries often involve a lengthy recovery, prevention is always the best medicine. The first step is to address any errors you may have in the execution of your stroke (like over-rotating or over-reaching) as these will only encourage the formation of overuse injuries. Seek out a knowledgeable swimmer (such as a coach, instructor, or lifeguard) to help you iron out the problems in your stroke.

Your goal should be to aim for balance in all aspects of your training. This will help prevent any one joint or muscle group from becoming taxed to the point of injury. Balance your favorite stroke with strokes that rely on different motions (for example, alternate breaststroke with backstroke). Balanced strength training will help to insure that one muscle doesn’t become weaker than another (which forces the others to work harder to compensate for it). Try to make sure both sides of your body are equal participants in your swimming – for example, don’t breathe on only one side when doing freestyle (this contributes to neck problems) and perform sidestroke on both your dominant and non-dominant sides. And of course, balanced nutrition gives your body the fuel it needs to perform.

Cross training can be extremely beneficial to athletes of all interests because it gives you the chance to challenge your body in totally different ways than you could achieve with your normal workout alone. This will increase your overall strength and stamina – two important factors for warding off injuries. So add one day a week of biking, jogging, jumping rope, or using an elliptical machine, for example. Just be sure to take all progress gradually; don’t increase your overall workout load by more than 10% per week.

Don’t be discouraged if you still come down with an overuse injury – it can happen to the best of swimmers. Get some rest and visit your physical therapist or doctor for ways to jump start your recovery. Keep moving, my friends!

– Alan

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