Swimming is constantly recommended as the best form of exercise. While it’s certainly true that the sport supports physical exercise without stress on bones and joints, swimming is not immune to injury. Physiotherapists, doctors, and other medical professionals often recommend swimming to people with injuries, pregnant women, and those with joint or bone problems. It looks on the surface like the perfect exercise. Now here’s the bad news: Swimming doesn’t impact your body like running or many gym-related activities but it can still result in some relatively debilitating injuries.
Let’s look at the most common swimming injuries and discuss how to treat them. Even better, we’ll look at how to prevent injuries from happening in the first place. As with all physical activities, it’s imperative that you understand the potential risks involved. To understand is to be prepared, and prevention is better than cure.
Types of common swimming injuries
Ask any regular swimmer or even someone that has swum a few lengths of a pool, which part of the body gets the biggest workout. Most people will attest to the great shoulder workout that swimming offers. But when we overwork a muscle or part of the body in any sport, problems can occur. In this case, the so-called Swimmer’s Shoulder manifests as any of the following injuries
- Rotator Cuff Impingement – pressure on the rotator cuff as the hand pulls into the water
- Rotator Cuff Tears – small tears in the rotator cuff tissue
- Bicep Tendonitis – when the bicep tendon becomes inflamed
- Bursitis – inflammation of the bursa
- Shoulder Instability – muscles surrounding the ball and socket of the arm are not working correctly
Sufferers often complain of limited mobility and decreased strength within the muscles. In some instances, pain can extend down the back of the arm.
The breaststroke is an easier technique to master. It’s also one of the more relaxing swim techniques – Breaststroke requires less stamina to move and keep your head out of the water than front crawl. However, for competitive breaststroke swimmers, the knees can take a hammering thanks to the powerful kick in the movement.
A telltale sign is trouble bending the knee or walking. The area around the knee might also feel tender and sore to touch. Another common knee injury occurs when the ligaments in the knee are pulled or stretched. The result is even more pain and tenderness.
As with the shoulder, the neck is put under “strain” while swimming. Freestyle swimming requires constant contortion of the neck muscles. Other strokes like the breaststroke force craning of the neck.
Symptoms include tenderness in the neck region. It may hurt to turn the head from side to side. Some swimmers may notice acute pain in certain positions and a dull ache when the neck is at rest.
Swimming puts the lower back in hyperextension. Over time, the strain on the muscles and tendons can lead to acute pain in the lower back region. Sometimes this pain radiates through the entire back and can impact mobility.
Causes of Swimming Injuries
Even with proper conditioning and training, competitive swimmers can still experience discomfort or injury.
Pain is generally the result of one of the following:
- Improper Technique
- Insufficient Rest Periods
- Limited Flexibility
- Reduced Core Strength
Poor Breathing Techniques
Let’s break down a few of these causes even further.
Overexertion or Over Training
Although swimming is a low-impact activity, intense workouts change the dynamic. Casual swimmers, in most cases, don’t have to worry about overexerting themselves, but competitive swimmers can often push their bodies to the limit. Overexertion occurs when swimmers push themselves to exhaustion or by continuing to train despite the body’s warning signals. The pressure to improve one’s performance or speed can lead to over-training. The result of over-training is fatigue or injury.
As with all exercises, getting the right technique can be the difference between long term fitness and a life of injury. Whether it’s lifting weights, running, or swimming, you need to make sure that your body is moving well. Casual swimmers are more likely to swim with improper technique, especially if it’s been a while between activities.
Poor Core Strength
Swimming works out a specific set of muscles in the body. Your shoulders, upper back, biceps, and legs are all affected by swimming. Core muscles must be strong to support the larger muscles that help propel the body through water. Beginner swimmers with weak core muscles are more susceptible to injury, particularly in the back.
Poor Breathing Techniques
This might sound obvious, but breathing right while in the water is vital. Not only to enable more efficient swimming but also for maintaining form. Bad form equals injury. Poor breathing techniques impact the entire body.
How to Prevent Swimming Injuries
Follow these guidelines to avoid potential injury while in the water.
Warm Up First
Before doing laps in the pool, warm up your muscles with some light exercise. Stretching your shoulders, back, and knees can also help them work better while in the water.
Practice Different Swimming Strokes
If you only do one kind of stroke you are setting yourself up for a case of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). The same problems that office workers experience with their forearms and wrists can apply in the pool. Practicing a variety of swimming techniques ensures that your whole body is limber.
Perfect Your Technique
When starting a swimming regimen, focus on your strokes before worrying about speed or stamina. Master each stroke before stepping on the gas.
Rest Between Sessions
The longer you spend in the water without a break the higher the chance of being hurt. Take breaks during workouts and relax your muscles between sessions.
Stop if You Feel Pain
Athletic swimmers often get injured because they attempt to swim through the warning signs of pain. Without exception, tension or soreness in your muscles should be addressed right away.
Treating Swimming Injuries
Despite your best efforts to minimise swimming injuries, problems can arise. Mistreatment of an injury can make it worse and delay the healing process. In worst-case scenarios, improper healing can lead to prermanent damage. The best piece of advice we can give is to consult a physiotherapist, qualified sports massage therapist, or doctor to get advice on treating your injury.
Stretches for mobility in the pool.
Here are some specific stretches that can aid swimmers.
Sleeper Stretch – (Shoulder)
- Lie on a table or the floor with your head supported.
- Your bottom arm (the affected shoulder) should be perpendicular to your body with the forearm raised at 90 degrees.
- With the top arm, move your bottom forearm towards the table or ground until you feel the stretch.
- Hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times. You can do both shoulders, but it mostly helps a sore or injured shoulder recover mobility.
External Rotation – (Shoulder)
You can either do this exercise standing or laying down.
- Put a towel underneath your elbow, both as a cushion and to ensure that your arm rotates without moving away from the torso.
- Start with your hand at your belly button and slowly move it out until you feel resistance from your shoulder.
- Do this 20 times for two sets. Start without weight or resistance and build up, using either free weights or a band.
Plank – (Back, Shoulders)
The plank hits the back and shoulders but it also one of the most effective core exercises.
- Lay on your elbows with your forearms parallel to the floor.
- Raise your body onto your toes.
- Keep your back straight, and your shoulders rounded without pinching them together.
- Hold this pose for 30 seconds and repeat three times.
Double Knee-to-Chest Stretch – (Lower Back)
- Lie on your back and stay relaxed.
- Bring both knees as close to your chest as possible.
- Hold this position for five seconds, then return to the beginning.
- Do five reps and be sure not to bounce your legs while bringing them up.
A fully qualified Complementary Health Practitioner, Siobhan brings over twenty-five years of working and training experience to The Bodywise Clinic. Member of the Irish Massage Therapy Association.
Originally trained in Canada, Siobhán has also studied in New Zealand, the UK and Ireland in the fields of Remedial Deep Tissue and Sports Massage, Lymphatic Drainage Massage, Pregnancy Massage, Dry Needling, Low Level Laser Therapy, Smoking Cessation, Reflexology and Reiki. Siobhán is constantly upgrading her skills and recently studied a course in Orthopaedic Massage and Pain Management.