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How to avoid a swimming injury and remain active

Outstanding swimmers all over the nation have begun preparing for the British Swimming Championships. The Championships will also serve as official Olympic trials and so exceptional performances will be the goal of every competing athlete. Held in the lively city of Glasgow, the Tollcross venue with its fully refurbished competitive pool is scheduled to stage the event in April 2016.

Swimming is widely regarded as one of the most beneficial sports for both cardiovascular and resistance fitness. Although intensely demanding, the support of the water is considered to render the sport “low impact” and it is thus popular with a variety of age groups. At the top level, however, the athletes will be preparing thoroughly in order to achieve supreme physical conditioning. They must ensure that they are strong, supple, and streamlined with an effective game plan. But part of preparing effectively also includes preparing for setbacks. Even Olympic level athletes are still vulnerable to injury and unforeseen circumstances.

The Most Common Types of Injury

The type of injury most likely to be sustained by a swimmer will depend heavily on their stroke. Breaststroke leaves the hips and back vulnerable to slipped discs and inner hip injuries, for example. But the most common complaints from swimmers are issues with the shoulder. “Swimmer’s shoulder” has even entered common usage, illustrating just how frequently it is experienced. Top level swimmers will regularly swim several miles a day, and this puts enormous repetitive strain on the joints, even if they are physically fit.

Swimmer’s shoulder can refer to the pain caused by the overuse and fatigue of the shoulder. If the shoulder blade regularly puts pressure on the rotator cuff as it moves, then stiffness and inflammation can become a problem. The structures and tendons that surround the shoulder joint must be kept strong and in peak physical condition as they are what keeps the shoulder firmly in its socket and rotating correctly.

Diagram showing the anatomy of the shoulder joint

Tendonitis and inflammation of the joints can also be common. The lower back can be a problem area for swimmers who regularly use the “dolphin kick” motion, especially when already fatigued. Knee and hip joint problems can also be experienced if the muscle groups surrounding them are not adequately strengthened. While athletes cannot strengthen the knee or shoulder in the sense that they can strengthen the bone, the flexibility and resistance of all the surrounding tissues are what renders a joint strong or weak.

Grueling Preparation

The swimmers at the British Championships will have been preparing their bodies for several months. They must not only ensure that their joints and muscles are in peak condition, but also that their nutrition and mental state can support a strong performance. Work both in and out of the gym is crucial at this point. Regular communication with performance professionals such as a coach, physiotherapist and trainer will all be essential. Many athletes now even explore additional support such as sports performance hypnotherapists or exercise classes in another genre such as pilates or yoga. A variety of activities at both high and low impact can help to ensure adequate cardiovascular and muscular fitness.

Lady performing a yoga pose on the grass among trees

Prevention Is Better Than Cure

Even Olympic level swimmers must ensure that they adhere to some guidelines to prevent injury. Maintaining correct stroke technique ensures that the joints and ligaments are protected. This can be extremely difficult to self-assess, especially while in the water, and so expert advice is needed. An experienced coach can identify potential problems and weaknesses. That way, errors can be corrected before they develop into a serious or chronic problem.

If an injury has already been sustained by a swimmer, however, whatever their level, rest should be taken seriously. Many of the athletes will sustain general wear and tear or pull muscles while training hard. Their rest periods will still include activity but are likely to be carefully monitored. A change of stroke can sometimes correct repetitive injuries. Sports massage and infrared treatment might also be used. In severe cases, anti-inflammatory injections or surgery may be required but only as a last resort. Successful swimmers rely heavily upon core strength training and suppleness, so that is often their emphasis while injured.

Separate from their training, the way in which a swimmer prepares in between sessions is equally crucial. It is likely that the top athletes adhere to a strict nutrition programme to ensure that their bodies perform at their optimal level. Staying hydrated, especially during heady training periods, is crucial for ensuring concentration, rapid recovery and even supple joints.

Whatever their level, swimmers who have sustained an injury should seek professional advice at the earliest opportunity.

Lady receiving physio on her shoulder / upper back

Excessive soreness or stiffness is a sign that something is wrong and it should be explored before it is worsened. Athletes have a reputation for pushing themselves to the limit, but even they must not wait until something becomes a major problem before reporting it.

Swimmers experiencing discomfort should consult their coach or physiotherapist. It can also be helpful to read up on the subject online or in reputable journals. Staying educated and aware is always the best prevention for injury, whatever your sport.

Widening Participation

Even Olympic level swimmers must ensure that they adhere to correct stroke technique, seek professional guidance, and listen to their own bodies and limits in order to avoid injury. Fortunately, most injuries can be easily prevented and there are methods to recover effectively too. Swimming can be enormously beneficial for health and well-being at any age. Young swimmers can learn discipline and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. More mature swimmers can stay mobile and active while remaining sociable and getting out more.

Close up of a man swimming front crawl or freestyle

The British Championships will provide the opportunity to watch the nation’s best athletes take to the water. If you think you’re the next star athlete or simply want to give it a try, there are plenty of ways in which you can become involved. Why not head down to your local pool and try out for a team? Swimming can take the form of sprints, relays, diving or even water polo. If you’re looking for a gentler alternative, why not take a friend or family member and start an active new lifestyle together? Whatever your level, there is a swimming activity to suit you.