Getting Back Into The Swimming State Of Mind

Courtesy of Judd Cribbs

Labor Day marked my two-year anniversary of when I started training to swim competitively at the age of 53. I grew up with a pool in my backyard, and I have always loved to swim and race friends, but I had never trained to compete.

Unfortunately, in the past six months, I have been in the pool two times, and these were in the last few weeks.

About a year ago, my left shoulder starting hurting after workouts. I don’t remember a specific time that I hurt it. There was no noticeable incident, just a nagging pain when I swam. It was even more nagging the next day.

I believed it wasn’t a typical ache from exercising, so I went to see an orthopedic specialist. He gave me a couple reasons why my shoulder might hurt, but he said to be sure I’d need a liquid-dye MRI, which cost $370 (with insurance!). I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of tests, surgery, bills and rehab. The idea of that hurt way more than my shoulder. So I decided to wait it out.

Strangely, I had no fewer than three friends/acquaintances who said they were also experiencing left-shoulder pain about the same time. So for about three months, I did some running. Then, over the summer, I was home with my two elementary-aged kids. I am a teacher, so the three of us spend the summer together. I did some whatever-feels-good gentle shoulder stretching during this time. But I did very little other exercise because, as an older father, I was just flat-out exhausted. Naps during this time were not so much naps as they were deep-black trips into the abyss.

Excuses aside, I noticed that I was eventually not noticing the pain in my shoulder. About three weeks ago, I thought I should jump back into the pool to test it. I was very careful to take it slowly; I did 4 x 25 with a kickboard, 4 x 25 breaststroke and 4 x 25 freestyle. I repeated this a few times, at a pace so slow it was almost like going backwards. Then the lightning siren went off, ending the session before I got too carried away.

The next day, my shoulder felt no different. It has always been a little sore the day after a workout, so I had rarely worked out two days in a row. But this current soreness was no different than my regular soreness, which was minor. I needed, nor wanted, any ibuprofen. I waited about a week and tried again, with the same result. This time, though, I swam the final 25 freestyle pretty hard, about 80 percent of max effort. The next day, I had no major soreness or pain.  

Just as I was getting back into the swimming frame of mind, Hurricane Irma hit. The center of the storm tracked directly over my house. Thankfully, damage to my home was minimal, but the event sapped me of any extra mental or physical energy. I am now only beginning to think about a new exercise regimen.

And that puts me in a mental quandary (Usually I am in a mental quandary about something): How far do I push it? Do I go back to swimming as my sole workout? Do I train? Or do I incorporate swimming into a broader exercise regimen? I’m thinking about the third option for now, and just seeing where it goes.

As long as I can get in the water, lose myself in the cool current, and emerge pain-free, that just might be far enough.

Judd Cribbs is a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. When he is not swimming or teaching, he enjoys gardening, playing the piano (poorly), and chasing his two kids around the house.

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I had a shoulder injury in my sophomore year of high school, did a lot of physical therapy (to maintain and not get worse) over the next 3 years to stay with my team. Then I made the decision not to swim in college. I don’t regret that decision, but I always wonder what if. My shoulder pain (tendonitis and rotator cuff inflammation), as well as the numbness in my hand caused by the inflammation, eventually worked itself out. In the last year I decided I still miss swimming enough that I was willing to try it again at 32 years old. “Start slow”, I said to myself. “I have my entire life to continue swimming if I do this… Read more »
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