Learning to Survive – and Thrive – While Swimming Injured

by Hannah Saiz 4

May 08th, 2014 Lifestyle, News, Training

Sometimes the hardest thing in practice is knowing when to stop. Young swimmers, and those who have never had to deal with an injury may scratch their heads. Knowing when to stop? they’ll say. You don’t stop – it’s practice. That’s how you get better. 


Yes, but up to a point. For any swimmer who has experienced that bone-deep agony of shoulder pain, knee pain, lower back issues or any other problem – you know what I’m talking about.

Facing down a long aerobic set when you can barely finish warm up is a daunting prospect. As an athlete who has had to deal with physical challenges myself (shoulder, back, and knee), I get it. It is hard to look at a workout and feel confident when every other workout has found you floundering at the back of the lane. It can be even harder to admit to yourself that you are injured and you do need help.

This article won’t solve all your problems, but hopefully it can help put you back on track for enjoying your sport and continuing to mold yourself into the best athlete you can be.


Let’s start with the question that might be the hardest of all: are you actually injured? There are two ends to this spectrum – the athlete who knows that claiming shoulder pain can lead to an easier workout or the athlete who refuses to admit anything might be wrong because of an overdeveloped work ethic. I’ve been in both categories. “Easy” workout are emotionally appealing if you don’t feel “on” on a given day. Admitting you have an injury is a huge blow to self-confidence and feels like a worry that could be ignored by just focusing on the immediate – finish this set.

If your “pain” comes and goes, seems to show up when sets get hard or is more ache than ouch, you might not be injured at all. Muscle soreness and mental disengagement can lead to the perception of being hurt when an athlete is just tired. On the other hand, if the “ache” is sharp, if there’s a specific point in the stroke when it shows up or if you experience it in everyday life, slow down a bit – it’s possible you’re hurt.


I have always been a huge proponent of communication. For an athlete who is injured, talking – and listening – is a must if she wants to succeed. The people you ought to be in communication with as an injured athlete are these:

– your coach(es)

– your trainer

– your team

If you and your coach are not on the same wavelength, dealing with an injury will be difficult. Let him know what is wrong and  be prepared to discuss solutions. DO bring ideas of what you can do along with you when you start the conversation. DON’T rely on your coach to spoon-feed you as you pick and choose what “bites” sound easiest/most fun. (And DON’T have the conversation during a workout.)

I understand that not all athletes have an athletic trainer on hand to just go see about sports injuries. If you do, take advantage of the resource! Trainers are an excellent source of information on rehab for injuries and can be counted on to provide ice post-practice to help quell soreness. DO have your trainer help you figure out what the problem may be and provide services such as ice, massage or TENS. DON’T schedule your time with trainers to conveniently miss half of practice.

Watching someone crawl out of the pool mid-set is frustrating, especially if you are doing a hard workout and only want to flop on the deck next to them. Your team is part of your support system, and as such should be kept informed of any changes to your routine that may impact them. It’s easier to avoid being distracted by a teammate lying on the pool deck if I know he’s rolling out an MCL to prepare for the next round of breaststroke. Without that kind of information, teammates may be sullen or jealous and not “in your corner.” DO inform your lane mates/training partners if you’ll be entering/exiting the pool on a routine basis due to an injury or otherwise not following the standard practice. DON’T make it a big deal – just because you are doing 150s on the send off does not give you the right to interrupt your teammates’ 200s.

Creative Solutions

When you do go talk to your coach, it’s a good idea to have a few ideas handy as discussion starters and to keep you from appearing to be trying to weasel out of a workout. For example, if your team generally does X 200s of swim on a tight interval and your shoulder hurts, saying you’ll do 100s of kick with fins instead probably isn’t the best alternative.

Here are some creative suggestions to consider:

– kick-swim

– backwards swim

– alternate strokes

– new stroke

– flip turns

When your shoulder/back/etc is bothering you, usually it’s not a pain that persists constantly at the same level throughout practice, or even throughout a set. Personally I’ve always found that the sharp “pouch” tends to set in as my body becomes over-used during practice or across a long aerobic set.

Many times, athletes with shoulder problems elect to forgo swimming altogether, reasoning that avoiding the problem is the sensible solution. However, I’ve often found that just giving the offending area a break – for a 25 or a 50 – is enough to continue training at a high level. Consider a set of 150ss and think about doing them like this: 25 dolphin kick, 50 swim, 25 flutter kick, 50 swim. More than half the distance is swimming so your body receives that benefit but the kicking builds strength in your legs as well as supplying a timely rest before your shoulders become overly fatigued.

Swimming backwards is a skill that requires patience, thought and a longer interval. A set of 25s may provide a good opportunity – one swum forward and one in reverse.

When you swim freestyle backwards, keep your palms faced the way they would be in a “normal” stroke and push water with the back of your hand to best strengthen the small muscles in your shoulders for stability. This is an exercise that can be a nice warm down or warm up as well and once you get the hang of it, it can look pretty impressive.

For distance freestylers and butterfliers, shoulders nearly always seem to be the first thing to go. Part of the issue can be not getting out of the “comfort zone.” If your team is a specialty stroke/race heavy team, you may find yourself overtaxing pieces of your anatomy that do not appreciate it. When given an opportunity, change it up. If you are primarily a flyer, do backstroke: the underwaters offer a similar challenge as fly and the shoulder rotates a little differently to allow for rest.

Alternatively you may also consider the development of a new stroke – a “practice” stroke, if you will. Not every yard swum is designed to be at top racing speed (unless you happen to be Michael Andrew), and so it makes little sense to practice non-race specific training with a freestyle that is causing harm to important bodily components.

Developing a “new” freestyle may result in the modification of your racing freestyle so always work with a coach in adopting/changing a stroke.

Flip turns aren’t just for freestyle and back. If you have tendonitis, wrist or shoulder problems, heavy repetition of open turns – often poorly or thoughtlessly executed – can exacerbate the problem. Try taking a freestyle stroke into the wall and flipping. The upsides are sparing injured areas more abuse, working on breath control and (if you do a few perfect, mindful turns post-practice) even improvement in your turns.

Out of Water Work

Once you’ve been injured, there really is no way to get away from the fact that suddenly – in order to be successful – you must take extra steps outside the pool to ensure your body is ready.

Here are a few things to consider investigating:

– foam roller/tennis ball

– core work

– yoga

– massage/ physical therapy

A foam roller is a magical device that all athletes should have. Owning one makes you look like a badass. Using one makes your muscles scream in agony – and then thank you.

A fair number of breaststrokers experience knee injuries and one of the areas that you can soothe with a foam roller is the ACL. They also work wonders on glutes and hamstrings (one of the primary reasons for low back pain is tight hamstrings).

A tennis ball does essentially the same thing but can target more localized areas. The pectoral muscle, for example, or right along the bands of muscle along the spine.

Another reason for low back pain can come from a weak core. Doing exercises aimed at strengthening the transverse abs – as opposed to the vanity six pack – can help alleviate stress. These muscles help keep your body aligned during swimming, and an increase in strength here can also help lead to faster times.

Also try to keep your eyes focused downward and head in a neutral position while training rather than looking forward. The “lift” created by looking where you’re going can force your hips down or put stress on your low back and glutes as these muscles work overtime to keep your body in alignment.

Yoga is a great way to stretch out sore, tight muscles as well as helping to develop astrength in overlooked areas such as the wrists and ankels. There are many varieties of yoga, so read up on what each offers when making a choice as some are more active than others. (And some – like bikram or “hot” yoga – are obscenely sweat-inducing!)

Though I’ve mentioned it before, a massage or physical therapist is a great person to have in your support network. Not only can these people poke and prod your body into feeling “right” again, they can also frequently offer suggestions of exercises specific to your body and training to help maintain an optimal training body between visits.

Personally I only went to my massage therapist when I was incapable of forcing out a max effort in practice, but I do suggest making an effort to go more often, and following whatever suggestions your therapist may have for you.

Take Away

There is a great deal of mental toughness that goes into dealing with an injury. Admitting there is a problem – especially for a very gung-ho athlete – can be a challenge. But being injured can also bring out depths of creativity in athletes and coaches.

Learning how to train – and train well – with an injury is a step down the path of learning to cope with adversity. Be a problem solver.

Many injured athletes have stronger communication channels with their coaches. These may be built out of necessity, but they serve as a support network for many situations.

Finally, even for the most hard core athlete, an injury forces you to examine yourself, your limits and come to terms with what your body may or may not be able to do on a given day. And to be okay with that, taking a long term view as opposed to the more constrained here and now.

So, caps off to all you swimmers with injuries. May it bring out the best in you and continue to shine!

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What do you mean when you say “one of the areas that you can soothe with a foam roller is the ACL”? The ACL is one of the primary ligaments inside the knee joint, that once injured, should be evaluated by an orthopedic surgeon, not soothed with a foam roller.


I liked this, but I’ve got to admit, when you said, “Knowing when to stop? they’ll say. You don’t stop – it’s practice. That’s how you get better. ” My first thought was, “I wish I had that problem with my swimmers.”

I wish this article had also mentioned sports chiropractors. We do a lot of good work, and helping athletes reach their potential is one of our joys in life. Most of us are athletes ourselves. It’s one thing to study an injury in a book. It’s another to learn through training, through years of experience with athletes, and from our own trials, challenges, and triumphs as athletes striving to reach our own potential as runners, swimmers, etc.

About Hannah Saiz

Hannah Saiz fell into a pool at age eleven and hasn't climbed out since. She attended Kenyon College, won an individual national title in the 2013 NCAA 200 butterfly, and post-graduation has seen no reason to exit the natatorium. Her quest for continued chlorine over-exposure has taken her to Wisconsin …

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