This title will likely attract attention because injury seems to accompany serious swimmers who persist in the sport long enough. The questions are common: should I practice when injured and if so, how?
Injured By Swimming
The first scenario to address is when you feel an injury from swimming.
I would like to argue that this does not have to be the case. Your approach to training, your technique, your attitude, and your community set up your risk for injury, not swimming itself. Swim a certain way and hang out with a certain kind of tribe and you will likely find yourself injured from time to time and the elders there will pat you on the back and call it ‘normal’. But swim a different way and hang out with a different kind of swimmer tribe and you will stay much farther away from injury – this group certainly does not consider destruction to your body normal or admirable. They will guide you away from it.
If your swimming itself is causing injury you need to be aggressive about finding the cause and fixing it. Don’t ‘just live with it’. There are softly-spoken warnings first, then there are harder warnings and then there is the actual injury when those first messages haven’t been addressed. Pain is a messenger that you had better heed. Fortunately, he usually starts with a whisper and only gradually cranks up the volume to get your attention. If you don’t heed any of those signals, the next messenger that comes will simply cut off the power, shut down your activity and send you a big bill. I know because I’ve met both those messengers several times in my athletic history and know countless stories from others.
Nowadays when the first messenger shows up I take him out to tea and spend time asking lots of questions, rather than tell him to get lost. It’s gone so much better this way. The first messenger seems to be more quickly satisfied with my response and the second messenger hasn’t been seen in a couple decades. He must be busy visiting all those swimmers in the other tribe. I know this too, because some of them call me up looking for help, wanting to transfer to our tribe.
So, in other words, if your swimming pattern and culture is injuring you, do what ever you can to change it for better.
Injured Outside Of Swimming
The second scenario to address is when you have injury or illness that has not been caused by your swimming, but threatens or hinders it.
A friend asked me recently if she should go swim while she had this pain in one of her arms that was not caused by her swimming, yet interfered with it. From her description I felt she had a great opportunity to practice if she could find a way to remove load on that joint. Limitations like these can set up beneficial self-limiting practice scenarios.
I find that many of my aches and pains (from other activities) which restrict my motion in some way offer opportunities to practice different skills in the pool, to discover and develop new details in my patterns that I might otherwise not pay as much attention to. I might not be able to increase my metabolic or muscle capacity for a while, but I can definitely find ways to improve my economy.
If you can be in the water safely and comfortably (move enough to stay warm) and find smooth ways to move without aggravating the injury, then there can be a lot of benefit from practicing with your (hopefully) temporary limitations.
For example, at the end of every practice I do a set of 8x or 12x 25y underwater dolphin kick. It is a form of meditation for me that is well within my comfortable breath hold ability. When I do it well my heart rate goes down and I pulse underwater to the other wall nearly effortlessly. I wear Finis Positive Drive fins to get some grip and practice a very carefully shaped, full-body dolphin kick to keep my movements as smooth and minimal as possible. The kick must be generated from near my center of mass, rather than from the legs. I barely flex the knees and press on the water in both directions.
From my longer distance run training I occasionally have muscle knots in my lower leg or some soreness under my knee cap (scar tissue from surgery in 1998). That soreness rises dramatically if I do more than only the most gentle flex of the knee – I am forced to concentrate on the smoothest, longest flex of my body from the middle of my back rather than hinge at the hips or knee. That little sense of pain in the knee, if bent slightly too much, becomes the perfect feedback to keep me focused on flexing from my center. This restricted situation was a part of what led to my discovery of how to do this kick in a more economical way than I had before.
Work Around It
What if you have a sore wrist, elbow or shoulder? You may spend productive time in Skate Position with fins to perfect shape with a steady flow of water (I did many hours of this in my early TI days and have recently started doing more of it again – I feel it did wonders for helping me perfect my Skate shape). You may do sets of carefully crafted one-arm drill strokes. Find ways to work around the restriction without aggravating it.
A restriction in the front half of the body (chest and above) gives you opportunity to work on the lower half, and vice versa. A restriction on one side of the body gives you the opportunity to work on the other side. A sore spot may urge you to find a way to adjust your stroke to relieve the load just a little – that ability to make micro-adjustments in how you move, how you load parts of your body can become a great advantage when you need to do something like this in the middle of a big swim and you can’t stop and rest.
If the joint or muscles seem to be bothered by one stroke style then another stroke style might be available to you. The general swimming principles you learned with freestyle apply to all the strokes and you may learn how to apply those principles better by exploring them in different movement patterns.
How about an illness or recovery that has not restricted your joints but has greatly reduced your energy? Gentle and precise movements in the water can be extraordinarily therapeutic. By staying active and mindful at a low effort level, you may keep the joints mobile, the tissues agile and the neurons sharp. This would do wonders for reducing the amount of time it takes to return to your best fitness.
I didn’t say ‘worst’ because you are not dead yet. It could be worse if the injury does not allow you to get in the water. But there is good news – you still have productive practice options on land.
You may do work on building your core strength. Master several funky variations of plank and yoga positions which lengthen and strengthen your torso while requiring you to deep breathe.
Speaking of breathing, you may do work on building your technique and habit for abdominal breathing and building the respiratory muscles. If you have the habit of breathing correctly on land, you will benefit from that in water. If you have bad habits for breathing on land, then consider how this may be related to your ‘breathless’ problem in the pool.
You may do stroke rehearsals – you can work on many parts of your stroke separately, even your 2 Beat Kick!
You may do visualization of pieces of the stroke or whole stroke – do intervals by just using your imagination. It is documented to actually work for other sport and motor-intensive disciplines!
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Hi Mat – when you do the underwater dolphin kick sets do you keep your arms along your body or out in front?
Hi John! I do the dolphin with arms in front – arms on track, actually, rather than hands crossed in front of the head. It allows more relaxation in the shoulders, and for my purposes that is more important than the slight additional drag.