Water keeps saving my life. I turned to the pool when plantar fasciitis curtailed my running fifteen years ago, discovering that resistance and buoyancy build body-wide strength. I was a personal trainer and water exercise coach when a ruptured aneurysm landed me in a Dutch hospital halfway through a cruise in 2019, with the muscle mass to support my comatose body for six weeks in the ICU. Muscle memory and determination to drove my ability to move during the subsequent years-long recovery.
The day I was able to lift my arms out of the water was the beginning of returning to swimming.
Swimming taxes the body
As I renewed my commitment to swimming, I experienced the soreness that comes with re-connecting with unused muscles and ligaments. My neck hurt from turning my head and my shoulders were tender as they drove my arms through heavy water. My lower back ached as I ventured into dolphin kicks. My knees felt the strain of the breaststroke frog kick.
Swimming is non-impact, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy on the body. The repetitive nature of swimming strokes puts us at risk for injury. Swimmer’s shoulder is the most common, with rotator cuff injuries, tendonitis, and bursitis resulting from the shoulder moving in multiple positions as the arm pulls the swimmer forward. Swimmer’s knee is a close second, deriving from the position of the feet, knees, and hips in the breaststroke kick. Neck pain and lower back pain are also frequent in swimmers.
Many of us think we can power through pain, that it’s just a matter of getting stronger. So, we double down on our laps, seeking those endorphin highs, the magic moment when the air and the water vanish and we’re just moving through space with the sound of our breath as our only company.
We’re half right. It is about getting stronger, but not by doing the same thing that got us hurt in the first place.
Last month, I shared the first of my new series of First Wednesday fitness posts about WECOACH Workouts, a comprehensive new water workout subscription from my mentor Laurie Denomme.
This month, Laurie has helped me understand how better biomechanics can help us swimmers avoid being kicked out of the pool by our own bodies.
Meet your scapula
The scapula—the shoulder blade—is the core of the upper body. It’s the locus through which upper body force is distributed.Laurie Denomme, Founder of WECOACH Workouts
No fewer than 17 muscles attach to the scapula, making these shoulder blades the core of upper body strength. And if those muscles are weak, the results are felt in the shoulder, including the rotator cuff.
Scapular stability = less shoulder/neck pain
When the scapula is both free to move and stabilized by strong upper body muscles, that’s the key to avoiding swimmer’s shoulder and neck pain.Laurie Denomme, Founder of WECOACH Workouts
Our shoulders tend to get stuck in a rounded, forward position due to weakness in our back muscles. The muscles in the front of our shoulders and our chest become tight and short.
The beauty of the water is that buoyancy and resistance provide an excellent environment in which to strengthen our back muscles and stabilize our scapula.
Think about squeezing your shoulder blades together each time you reach your hands away from your body.Laurie Denomme, Founder of WECOACH Workouts
Try this WECOACH Workouts drill to work on keeping your scapula DOWN and IN as you swim: Move Better Drill #1. Strengthen Abs and Back with Swimming Strokes.
Core stability = less back pain
And whenever the shoulders are stacked over the hips, the core muscles are engaged, supporting lower back muscles.
See how to stabilize the scapula and strengthen the core in Laurie Denomme’s Upper Body Interval Workout #1 Preview:
Seven foot positions = less knee pain
The external rotation of the leg in the breaststroke kick can inflame the knee ligaments. Prevent overuse damage by incorporating external and internal leg rotations into your warmup and cool down.
By consciously using different foot positions, we train our feet, ankles, knees, and hips to move through a wider range, building flexibility and strength. It’s a simple and very effective way of beginning to expand your range of motion.
Here is Laurie Denomme demonstrating how WECOACH Workouts strategically uses seven foot positions: normal stance; right foot forward; left foot forward; feet wide; feet narrow; feet turned out; and feet turned in.
Cross-training = fewer injuries
As much as I love the endorphin high that swimming generates, I do laps only twice a week, usually Mondays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, I am back in the pool with friends for WECOACH Workouts like this:
Three days a week, I do a land-based workout that includes jogging or biking, lifting weights, and stretching. And Sundays I take one whole day off, sometimes in my pjs! And, of course, there are walks every day with our dear rescue Lab, Kumba.
How to prevent swim injuries
- Scapular stability: watch your shoulders!
- Multidirectional training: work your legs in all directions!
- Vary your workouts: keep it fun!