Wellness Wednesday: How WECOACH Workouts Prevent Swimming Injuries

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 under the palms
Swimming under the palms

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.

WECOACH Workouts

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!

Next month: How WECOACH Workouts Improve …. [stay tuned!]

Wellness Wednesday: Why Being a Friend is Good for your Health

There’s a new bounce in my step. Part of the feeling comes from some good news: A cyst that cropped up on my pancreas has disappeared. Good. Moving on.

But most of the bounce in my step comes from a new energy. Maybe it’s that I’m swimming again. Or maybe it’s that I’m spending more time with a good friend.

Supporting my friend

My dear friend and neighbor C. took swimming classes this summer, taking the plunge at the urging of her husband to overcome a life-long fear of the water. In just three weeks, she progressed from a panicked doggie paddle to this, which I recorded when I got up earlier than usual to attend her graduation day swim. (Yes, I do testament to the 50’s with my exclamations of ”Holy mackerel!” Another one I seem to use a lot is “Phooey.”)

C swimming class graduation day!

C invited me to help her continue to practice her newfound skill by joining her at our community pool a few mornings a week before her work day.

It was a big ask: being fully retired, I’ve gotten very accustomed to sleeping in, waking slowly over breakfast and the newspaper, and doing some writing before getting out the door for a two-mile walk with our dog.

But C. had made so much progress — not just the crawl, but backstroke, breaststroke and sidestroke! — that I simply couldn’t say no. Swimming alone is not a good idea — although I usually do water exercise once or twice a week, it has been a long time since I’ve done any serious swimming for lack of company.

So, I set my alarm, organized breakfast and the dog, and started showing up.

Helping a friend got me healthier

That was a month ago. Three mornings a week, I am up early, knowing that C. is doing the same, and we meet at our community pool. We catch up and goggle up, and then we’re in the water.

I have watched C continue to develop her new skill. As her arms and legs settle into their rhythm, she is finding freedom in the water and emerges into the warming air with a huge smile on her face. Swimming is a joyful exploration.

My old swimming routine was just waiting for me. The slow ten lengths of freestyle, my body gradually releasing the night’s tension. The mix-up of breaststroke, freestyle, backstroke, and a sort-of butterfly, the variety entertaining my mind and challenging my body. The hypnotic burble of breath and bubble. The final laps bring me home, panting.

We stretch and talk, or talk and stretch. And talk some more on the walk back home. Then we each disappear into the requirements of the day, knowing that, in a day or two, we’ll do this all again.

My friend’s company was just the support I needed to reclaim an old habit. And swimming has become another vehicle though which our friendship blossoms.

Friendship and exercise, what a great combination

The happy buzz of endorphins percolates through my body all day long. I feel stronger, more connected, and more committed to my health. And grateful for a friend’s support.

I thought I was doing her a favor, when in fact it was I who received the blessing.

C and me in the pool
C and me in the pool