Think strength before taking the dive

Written by Josh Hoodless

The Fraser Coast is the perfect place to take our exercise outdoors. The water especially, no waves, no rips, no sharks (or maybe less chance of them in the shallow water), great temperatures and no crowds. Swimming is our national sport taking out the number 1 spot in participation. We all know swimming is a great way to work our cardiovascular and muscular system in a non weight-bearing environment. With the abundance of swimming and triathlon events in our region participation is on the rise but so are the injuries. If you swim a lot, want to put your child into the sport, are a competitive swimmer/triathlete or thinking of becoming one you should read this!

Australian 100m Olympic champion, Kyle Chalmers recently had shoulder surgery late last year, just to mention one case.

There is an increase of musculoskeletal injuries of the lower back, knee and most commonly in the shoulder across all levels of swimming. We will discuss more about the shoulder and how we can minimise pain and injury.

An article published (2012) in the peer-reviewed journal, Sports Health, by a group of sports science doctors and surgeons extensively researched the affects of competitive swimming on the body. In terms of the shoulder, 91% of swimmers experienced musculoskeletal overuse pain or injuries. 69% of MRIs performed showed large amounts of multiple tendinitis and damage especially to the rotator cuff group. This was seen in young people, many teenagers.

The study found the cause is a combination of 3 things, (1) stroke biomechanics and/or (2) overuse and fatigue of muscles of the shoulder, scapula, and upper back and/or (3) shoulder joint issues concerning weakness and tightness.

Ian King, prolific Strength and Conditioning coach (we will use Strength Coach for short) believes that the repetitive nature of turning your arm over in the pool thousands of times a week significantly changes the shoulder joint relationship and rehabilitation should start after the first pool session.

Ian began coaching in 1980 helping elite athletes through nine Olympic cycles, in over thirty sports at the top level in over fifteen different countries. Ian has seen the epidemic of shoulder injuries and surgeries from swimming over the past few decades. He knows how important a Swim Coach is for teaching technique but very importantly he reinforces the need to balance the swimmer in order to avoid pain and maybe even surgery.

What’s the role and responsibility of the Swim Coach?

The Swim Coach is a master at analysing a swimmer’s technique so that they are efficient and fast.
For a start, correct stroke technique may help prevent injuries. Coaches should identify stroke alterations that may cause or alter pain. Thats great, your coach has got you swimming nicely but what about over use and fatigue?

Another important responsibility of the Swim Coach is to prescribe the correct amount of volume to your training. Even with the best technique, you’re a high chance of injury by over doing it. The first study to explore expert swimming coaches’ perceptions of the Quality vs Quantity debate was published (2017) in the journal of human kinetics. There are still many mixed views on why swim coaches make short distance swimmers train for multiple kilometres per week.

The Swim Coach must also be aware of the culture in competitive swimming that sees the swimmer fail to report pain. This is according to research conducted by the American Association of Paediatrics.

Their researchers surveyed competitive swimmers aged 13-18 and found that 76.7% of swimmers reported experiencing shoulder pain within the last 12 months, and 66% agree that “mild shoulder pain should be tolerated” if they want to become successful swimmers and 61% that “taking time off from swimming is not ideal.” Fifty percent reported knowing a competitor who used pain medication.
The research also showed a clear link between swimming volume and pain.

There’s obviously an increased need for comprehensive injury prevention and management of competitive swimmers. Both the Swim Coach and Strength Coach play important roles in this process.

The Strength Coaches here at LIFT Hervey Bay have witnessed chronic injuries in all levels of athletes over the past decade. Their posture, screen time, sitting time and attitude may also play a role but that’s a discussion for another time.

The role of Strength Coach for athletes and amateurs, especially swimmers, is to improve their muscular and joint relationships so that the individual stays healthy. The Strength Coach will never try to make a better swimmer, their job is to strengthen weak areas and maintain flexibility around joints. Their role is to help develop the athlete by increasing performance and decreasing injury so they can train and perform better in the water.

This would be achieved with an extensive program of stretching, strengthening of the core, legs and upper back, and endurance training. In terms of the cumulative, repetitive trauma of the shoulder, an endurance training and strengthening program for the many muscles around the scapula, especially the rotator group, would be vital. In order to prevent injuries it needs to be done properly and often. The best way is to learn under an Strength Coach but then many of the exercises can be done at home or at the gym.

If you’re already a swimmer or wish to become one, join a group/squad and get some great coaching from a Swim Coach to improve your times and technique while minimising injury. Involve a Strength Coach to learn exercises and training techniques to improve strength and increase healthy joint relationships. Swim well but also strengthen, stretch, recover and rehabilitate well too.

At LIFT, the Strength Coaches are motivated to improve the individual by the education of safe, smart and enjoyable ways to train their body. We want people to enjoy whatever form of exercise or sport they choose so there is a higher chance of them sticking with it. Let’s enjoy swimming as exercise or competition for many years to come, especially in our beautiful ocean.