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Getting Started with a Healthy Shoulder

Seven tips to prevent injury

Jim Miller, M.D. | September 15, 2009

This fall, most swimmers will be coming off a break following the long-course swimming season. Coaches will be going to their annual national and state meetings, where they learn new training techniques and share some of their own experiences of the past year. The time is now to prevent injuries.

Assuming you can put the topic of high tech suits aside for a moment, the recent World Championship in Rome was inspiring with new, more efficient swimming on display. As an athlete, this is the time to improve stroke technique and work on those aspects of your training that are the weakest. If this time of swimming renewal is taken seriously, the year will be exciting with achieved goals and a decrease in injuries and soreness.

Swimming injuries are almost always related to stroke technique flaws. Overuse injuries in swimmers may involve the neck, lower back, elbow, or knee, but by far, the most common injuries involve the shoulder. Medical research reveals that between 60 and 80 percent of all swimmers will have a shoulder related injury, requiring them to take a break from training for one week or longer, at some point during their swimming careers.

So what can we do about it? Here are several tips to consider. They have been designed to help decrease this number and keep you in the water. After all, who wants to be part of that statistic?

  • Listen to your coaches. Early season training is not as hard as it will become later, but it is the time to learn and step up to the next level. Your coaches will be using this time to work on technique, including drills, so be patient and use this time to learn. Come out of every practice better than when you started.
  • Give your coach feedback if a specific drill or stroke is causing you to feel discomfort.
  • Let your coach know early if discomfort is a daily occurrence.
  • Be diligent your dry land routines. Dry land is designed to decrease your risk of swimming related injuries, but only if you do it correctly.
  • If your program does not have a coach or someone to guide you in developing a dry land program, find one. There are numerous clinics across the country and other coaches within USMS that will fill this void for you. The discussion forums at usms.org are a great place to find other coaches and swimmers.
  • Be very careful while stretching. A lot of accomplished swimmers are flexible, however it is important to not allow this natural gift of flexibility to become a problem. If stretching is overdone, the shoulder will become unstable and more susceptible to injury
  • If you need to see a medical professional, find a medical practitioner who understands swimmers and swimming. Educate your practitioner about swimming and your training regimen. Merely taking time off isn’t always the answer. Make sure to ask questions so that upon return to the water, you are not plagued by the same discomfort. Seek treatment for the cause, not the symptom.

The best treatment is prevention, so be conscious of your body. Listen to it and allow it to tell you how to proceed during your fall training.

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About the Author—Jim Miller, M.D.

Jim Miller, M.D., is a family practice and sports medicine physician and associate clinical professor at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University. He serves on both the USMS Sports Medicine and Science Committee and the FINA Sports Medicine Committee. Miller is also the sports medicine co-editor for FINA Aquatic World Magazine. He has served as the chair of the FINA World Sports Medicine Congress, national team physician for USA Swimming, chair of the USA Swimming Sports Medicine Task Force, and on USA Swimming’s Open Water Development and International Relations Committees. Miller also served as USMS president from 2001–2005.

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