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Coping With Injury When You're A Competitive Athlete

Working with a physical therapist can help you get back to races

Susan Dawson-Cook | March 29, 2016

Masters swimmers who are driven to train and compete don’t usually cope well with painful conditions or injuries. However, adapting training so injured tissues can heal is imperative to health and long-term enjoyment of the sport. Masters swimmer, physical therapist, and owner of Denver-based Agility Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine, Marci Catallo-Madruga, shared some insights on this issue.

“Injury is a hard thing for any athlete,” Catallo-Madruga says. “The frustration and self-doubt can sometimes be insurmountable.” Instead of pushing through the pain or quitting swimming altogether, she recommends modifying workouts. “I encourage swimmers to hop in the pool and kick. An injury to the upper body is a great time to work on that forgotten fifth stroke (AKA, your kick).” If more aerobic conditioning is needed for general fitness or a better state-of-mind, a swimmer with a shoulder injury could supplement aquatic kicking bouts with workouts on a spin bike or elliptical.

When swimmers become discouraged, Catallo-Madruga tries to emphasize the possibilities that remain open to them. She recently worked with a client suffering from a hip flexor injury. This swimmer couldn’t do any kicking or breaststroke. “Through dynamic stretching, core strengthening, and hip strengthening, we have been able to get her to compete in freestyle and backstroke events.” During that client’s darkest days, Catallo-Madruga gently reminded her that she could now walk pain-free, was no longer experiencing sleep disruption, and that she could do more in the pool than before. The injured swimmer had recently reached a milestone of performing 100 yards of dolphin kicking.

Masters swimmers are most likely to experience frustration and despair when injury derails plans to achieve a goal at a national championship. “Last summer I had a swimmer approaching Nationals with a significant shoulder injury. She was trying to avoid surgery. We started in June with her kicking only. Her kicking was varied by using fins, side, stomach, back; always trying to maintain the interval of one lane below her usual workout lane.” Most of the time she kicked without fins.”

“In rehab, we started working on obtaining full range-of-motion in the shoulder joint, then stability, then strength in the muscles around the shoulder blade while adding core [training]. Core training began to get more challenging by adding arm and leg movements.”

Nearly two months later, Catallo-Madruga had the swimmer doing 25 percent swimming and 75 percent kicking and then gradually increased the percentage of the workout done with full stroke, based on tolerance. Muscle soreness was considered acceptable, joint pain was not. Catallo-Madruga, the swimmer, and her coach worked together to set appropriate goals for the championship meet. “We even discussed which events we would scratch if the shoulder became more than sore on any given day.”

Self-care and prudent training can help minimize injuries. Although one swimmer might be able to put down 5000 yards a day, five days a week, another swimmer might only tolerate 3000 yards per day, three days a week and perform and feel better inserting cross training in on those “off” days. “Everyone’s body has a different tolerance level,” Catallo-Madruga says. Becoming aware of what works and what doesn’t can help a swimmer train consistently with less likelihood of a setback.

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About the Author—Susan Dawson-Cook

Susan Dawson-Cook is a Masters swimmer, AFAA certified personal trainer, RYT-200 Ashtanga yoga instructor, and the author of Fitter Than Ever at 40 and Beyond.
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