Strategies for supporting successful rehabilitation
Because I coach at a Colorado pool midway between Vail and Aspen, I probably see more skiing injuries than most coaches. But whether it’s hockey bruises, bicycle road rash, or muscle strains from ill-considered attempts to keep up with their teenage children, Masters swimmers have an amazing capacity for hurting themselves.
But not just outside the pool; the sport’s dependence on high-torque repetitive motion puts them at risk for overuse injuries in the pool as well. And, of course, aging bodies eventually face the relentless ravages of time.
Even so, swimming’s health benefits play a huge role along the path toward a long life of fitness and fun, so let’s look at ways coaches can help swimmers overcome life’s inevitable setbacks.
The best method of dealing with an injury is to avoid it.
- Structure your season and design workouts to minimize damage. Understand the value of rest and recovery. Teach swimmers to listen to their bodies.
- Correct stroke technique that creates unnecessary stress, such as poor entry and pull angles, stroke asymmetry, or use of inappropriately gigantic paddles.
- Encourage athletes to stay strong and flexible with appropriate dryland activities, such as weightlifting, yoga/Pilates, massage, and stretching/myofascial release.
- Encourage sanity and judgment when it comes to high-risk activities such as ski racing, ultramarathon training, mountain biking, and roller-disco breakdance competition. (This can be difficult in the active mountain communities of Colorado, where insanity and extreme-sport overindulgence are seen as the highest virtues.)
Be proactive about problem identification.
- Make communication the cornerstone of your coaching. Ask people how they feel and encourage them to inform you of any developing issues.
- Pay attention to practice performances. Investigate anomalies (unusually slow swims, favoring one arm, unexpected grimaces, etc.)
- Follow up on absences. If regular attendees skip multiple practices, contact them to find out if an injury has occurred.
The Road to Recovery
First Do No Harm
Unless you’re a doctor or certified physical therapist, don’t attempt to diagnose injuries. Refer your athletes to qualified professionals and ask them to share what they learn to help you work together to develop a way to stay engaged as the injury is treated.
- Don’t encourage anyone to “tough it out” or “work through it.” This can prolong recovery time by causing additional damage.
- Discourage the temptation to resume full effort before healing is complete. Many athletes tend to view themselves as indestructible and endowed with miraculous recovery powers. They remember how quickly they came back from a boo-boo when they were in their 20s, but bodies don’t recuperate as rapidly when they’re 50.
- Focus on the positive. It’s depressing to have their favorite activity curtailed, so remind them of the rewards that await at the end of a successful recovery.
Side note: Athletes who injure themselves in other sports are frequently assigned swimming as part of their rehab program. Watch the lap lanes for these folks; they might be excellent recruits who would love to join your team!
Keep injured swimmers mentally engaged in swimming. Work with their healthcare providers to develop an exercise strategy that supports their rehab plan. If immersion is allowed, encourage the athlete to continue attending workouts. Provide workout sets that are compatible with physician-authorized range of motion. One-arm swimming, sculling, kick only, or even head-high freestyle sets can help maintain a feel for the water.
If the injury precludes joining the team in the water, develop injury-appropriate dryland workouts that emulate elements of swimming. These might include one-arm vertical-forearm pulls on a cable or cord, dolphin-style leg lifts, planks with glute squeeze, or bent dumbbell rowing. If possible, arrange to have injured swimmers do dryland work on the pool deck during regular practice hours so they’ll have consistent exposure to the swimming mindset and the support of their friends.
Outside the pool, encourage teammates to maintain a strong connection by joining the injured swimmer for dryland workouts, extracurricular celebrations (i.e., post-workout get-togethers), and social media exchanges. Great networking can accelerate recovery and facilitate a commitment to getting back in the water quickly.
Remind the athlete that injury-driven changes to workload should be accompanied by corresponding changes in fueling and nutrition. A reduction in calories or adjustment to fat/carb/protein rations might be necessary to avoid weight gain and lethargy.
Injuries are incredibly frustrating for athletes and can even drive them to give up on their sport. Your continued coaching and encouragement during tough times can be the difference that leads to full recovery and a lifetime of swimming success.
- Coaches Only