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by Matt Donovan

June 14, 2021

Guiding a swimmer through an injury successfully is part of every coach’s job

The first step for working with an injured swimmer is to know where the swimmer is physically. A coach should never assume the role of athletic trainer or doctor. Swimmers who share that they have a physical or mental ailment that’s preventing them from training should be strongly encouraged to seek advice from a medical professional. Once your swimmer is properly diagnosed and cleared to train with limitations, work with your athlete to develop a plan of action.

Individual Attention in a Team Setting

Depending on the injury and time away from the pool, the swimmer might not have the ability to circle swim in a lane with multiple people. This could be because of reduced cardio, muscle atrophy, fear of re-injury, embarrassment, or general trepidation. Assess the swimmer’s skill level and guide the swimmer’s return to practice with one-on-one sessions if needed.

The mental hurdle can be just as tough as the physical one. Some swimmers might try to delay getting back to the pool. Your job as coach is to encourage your athletes to always move to that next level. Let them know that you’ll provide a safe environment to get back in the swim of things. Make the rest of the team aware of the return date and ask them to be understanding when their injured teammate returns.

Conversely, you might have an athlete who wants to go full speed ahead and skip important recovery steps. It’s your job to rein them in and remind them that reinjury will create an even longer rehabilitation.

Less is More

In the water the injured swimmer will need a reduced workload. This will be most evident in volume and speed if the swimmer wishes to train with the team. Pace your swimmer properly through this process. If the swimmer normally did 100 repeats in the 1:20 lane, reduce to 50s in the 1:20 lane. As the swimmer progresses over a number of sessions, increase to 75s in the 1:20 lane. When ready for 100s, move the swimmer over to the 1:40 lane.

The most important thing in cardio training is the work-to-rest ratio. If pre-injury the swimmer did 1:00 swim and :20 rest, then the goal is to get back to that ratio before ever getting back to same amount of yards.

Flutter-breast or One-arm Fly

Depending on the location of the injury, the swimmer might need to use an alternative technique. For example, if a breaststroker has a knee injury, have the swimmer perform flutter or dolphin kick in place of traditional breaststroke kick to limit strain on the knee. If the legs are very weak, have the swimmer do breaststroke with a small pull buoy while focusing more on the pull and core. Additionally, remind the swimmer to be very careful when pushing off the wall for turns.

Many medical professionals prefer swimmers to not do much butterfly after a shoulder injury. Instead of reducing the overall volume of butterfly (doing 50s instead of 100s) try full 100s, but alternating distances of one-arm fly. This allows the swimmer to work the core and lower half, keep up volume, and reduce the amount of time using each shoulder. Rather than a 50-50 split between the right and left arm, make it a percentage based on which shoulder is stronger at the time.

Hitting the Swimming Wall

If you have a swimmer who wants to work hard but the swimmer’s body just won’t cooperate, get creative in and out of the water to provide an alternate workout.

If it’s an arm injury and laps are limited, go to the deep end and vertical kick. The swimmer can begin vertical kicking when other swimmers push off and rest when they return. If it’s more of a knee or ankle injury, focus on core work through body dolphining rather than traditional vertical kicking.

If pool time and space is limited, grab a mat for crunches and sit-ups. Incorporate pull cords, medicine balls, and anything else you have at your pool to set up a circuit. If you make it interesting enough, you might even get the whole team involved.

Final Thoughts

In many ways the toughest part of any injury is the thought of the first day back. As always, let your swimmers know that you care about them and that you’ll do everything you can to make this a good experience. Making the injured swimmer part of the team again will make it an easier process for everyone. If a swimmer cannot get back in the water as soon as first thought, invite the swimmer to the pool to help coach the team. The camaraderie and bonding that occurs between teammates is every bit as important as a modified training plan for recovery.


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