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by Susan Dawson-Cook

March 17, 2013

Swimming helps these athletes fight back pain

Arthritis, an inflammatory joint condition, affects people of all ages. Osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis are the two most common types. Arthritis sufferers often experience pain, stiffness, swelling, redness, and decreased joint range of motion. Osteoarthritis is a normal result of aging or may occur after a joint injury. Pain stems from wear-and-tear to cartilage that prevents joint bones from sliding smoothly over one another. With rheumatoid arthritis, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks joints, causing inflammation of the membranes needed to lubricate the joints and surrounding tissues. It can also affect other parts of the body and may occur at any age.

Osteoarthritis cannot be cured. Treatment is aimed at controlling symptoms. Regular exercise to help maintain joint movement is essential. Although exercise is also important in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, lifelong treatment with medications is usually required to modify the disease and prevent joint destruction.

59-year-old Karlene Denby has osteoarthritis and degenerative scoliosis in her spine. She started swimming after other competitive activities aggravated her condition. In the 1980s and ‘90s, she often finished in the top three in running races and triathlons. “Now I cannot even jog without feeling as if a knife was stuck in my lower back.” Since joining U.S. Masters Swimming in 1989, she’s hit the Top 10 list every year. “I'm hoping to keep that streak going.”

Denby’s 90-minute workouts with Houston Cougar Masters include 4,000 to 4,300 meters of swimming, kicking, and pulling; different strokes at varied speeds and distances. She prefers longer events to sprints and freestyle and backstroke to the short axis strokes. “Swimming is essential for both my physical and mental well-being. My condition worsens if I spend significant time out of the pool.”

Peter McCoy lives in Harvest, Ala. and trains with the Madison Titans.

“I was diagnosed with arthritis in my lower back at age 39. My doctor said it was likely due to some reckless things I did in my teens and 20s.” By the time it was diagnosed, his back pain had become chronic. “I was cycling to relieve pain. When I wasn’t consistent, I ended up in bed two to three days a month.” His physician advised him to lose weight and build core strength or undergo surgery.

In November 2008, his wife bought him some swim supplies and he worked up to swimming 2 miles daily, doing “all slow freestyle with no breaks. My back was feeling great—it was the first winter in three or four years that I wasn’t completely debilitated.”

The following year, he joined USMS. “Everyone had high school or college experience. It had been 27 years since I had attempted anything other than freestyle, so I learned them all again.” Varying strokes helped him maximize range-of-motion in the joints to relieve stiffness.

Lately, McCoy is keeping up with the others. “My teammates challenge me and to an extent hold me accountable. Fighting off back pain is a motivating factor but I want to be at practice every morning—I’d do it even if I didn’t have arthritis. So long as I make it to the pool every day, I hardly notice it [pain].”

These two swimmers’ stories and the research confirm that swimming is an ideal form of exercise for individuals with arthritis. Although the Arthritis Foundation recommends water temperatures between 83 to 88 degrees, Denby and McCoy train in cooler water, as they are training regularly and put considerably more yardage than the average lap swimmer.

Mayo Clinic specialists suggest an initial warm-up phase, such as dynamic stretches on deck and slow swimming for 10 minutes or more, to give joints time to ease into movement. Swimmers are advised to slow down if joint inflammation or redness becomes apparent.


  • Technique and Training
  • Health and Nutrition


  • Overcoming Adversity
  • Injury
  • Fitness
  • Sports Medicine