Swimming is a fantastic sport that most Australians are introduced to at a young age. Programs such as Nippers at surf life saving clubs and other swim programs at local pools provide further opportunities to keep young swimmers involved in the sport. Moderate volumes of swimming are often tolerated well and unless there is a significant issue with the swimming technique, injuries are fairly rare. However, when the goal is to excel at swimming and squad sessions become more frequent, the risk of injury increases.
The shoulder is often the source of injury with swimming where injury rates have been reported to be between 40% and 91% for all swimming injuries. This is due to the shoulder being the primary force producer in swimming where it is thought to generate about 80% of the torque of the freestyle stroke. The latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior and subscapularis are the primary muscles responsible for generating this power. With serratus anterior and subscapularis thought to be the most prone to fatigue as they have both been shown to consistently work at 20% above their maximum capacity during swimming.
Some competitive swimmers have also been shown to complete up to 80,000 metres per week, which equates to approximately 30,000 strokes per arm. Most younger swimmers and recreational swimmers are unlikely to complete this volume, but even at volumes much less than this, any small imbalance in the muscles or a tight structure can create an injury.
As swimming is a complex activity that requires many structures to work in unison, it is always best to receive input from a physiotherapist with swimming stroke knowledge, as well as a swimming coach. An injury fix will often require some technique changes or strengthening of the critical muscles to maintain a better position while swimming. In most cases, when the injury is identified early, you will be able to continue swimming in some capacity while you work on correcting the issue.
If you have noticed some issues around the shoulder in returning to swimming after the enforced layoff, it is best to see a suitable physiotherapist as soon as possible. Being proactive in injury management will give the greatest chance of it being a quick fix in order to have you back in the water before you know it.
Written by Mark Fotheringham