5 Tips For Post-Surgery Recovery

Photo Courtesy: Ashleigh Shanley

By Ashleigh Shanley, Swimming World College Intern

Swimmers are tough.  That goes without saying.  We get 103 degree fevers, strep throat or mono, and still compete in our championship meet.  We fight through soreness and pain at 5 a.m., from the two grueling practices we endured the day before.  We compete for the sole purpose of constantly measuring up to our past success.  We are tough.

But what can nearly break you is hearing those three words that any elite athlete fears: “You need surgery.”

As someone who has had their fair share of ups and downs over the course of my swimming career, coming back from surgery has been the hardest.  Not only do you have to rebuild your physical strength, while you sit by and watch other people putting in the hard work, but you have to rebuild your mental health and confidence as well.

“The hardest part of pre-surgery was the possibility of not being able to swim again,” said Jenn Wagley, a swimmer at the University of Michigan who has had both shoulder and elbow surgeries. “The thought of not being able to swim with my team again or be able to feel the same way in the water again really was tough.”

Surgery is scary; there is no doubt about that.

And as a college swimmer, when you are on a time crunch with only one, two or three years left in your swimming career, this question of whether you will ever bounce back is constantly nagging in the back of your mind.

However, surgery is meant to make you better and make you healthier.  And by going into your surgery with the right attitude, and following five important tips for your recovery, your experience can be drastically better.

1. Stay positive.


Photo Courtesy: Taylor Brien

“It’s easy to think negatively and wonder if you will be able to compete at the same level again,” said Brittany Kahn, a swimmer at Duke University who had shoulder surgery. “But this mindset will lead you nowhere.  Believe you will come back stronger and faster.”

There are going to be good days in your recovery, and there are going to be bad days; it is inevitable!  But every time you have a bad day, you can not get down about it.  Staying positive is the easiest way to stay motivated through your recovery and through your rehab.  You have to remember the surgery was done to make you healthy and was for your benefit, so focus on how you are “fixed” and “fine tuned” in order to make your training and competing feel better.  There will be obstacles, but anyone recovering from a surgery is bound to face hardships.  And as a tough swimmer, that is when you take on those obstacles with a positive attitude and unwavering motivation just like you would a hard practice.

2. Stay on top of your rehab.

dryland swimming core training

Photo Courtesy: G. John Mullen

“Its also important to hold yourself accountable to stay on the path to recovery,” Wagley said. “Showing up for PT (physical therapy), and using modalities before and after practice is important, as well as being vocal when you’re having pain.”

It is painful, it is repetitive, and it can start to be a hassle.  But never skip out on your rehab.  Your trainers and physical therapists will know when you are ready to start each step of your recovery, so do not doubt them.  Yes, each recovery is unique.  But your trainer likely has worked with similar injuries, and knows what you need to be doing and for how long.

“Trust your trainers, they know best,” said Shannon Cowley, a University of Vermont swimmer who has had two ankle surgeries.  Listen to them, listen to your physical therapist, and find the time to do your rehab.  It is only meant to make you better and stronger in the long run.  Constantly think about your final goal and work towards that – time is key to your recovery so do not skip out or try to cut corners. Doing so will only hurt you in the long run.

3. Cherish the little victories.

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

“Remind yourself that you’ll be able to get back at some point, and always cherish the little victories,” Cowley said.

Recovering from a surgery is all about making small steps forward.  Each day you work on something small.  Whether that be flexibility, strength, form or even your mentality.  You will have small accomplishments each day, and each one is worth celebrating.  Those little victories just mean you are getting better, healthier, and closer to competing again.  Do not brush the small things aside.  Instead, make a big deal out of them and use them to boost your confidence and keep you positive. As Kahn said, “Every day is another step forward in recovery.”

4. Talk about it.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“Coaches are trying to understand how you are recovering and feeling post surgery, but they they can’t read your mind,” Wagley said. “It’s important to tell them so they can find ways to best help you recover in the pool.”

Whether you had surgery on your upper body or lower body, you become handicapped in some way.  This means you are going to need to ask for help, and that is ok!  It might seem easier to internalize your recovery because your friends, siblings and parents are busy with other parts of their lives.  Yet, it will build up.  Those little struggles you want to vent about like the pain you feel months after surgery, the restricted movement, and the modified workouts will all add up inside you until you burst.

Do not let this happen!  Your friends and family are there to support you no matter what.  Surgery is hard enough, so talk about your struggles, communicate with your coaches and trainers how you are feeling, and let people know how far you make it from start to finish.  You do not want to celebrate the small accomplishments alone, so brag about them to your coaches, teammates, friends and family.  Even if it is just getting your arm to go from 90 degrees to 180 degrees or balancing on one foot, those accomplishments are some of the most critical parts of your recovery, so talk about them!

5. Be patient.

Photo Courtesy: Vermont Athletics

Photo Courtesy: Vermont Athletics

“Recovering from surgery is all about patience,” Cowley said. “You have to trust yourself to not go beyond what you can do.”

Patience is the most important piece of recovery.  And as tough athletes, backing off from our limits is one of the hardest challenges.  Swimmers are not patient.  We want to accomplish our goals, work as hard as possible each day, and let nothing get in our way.  However, after surgery, this is not an option.

As both my athletic trainer and physical therapist told me after my surgery, it is about getting to the big, final goal not just getting to the short steps in between.  You cannot force your recovery and you cannot try to be competing before your body is ready.  After surgery, you have to think of that body part like a baby.  It needs to be coddled and treated well, so that it can grow and mature at an appropriate rate.  Even a year after surgery, your newly structured shoulder, elbow or ankle is still only “a year old.”  Be patient with any minor setbacks you may have, and stay positive through them.  If you rush your recovery, it may just lead to more injuries and setbacks instead of a healthy recovery and successful future.

There is an infinite amount of advice anyone could give you for your recovery, and it still might not be enough to prepare you for the change you are going to take on.  Surgery is incredibly scary, and until you go through a career-changing surgery, you do not truly understand what it is like to temporarily lose the sport you love and live for, while physically struggling to do everyday activities.

However, by staying positive, following your rehab, cherishing your little victories, talking about your experience, and being as patient as possible, your recovery can be that much easier and successful.

“Surrounding yourself with teammates and friends that are willing to help you recover is as important physically as it is mentally,” Wagley said. “Recovery is impossible to do alone– you need to have support.”

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Kaylie Noll
Kaylie Noll
7 years ago

Love this! Had shoulder surgery this fall and just getting back into the swing of things nearly eight months later. Everything in this article is so true!

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