Preventing Swimming Injuries: 5 ESSENTIAL Changes

Icing for injuries

Most sports are re-evaluating the notion of performing year-round. This is particularly true in sports where routines and precise “moves” are not involved. Swimming is unique, as it doesn’t involve a routine, but more dependent on biomechanics and “feel”. Nonetheless, the notion of breaking the idea I threw around in 2014 with a controversial piece, two-month break minimum rule. All orthopedists, physical therapists, strength coaches, and most sports accept it’s best for kids to avoid early sports specialization for long-term athletic development and healthy, but swimming doesn’t agree.

All are familiar that Michael Phelps has taken multiple breaks from the sport over the past few decades. Although these breaks weren’t necessary for resting his body, I feel it did provide rest allowing him to perform at such a high-level for many years. He needed these breaks, because it all caught up to him. Many people think professional athletes are the epitome of healthy, but in a recent interview, Michael Phelps said he would consider training for 2020 Tokyo if he wasn’t worried about the injury risk.

Michael Phelps would compete in 2020 if it wasn’t for the injury risk!

Who would have imagined a swimmer with millions of dollars is retiring due to potential injury. This is how important this piece is because, there is big money in keeping youth swimmers in the pool as much as possible. This can stem from overzealous swim coaches to parents to even the governing bodies.

Bigger money sports have limits and suggestions on training volume as a tool for injury prevention, but swimming has no such suggestion. However, the research shows repeatedly training volume is a biggest predictor of injury risk in swimmers. Moreover, research studies have shown overuse occurs as early as 14-years-old, but I’d argue occurs much earlier, likely as early as 10-year-old (Batalha 2012).

Overuse is the one factor that predicts injury over and over again in the research.

I think region and season plays a huge role in injury risk. Many states have their swimmers complete their season in March, followed by a small (yes, sometimes just one week), while others train straight from September to August. Anecdotally, I see fewer swimmers completing their 4 years in college swimming from states where swimmers do not have a break, yes, this is pure speculation. I’d mark this up on simply too much swimming without other general athletic development.

These are just a few examples, too. Hundreds of professional athletes have spoken out against early sports specialization. Some coaches are only recruiting multi-sport athletes, I venture this trend will continue as college coaches begin to use more analytics on the rate of improvement of their recruits. If a college team measured which swimmers improved and then performed analyses on what factors were associated with greater collegiate improvement, I’d guess multi-sport athletes improve the greatest.  Unfortunately, early specialization in swimming isn’t decreasing, it is only increasing…

Clearly, swimmers, parents, and coaches can’t keep up with orthopedic journals. However, this information is everywhere! Other sports are pressing against early sports specialization, orthopedic surgeons are speaking against it, and even professional coaches are urging against it.

Renowned sports performance coach Eric Cressey stated:

“The problem is not a lack of knowledge; the problem is a lack of action and consequences.”

Clearly, the risk of injury in swimming is a poor teacher as a consequence. Youth swimmers are not going to regulate the issue, as they only want to compete, improve, and please their coaches/parents.

It is sad, but I work and consult with hundreds of swimmers each week, who get sucked into this same cycle, sometimes after an injury or even surgery. They continually believe they have to swim 11 or 12-months of the year to be successful. They also believe they must travel all around the country for elite success, another questionable at best trend. There are too many people in the swimming community, lining their pockets with frequent coaches, swim camps, swim meets, and governing bodies lining their pockets with frequent with the pain and injuries of thousands (perhaps millions) of swimmers annually.

We all know injuries limit swimming success and shoulder injuries and pain is rampant in the sport, but with the injury rate staying constant, you may wonder what is going to limit these high injury rates.

The big governing bodies that matter need to step up their game. Here are five quick changes that I personally feel could have a profound impact on reducing injury rates across all levels:

  1. USA Swimming needs to implement a mandatory break during the season for 14-year-old and younger swimmers. I work with many swimmers who make all-star trips and compete into mid to late August, then return to the fall season September 1st. This minimal break exacerbates should imbalances and injury risk. I argue for 2 months a year, but at least a one month break is necessary.
  2. USA Swimming should minimize meet attendance to two meets per month for swimmers 14-years-old and younger. Too often swimmers will compete in 3 – 4 meets a month (particularly in the summer). Now, meets are not the worst, but it is the highest point of intensity, often combined with high volume when young swimmers are doing many races in a session, combined with warm-up and warm-down. This is why limiting repeated meets can help reduce physical and even mental stress over time. If someone was training with a program where meets were weekly and the stress was accounted for, more meets is feasible, but this isn’t the common trend.
  3. State athletic associations should structure the high school season to allow a swimmer to do multiple sports or get a break in the peak USA Swimming season. In California, the high school season ends in May, which forces swimmers to transition without a break into long course training. The high school season is even longer now in California, with the addition of the California State Meet, making it impossible for the elite swimmers to have any break.
  4. Clubs should limit the amount of swim lessons and frequency in the pool, especially for those not physically mature. Some swimmers will have 6 practices a week and perform 3 extra private lessons a week at the age of 10-years-old. This frequency is extreme, but not uncommon. This results in improved results in the short-term, blinding many parents (and some coaches) of the long-term plan.
  5. Coaches must consider total shoulder stress within training. Obviously swimming places stress on the shoulder, but considerations of additional shoulder stress during dryland, swim meets, and daily activities must also be addressed.

Closing Thoughts

I should note that some clubs do ease young swimmers into the sport and allow multi-sport athletes to determine the best route for themselves. The big changes are required at the governing bodies, both USA Swimming, high school, and potentially club.

At one point, I floated the idea of a stroke count or perhaps a swimming volume count in swimming. These thoughts have recently been revised to attempting to provide more frequent and perhaps longer breaks.

There is absolutely no reason for skeletally immature middle and high school swimmers to have longer competitive seasons than professional swimmers. Now, some will argue Michael Phelps never took a break during his maturing years, but perhaps this is the reason why he wants to only compete pain free. Perhaps he has been competing with orthopedic pain for years, reducing his enjoyment and perhaps leading into some of his out of the pool issues (speculation). Also, just because one swimmer was successful swimming all year, doesn’t mean it is the best solution for every swimmer.

If you are looking for other tips on improving your swimming, check this out!

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff. All swimming and dryland training and instruction should be performed under the supervision of a qualified coach or instructor, and in circumstances that ensure the safety of participants.

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5 years ago

Great points. I always advocate for taking the summer off of swimming for all these reasons; and let’s face it – kids who don’t take breaks burn out and quit young! Why not take the summer to play softball or soccer if it prevents injury and keeps mental game top notch?

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5 years ago

Just what I was saying yesterday. I’d like a three month summer track program, focused on sprinting, mostly getting out the blocks fast.

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5 years ago

Why not go to 2-3 sessions a week for longer periods of time so to not loose conditioning completely?

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5 years ago

This is another option, good thought!

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5 years ago

There’s a lot of good and helpful points here. Hopefully…USA Swimming can help implement some of the advice given. There should be a law to protect children… Great article ?

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5 years ago

John Beckworth, Sadat Hussain a very interesting read. Thoughts?

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5 years ago

Drew Ross-Ashby Adam Gordon Jaden Harris Aiden Smith

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5 years ago

Enrico Vorbeck

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5 years ago

Shawn Michael

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5 years ago

Kristina Davis-Giles

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5 years ago

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