What to Do About Shoulder Injuries in Swimming

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Playing sports competitively comes with certain risks, injury being the most important. While swimming isn’t usually thought of in this light, it’s certainly an activity that can result in injury. When it comes to the pool or open water, the most common injury generally involves the shoulder.

I’ve been swimming competitively off and on for the past 25 years, with 15,000 meter days and double workouts the norm at some points during my high school years. For the most part, I swam freestyle and backstroke. I didn’t encounter shoulder problems until college, when I started training with different tools, including pull buoys and paddles. That was freshman year, and I was only 19. At first, feeling the invincibility of youth, I ignored the pain, trusting that a bit of rest after the end of the season would do the job. Coming back next season, however, the pain was even worse than before! I went to the doctor, and was diagnosed as having rotator cuff tendonitis. After a few months of rehab, I was back in the pool every day, but unfortunately, I’ve had shoulder problems ever since.

There are any number of ways to sustain a shoulder injury while swimming. Most doctors talk about “overuse”. Of course, that’s a very general term, and one that doesn’t give much guidance to athletes chasing specific goals. Here are some of the other ways you can injure your shoulder.

* Improper Technique: if you reach too far, you’ll cross over in your stroke, adding tension
* A sudden increase in the distance or intensity of your training
* Sudden change in training to incorporate pull buoys or hand paddles
* Concentrating on one stroke for an extended period
* Unbalanced strength development

Ways to Prevent Shoulder Injury

1. One of the most crucial things to keep in mind regarding freestyle stroke technique is the importance of bending your elbows underwater while you pull. This keeps you from awkwardly positioning your shoulder in the water, which in turn can lead to a problem with your rotator cuff.

2. After an extended break from swimming, make sure to slowly ease back into the pool when you resume training, much like in other sports. Take weight-lifting: after three months out of the gym, you wouldn’t want to totally max out your first day back. The same is true with swimming. Rather than getting right back on track with your routine, slowly build up to where you were. If you swam 5,000 meters a day before the break, start with 1,000, adding a couple hundred meters every day until you get back to where you once were.

3. Avoid using pull buoys or paddles. While it might be tempting to rely on the devices, they put unnecessary tension on the joints, while giving the swimmer a false sense of floatation. While some paddles on the market are designed to reduce this impact, you’re still better off training without them.

4. It may seem like a good idea to swim only freestyle while you train for a triathlon, but it’s not recommended. First, you’ll gain more if you cross train with other strokes. More importantly, practicing one stroke too much leads to a greater chance of injury from overusing the muscle or joint.

5. Breathing to only one side develops one set of muscles more fully than the other, causing a breakdown and potential shoulder problems. That’s why you want to breathe bilaterally (meaning to both sides). While it may be awkward in the beginning, you’ll soon realize the benefits. Just start by incorporating this technique into your warm-ups and warm-downs, and slowly blend it into the rest of your training.


If you’re just getting over a chronic shoulder injury, try out some ifns. Both Zoomers and Hydro Finz work well. By doing this, you’re serving three purposes:

1. You’ll be taking pressure off of your shoulders
2. You will benefit from a great cardio workout
3. Your legs will continue to strengthen

If there’s a silver lining to be found in shoulder injuries, it’s that they make us slow down a bit. And what happens when you slow down? You begin to concentrate on form and technique. As a coach, believe me when I tell you that many triathletes can really benefit from slowing down, at least for a while!