Swim Magazine

How to get back into swimming after an injury

For most swimmers, the water is a place of sanctuary with each stroke feeling like progress, but when injuries occur it can often be perceived as a significant setback, disrupting the fluid progress swimmers make in the pool – turning the water into a place of limitations and challenges. It may sound counterintuitive, but an injury can be a springboard to greater success in the pool, as physiotherapist Pete Woollhead explains…

CATEGORY: Health & Wellbeing

WORDS: Pete Woollhead

Why it’s often simpler than you might think to resolve a swimming injury

When a swimmer sustains an injury, it’s important to acknowledge the situation and embrace the path ahead to allow for proper recovery. Whether it’s an overuse shoulder strain or traumatic injury, it’s important to understand the steps required to return to the pool successfully. Injuries can present themselves in many forms, but while they may feel significant, many swimming related injuries are from overuse and therefore simple strategies can be implemented to resolve them.

The journey should begin with a diagnosis of the injury, understanding the extent of the tissue damage and how it will affect training. Physiotherapists can help explain why you are feeling pain and educate you on the steps to rehabilitate the injury to a level where you can safely return to the pool. This phase often requires patience, commitment and being strongly aware of your limitations at each stage. Each small step becomes a milestone towards reclaiming the water. Often injuries not only affect the physical aspects, but also psychological – not being able to do the activity you want to do can be frustrating and this can make the process quite demoralising.

Why the challenge presented by an injury can be an opportunity for growth

Swimmers returning from injury often approach the pool with renewed perspective. By setting rehabilitation goals and regularly reflecting on these, swimmers can realise their gradual progress rather than aiming for immediate perfection.

In professional sport, we will set out a rehabilitation plan that usually involves six phases. Each of these will have a specific focus, key rehabilitation exercises, limitations and outline training areas that are safe to continue with. We aim to keep the swimmer in the pool if appropriate to do so and focus on kicking if it is an upper body injury or vice versa. Then the focused rehabilitation can be done on land. As swimmers progress through the phases, we can gradually reintroduce the affected limb at progressive intensities and higher impact activities, such as starts and turns.

During these injury periods there is a key opportunity to improve all fitness areas to build a stronger foundation, not just focusing on the injury. Progressing through the phases of rehabilitation, swimmers can improve their strength, core control, flexibility and overall body awareness in the water. A strong foundation acts as a shield against future injuries, allowing them to swim with more confidence, and by making adjustments to optimise efficiency and body position in the water, it can mean a swimmer returns with a more streamlined and powerful technique, ultimately making them a faster swimmer.

As injuries can take some time to fully resolve, it’s important the swimmer has a strong support system. Coaches, medical staff, teammates and family can help to provide the encouragement and motivation needed to keep pushing forwards.

Why returning to swimming after an injury can inspire others

The triumphant return to competition after an injury is a real achievement and shows strong resilience. Swimmers can dive back into the water with a newfound appreciation of their capabilities, and as a stronger swimmer. It can help inspire others who are trying to navigate their own injury challenges and show others that setbacks are not the end, but rather an opportunity for growth.

There are numerous examples of swimmers returning from injuries to achieve success again in the pool. Most notably world breaststroke record holder Adam Peaty, who sustained an ankle fracture during a training camp in Tenerife in spring 2022 and as a result had to pull out of the world championships. Known for his determination and work ethic, Peaty embarked on an intensive rehabilitation journey. Although this was a significant setback, it showcased an inspiring chapter of his career when he returned at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and won gold in the 50m breaststroke.

In the undulating tides of a swimmer’s career, the setback of an injury can be difficult to manage, but they are not the end, rather an opportunity for growth. From acknowledging the injury to the dynamic journey of rehabilitation and resurfacing with newfound strength and commitment, it can be just a stepping stone to greater achievements.

You can read more articles about swimming technique and overcoming injuries in the latest issue of Swim magazine.