I love to swim, but sometimes swimming does not love me.
May 8, 2024 11:35 AM   Subscribe

I taught myself how to swim freestyle about 15 years ago and have been swimming intermittently since then. I went from barely being able to swim 25 yards at the start, to swimming 2000 yards 4x a week at my peak. Last winter I injured my shoulder when I tried to scale up my training, and I've been having a hard time swimming since. I'm seeking advice on how to address the issues I'm dealing with now.

I've done two rounds of PT for shoulder impingement. The second round has focused on strengthening my shoulders, this has been helpful. After being discharged from PT, I felt great and like it was safe to scale up. I was wrong. After about two weeks of working on increasing my pace stroke timing my shoulder began to bother and BOTH my elbows were in pain. I used to be able to just SWIM with no issues. I've been resting, icing and taking NSAID and the pain is somewhat better but I'm frustrated. I'm planning on returning to PT but it will probably be a month or two before I can get scheduled.

I am not a sports person. I didn't grow up swimming or doing sports. I'm fat, and often sports people don't take me seriously when I ask for swimming help because they can't seem to imagine me doing laps. But I LOVE to swim laps. I love the pool. I love water.

If you have experienced elbow pain related to swimming (or other elbow-intense things), how did you manage it? I know you are not my orthopedist or physical therapist, and that you are not giving medical advice. How have you managed getting worse at a sport you once did without a lot of concern? How can you tell when you are in too much pain to do your sport vs. in just a bit of pain, but should still do your sport? I have done some googling, but a lot of things I am finding seem geared towards professional athletes and I'm just me, a nice lady who enjoys pretending to be a seal for about 40 minutes 3-4x a week.

It's been about a week since I've been in the pool and I feel sad, and unlike myself. But I can't seem to get myself to to go, even if I say "we can do a light swim, leave if it hurts, you need to move your bones".

I guess this question really has two parts
1) how can I help my elbows?
2) as someone who doesn't know anything about sports psychology, how can i help my brain understand that we can still do the thing we love even though it now makes us ouchy sometimes?

posted by spacebologna to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For number 2, argh it's so hard to not be able to do your thing. For me it's running and when I can't do it, I get buggy. Whether it's because of an injury, or some scheduling conflict.
For number 1, maybe try something other than the crawl? Side-stroke or breast-stroke might use your arms in a less stressful way?
posted by mmf at 11:40 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I’ve been through something similar: it took about 2 months for me to swim with - remarkably - zero pain.

Go slow. Like REALLY slow, just focusing on doing a perfect stroke and breathing. I alternated crawl and breath stroke; crawl up the lane; breast stroke down the lane. I think it gave the different muscle groups a chance to rest between iterations.

Last: K-tape helped a lot in the first few weeks. Here’s to getting back into laps soon!
posted by Silvery Fish at 12:04 PM on May 8 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I know you said you taught yourself how to swim, have you ever had any formal lessons or stroke evaluation? That might help you get to the bottom of any form issues that might be aggravating your shoulders and elbows. They also might have ideas on pacing or other swimming drills you could mix in to an overall training regimen in a way that lets you still feel like you are "progressing" without so much repetitive motion.

A lot of communities have a "Masters Swim" program that is basically adult swim team. If you have one in the area, contact them and they will probably have good ideas on how to find someone to evaluate your stroke and help you develop a training regimen. I found Masters Swim in general to be a pretty inclusive group, so hopefully the one in your area won't have a "fat people don't swim" issue.

Also, as a fellow fat lady who swims---does your swimsuit have enough chest support? Especially since you have struggled with shoulder issues, it might be something to look at. A good sports bra under a swimsuit is a perfectly acceptable option if you can't find a supportive swimsuit.
posted by mjcon at 12:08 PM on May 8 [10 favorites]

I never learned to swim but I had a THR (Total Hip Replacement) on one side a couple years ago. When I was going to therapy something I learned by listening in on other folks in the facility is that rehab for a hip is nothing compared to rehab for a shoulder. I had it easy by comparison. Best wishes for your recovery!
posted by forthright at 1:08 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I had elbow pain when I was on the swim team in high school but only felt it when I was doing backstroke. My doctor diagnosed it as fluid on the elbow, which I guess is bursitis? Anyway, I had to rest for some weeks without swimming at all, which meant I was out for the season.

I totally understand the psychology of not being able to "just take it easy." I'm wondering if doing a stroke that would force you to go slower might help. Sidestroke? Just doing laps with a kickboard?
posted by queensissy at 2:21 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

As someone who got interested in sports (though not swimming) later in life and has also had a series of shoulder-related setbacks, I’d argue that feeling sad and resting even when you should probably go and do a light workout can be one way to practice being gentle to yourself. You are learning that this activity is important to you by discovering the consequences of not doing it. That’s okay! It’s also okay to recognize that you want to do the activity that makes you feel strong and comfortable and not old and sore. Eventually my want got stronger than my not-want and I got back to my gentler routine.

My shoulder took a ton of time to recover—my PT said a year; it was a year to where daily non-sport activities were completely painless, but now two years on, the bad shoulder still has odd weaknesses when pushed. I find I need to pay very careful attention to form. A few sessions with a swim coach might be more helpful than PT at this point to make sure you are using everything appropriately. Any chance of finding an accountability buddy to go swimming with?
posted by tchemgrrl at 2:40 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

+1 on the kickboard idea as a way to convince your brain that you can get in the water without pain (assuming you can).

One thing I had to relearn as an athlete that is getting older is that when I was young, I could push through pain of an injury and still recover/heal. As I got older, that was no longer true. (See, for example, recovering from planter fasciitis, where I was not able to even take 20 minute walks through the pain and still heal.) Instead, I am retraining my brain to accept that pain = stop and continuing despite pain = longer time to recover/heal. It is humbling.

As a side note, one tidbit that stuck with me from my PT was that a reasonable increase from one workout to the next was about 10%, but that I should stop if it started to hurt. If it didn't, then good! I could increase it again next workout.

Also a side note, reframing my competitive nature to include being able to stay healthy as part of the "strategy" helped tamper the drive to "give it everything, every play." So, perhaps in your example, taking it easy by only swimming 1000 yards in a day, when you might be able to do 1200 or more, to ensure that you don't aggravate your injury and are able to swim on your regular schedule would be "winning."
posted by bruinfan at 2:55 PM on May 8 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You can do other things in the water. My pool time is sacred to me, and I've had to modify my workouts through decades of bodily disintegration, surgeries, etc. Maintaining my pool routine, even when I can't do my preferred strokes, helps me stay more sane. Substitutions I've done:
  • On my back with flippers, hold kickboard to my chest, slow laps with the dolphin kick -- this helps to keep my back loose.
  • Switch out a pull buoy for the flippers, scull my hands in small figure-8s for more slow laps. This actually relaxes my shoulders.
  • Walk through chin-high water alternating feet and arms, keeping my hands low, feet in water shoes on the bottom of the pool. Then move to the deep water and do the same motion, like cross-country skiing
  • In deep water, jumping jacks but the arms only move within a pain-free range -- sometimes that's the surface of the water, sometimes that's barely 10° away from my centerline.
  • In deep water, do the Pilates Hundreds.
I've had 1-on-1s with adult swim instructors over the 30 years at this pool. Each lesson has helped me not reinjure myself, develop new drills I can use as substitutes when necessary. Feel free to memail.
posted by Jesse the K at 3:26 PM on May 8 [4 favorites]

A lot of communities have a "Masters Swim" program that is basically adult swim team. If you have one in the area, contact them and they will probably have good ideas on how to find someone to evaluate your stroke and help you develop a training regimen. I found Masters Swim in general to be a pretty inclusive group, so hopefully the one in your area won't have a "fat people don't swim" issue.

Hi from a fat old Masters swimmer who long ago was a young slim Masters swimmer!

I agree with what I quoted above! And you could also look for swimming lessons that feature an advanced course dedicated to technique.

Go to the USMS site and search for a team. You could join as "unattached" and take advantage of their online resources. Or look at their Facebook videos. "Grown-up Swimming" is now under the Masters umbrella; that might be helpful
posted by jgirl at 5:02 PM on May 8 [1 favorite]

I've been rehabbing my repaired shoulder this winter, and boy I never understood how closely shoulder and neck pain are. Like, shoulder injuries and surgery causes neck pain, in reaction. And that neck pain (really, tight trapezius muscles clamping down on the nerves headed through your shoulder and down your arm) shows up as ... elbow pain. I had a lot of elbow pain in the first month after surgery, that kept me from extending my arm. So, see if that is the case for you - if your neck is stiff and achy, give that some attention and see if it helps the elbow.

And I'd second the suggestion to have someone coach your swim stroke.
posted by Dashy at 5:27 PM on May 8

1) Rest. The elbow bands with the discs in them do somewhat help in that they redistribute force. Mostly just rest. As in, do only things that don’t hurt and avoid pain.

2) Do anything in the water that doesn’t hurt. Try other forms of cardio (walking, cycling).
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:07 PM on May 8

Nthing the suggestion to have someone look at your stroke especially in light of how you got better and then swimming causes the pain again. To some degree, PT should help with this, determining the risk factors of your particular swim motion, then strengthening whatever weakness may be leading to your ré-injury. (Even though you think you used to be able to do all the swimming with no problems, it’s pretty inevitable your stroke has changed as you’ve gotten more skilled.). As an example in a different body part, in my sport, I got better at increasing the range of motion in my knees, which was great! But it unlocked an injury via more dependence on my hip muscles that were weak. Any thoughts about ways your strokes may have improved over time?
posted by Tandem Affinity at 9:23 PM on May 8

Did the PT give you a program with weights to rebuild strength and flexibility? That's an always thing, now you're protecting this area from further injury.

Do they also have a program of gym weights for strength/yoga for flexibility? I am because those will help the whole of you to protect this vulnerable part of you.
posted by k3ninho at 10:48 PM on May 8

I’ll bet you’re dropping your elbows on your catch. When you start your stroke, your hand should bend down a little bit so that you “set” your catch. Then as you begin to move you hand down your body, keep your elbow high. It should feel like you are reaching around a beach ball for the start of your stroke.

But I haven’t seen your stroke, so if there is a place to get it evaluated, definitely do so.
posted by susiswimmer at 4:03 AM on May 9 [1 favorite]

I'm old, never been any kind of athlete, went to schools when I was a kid that didn't have gym, let alone sports. Taught myself to swim when I was a kid. For the last few years I've been swimming laps. Freestyle has never felt good in my neck and shoulders, which I've injured in the past, so I don't do it. I do breast stroke and back stroke three times a week with no problems. Even though arm movements in back stroke are similar to those in freestyle the shoulders and neck don't move the same. Try them.
posted by mareli at 7:20 AM on May 9

Response by poster: I've never had my stroke evaluated, but doing so makes perfect sense. I was able to find a facility that has adult lessons through the Master's website. Thanks!!

My PT did give me a program to build and maintain strength which I follow. I'm betting my stroke has some quirks that are contributing to my pain.

All of your answers helped me form my plan which is to
- schedule private lessons for stroke evaluation and coaching
- follow up with PT
- explore more time with other strokes
- explore other ways to exercise in the pool to preserve sacred pool time

posted by spacebologna at 7:25 AM on May 9 [4 favorites]

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