How to Avoid Injuries and Swim Like Michael Phelps

How cool was it to watch Michael Phelps anchor the US team to the 4 x 200 meter freestyle Olympic gold medal and, as a result, become the most decorated Olympic athlete ever.

Phelps is inspiring yet another generation of swimmers, both elite and amateur.

He even makes me want to hit the pool, or maybe swim a few hundred yards beyond the shore break next time I’m at the beach.

More than a million competitive and recreational swimmers have made swimming one of the most popular fitness activities in the United States.

More than one-third of swimmers practice and compete year-round and elite swimmers may train more than five miles a day, putting joints through extreme repetitive motion.

That kind of regimen increases the risk of injury, says Dr. Stuart Elkowitz of Somers Orthopaedic Surgery & Sports Medicine Group.

“With overuse comes fatigue and failure to adhere to proper stroke techniques, which in turn can lead to injuries,” says Elkowitz.

The most common sites of swimming injuries are, in order, the shoulder, the knee, and the neck.

Here are some of Elkowitz’s straightforward tips on how to avoid most of these injuries.

Swimmer’s Shoulder

If you log thousands of yards in the pool each day, you may use your shoulder as many as 2,000 times in a single workout.

Swimmer’s shoulder is an injury of the shoulder’s muscles and tendons due to overuse or poor swimming technique.

It manifests itself as pain and inflammation.

“Swimmers, like athletes who throw a lot, put a great deal of stress on their shoulders,” says Elkowitz.

In fact, more shoulder injuries are reported among swimmers than pitchers in baseball, he says.

Swimmer’s shoulder is most often associated with the freestyle stroke and also with the butterfly and backstroke.

Specific injuries may include rotator cuff impingement — pressure on the rotator cuff from part of the shoulder blade or scapula as the arm is lifted; biceps tendinitis – painful inflammation of the bicep tendon; and shoulder instability, in which structures that surround the shoulder joint do not work to maintain the ball within its socket.

“The most important factor in avoiding shoulder injury is to swim with correct technique,” says Elkowitz.

“A qualified swimming professional or experienced swimmer can assess your stroke and highlight mistakes.”

He recommends against over-training or training with tired muscles to minimize injury.

Also, avoid sudden increases in the number or intensity of your workouts; don’t overuse swim paddles, which put additional strain on your shoulders; and take care when using a kick-board with outstretched arms, as this can put your shoulders in a weak position.

Swimmer’s Knee

Swimmer’s knee is an injury generated by the stroke mechanics of the breaststroke kick.

When the legs extend, then are brought back together during the propulsive phase of the kick, the knee is subject to abnormal external rotation, which puts stress on the inner ligament of the knee, called the medial collateral ligament, and the hip.

To avoid swimmer’s knee, alternate swimming strokes and have rest periods during the year when you don’t swim the breaststroke, says Elkowitz.

He also suggests you warm up and stretch before a swimming session and do regular exercises for your hamstrings and quadriceps to strengthen your legs.

Swimming-related Neck Injuries

Swimming-related neck injuries are usually caused by incorrect technique.

Also take precautions to avoid neck muscle strain from overuse.

“When swimming the freestyle stroke, avoid over-rotation when lifting the head to inhale,” says Elkowitz.

Rotate your body more so your head remains aligned with your body when clearing the water.

When swimming the breast or butterfly stroke, keep your head aligned with the spine at all times.

In the backstroke, increase swim times gradually so your neck muscles have time to adapt.

Yes, I know I’ll never be like Mike in the pool.

But I’m sure there are some young swimmers out there who are ready to take aim at his Olympic record.

They just need to follow these safety rules if they want to have a long, successful career, as Phelps has had.

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