Ask Stew: Continue Training Even with Swimming Injury

An athlete slices through Holloman’s Olympic-sized recreational pool during Holloman’s eighth annual Monster Triathlon at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M. on Sept. 17, 2016. Holloman’s triathlon is a three-part athletic competition that includes a 5 km run, a 30 km bike race and a 700 meter swim. (U.S. Air Force photo by Alexis P. Docherty)

Sometimes our go-to cardio option hits a snag with aches, pains, serious injury or illness. When this happens often it is best to perhaps not do your full workout, but consider some progressions to get back to full form. Here is an email from a retired Navy Master Chief, who prefers swimming these days to running, but has injured his shoulder:

Stew, I saw a recent swimming article you did on Military.com for the retired gentleman and loved it.  However, I am having some issues with a shoulder injury that is preventing my freestyle from working without pain.  Do you have any recommendations for other swimming options, strokes, or do I just need to stop swimming for a bit?  Thanks for your time, Tom (USN retired)

Master Chief,

Thanks for the note and yes, I have created for you below several options to freestyle swimming that will both allow you to stay in the pool as well as find some other non-impact options:

  1. Try Treading – Here is an option you can do with legs only or lightly with your arms to work the shoulders in a gentle fashion.  Move your arms in a horizontal figure 8 motion with your hands slanted at a 45 degree angle to produce lift.  The more you kick the more you will work your lungs too, so you can get a cardio benefit as well as a therapeutic benefit with easy arm work.
  2. Try Swimming with Fins – If you put on a small pair of slip on fins, you may be able to do leg work with your normal freestyle stroke as the motion of the water will require less pulling of the arms.  You can also just kick for your workout mixing many different kicks from flutterkicks or dolphin kicks with some kickboard work.
  3. Try Other Strokes – If freestyle hurts, consider breast stroke or the side stroke / combat swimmer stroke with the injured shoulder doing the shorter stroke and the non-injured arm doing the pulling on the top near the surface.
  4. Consider Other Cardio – You can also walk/jog mix if you are able or mix in bike, elliptical machines, or rowing machines if the pulling of the arms does not hurt. This option will obviously depend on the joint health of the lower body.

Give some of these a try. You may find that a 30 minute bike or elliptical followed by a alternative swim, tread, or finning workout will be quite sufficient for your training program. However, if all of these options are still causing pain, you need to get the shoulder checked out as you may need surgery or just some physical therapy.

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