View Full Version : alternative swim-related exercise when shoulders are sore?

jim thornton
November 6th, 2004, 09:44 PM
I recently hurt my shoulder, probably from playing 6 hours of tennis with a friend. Swimming has always been a bit rough on my left shoulder, but now it's my right shoulder that's in pain. Note: I did swim a 10 K in Atlantic City in September; the tennis episode was about two weeks later. I played the tennis match (five sets) on a Sunday, went to Monday swimming practice, felt fine, but at Wednesday's practice, I swam butterfly, and this is when I noticed that my shoulder was sore.

I continued to swim for the next two weeks after the tennis; usually, my right shoulder would hurt at the beginning of practice, but feel okay by the end of 3000 or so yards. Anyhow, now it's pretty sore at the beginning AND end of practice, and I will probably see a doctor at some point, but I am trying to back off a bit for a while to see if the pain is "self-limiting" as they say.

Anyhow, I'd like to continue working out with my team and wondered if you all could send me ideas for reasonable alternatives to swimming with my arms. It seems to me that the basic alternative here is kicking--but my kick is pretty slow, and I think that I will need to use fins if I'm going to have any chance to keep up.

I did an all kick practice last Friday, using fins at the very end, but these precipitated foot/arch cramps.

I've always been something of a "purist" vis a vis the various gizmos swim companies try to sell us. When healthy, I tend to use a standard kick board and pull buoy occasionally, but not very often. Now I find myself hoping technology can keep me going! In any event--


1) there are all these different fins being marketed: conventional rubber fins, split fins, flexfins, zoomers, and these odd looking positive drive fins. I did have some hip problems from excessive butterfly kicking a few years back, and I don't want to exacerbate/renew that problem. Does anyone have any advice as to what kind of fin would make the most sense for a guy who doesn't want to hurt his shoulder, doesn't wasn't want to hurt/reaggravate his hip, but does want to be able to keep practicing with his team?

2) most of my shoulder pain occurs during the late recovery, early catch phases of my freestyle stroke. It's a little sore, but not terribly, so during breaststroke. Have any of you out there switched temporarily to breaststroke during shoulder flare ups?

3) in terms of kick boards, any advice here? It doesn't kill my effected shoulder to use a conventional board, but I doubt this helps it, either. Are those V-Shaped "ergononic" boards worth using? Can you really hold these with one arm? Or would I be better off forgetting a board altogether?

4) any other suggestions on how I can stay in the pool without causing my shoulder further aggravation?

5) finally, and this is probably the hardest philosophical question of all to answer: any tips for dealing psychologically with being limited in your ability to pursue a sport/recreation/source of camaraderie that is extremely important to your sense of self and well being?

Thanks in advance for any help you can provide. My wife thinks I should just stop going to the pool, but I suspect you diehard swimmers out there in USMS.org understand how addictive swimming is, and how hard it is for us aficionados to give it up even for just a while.

jim thornton
November 6th, 2004, 10:04 PM
One more question along these lines. Has anyone been forced because of injury to take a sabbatical from practice? If so, did you switch to a different sport (running, etc.) And when you did return to the pool, was it as hard to get back in swimming shape as you may have dreaded?

November 6th, 2004, 11:32 PM
Hey! I had shoulder problems a few weeks ago and am still healing from them. I dislocated my shoulder when I was doing butterfly, and then started doing butterfly again to early and re-aggrivated it so now the bones in my A-C joint are bumping and grinding. My advice is, as hard as it may be, take some time off from the pool. I took about a week and a half off total for my injuries. I took a week when I dislocated it and then about 3 days when I re-injured it. When I finally did get back in the pool, I was only allowed to do freestyle and backstroke...makes practice somewhat boring but my shoulder is healing. But mostly,go and see a doctor They will be able to tell you exactly how long you need to take off, what's wrong, and other exercise you can do to strength your shoulders. Hope you feel better!


November 7th, 2004, 01:52 AM
some ideas:

drop down to the slowest lane and do drills that don't hurt.
-If early catch hurts, do mid and end of pull sculling drills.
-Swim three strokes then kick for twelve beats on your side (TI type drill) Focus on stretching out and streamlining/balancing.
-work on breathing control - do as many underwater lengths as you can on one breath
But your coach can probably give you tons of drills.

Another idea would be to go to practice and help out on deck - can you videotape, record split times, etc? Give your shoulder a break but still get the chlorine high...and join the team for a post-workout beer, too!

November 7th, 2004, 08:07 AM
Could be tendinitis. Does it bother you at night? Nocturnal pain can be a sign of a more serious injury. If it is tendinitis, it's still worthwhile to see your orthopedist and get a physical therapy referral. Rotator cuff exercises play an important role both in treatment and in prevention of future problems. You should be taking an antiinflammatory drug and using ice after working out (and possibly at bedtime as well).

I found that swimming with a pull buoy and concentrating on rotation (and not rushing the catch) took strain off of my shoulder and allowed me to keep swimming. Kick boards made it worse, as did sprinting. I didn't find breaststroke less painful.

I tried not swimming for several weeks, but the tendinits never got better until I began physical therapy (and daily Vioxx, which also cured my migraines, but that's another story). You have to address the underlying problem--impingement of the tendons which will, with repetitive overhead throwing-type movements, lead to inflammation and possibly tears. I think the key is patience and being consistent with the phsyical therapy (ie daily exercises). You can't rush the recovery process but you should be able to keep swimming. My orthopedist allowed me to stay in the water, but I added yardage gradually. I also threw away my paddles and avoided butterfly.

One last thought: I've been told (and I believe this) that physical therapy needs to be continued indefinitely. Think of it as shoulder maintenance.

November 7th, 2004, 09:29 AM

A couple of years ago when I first started up again I began experiencing some very uncomfortable strain in my left shoulder. So bad that I couldn't reach my arm over the right side to scratch my back. It persisted for quite some time, almost 6 months. But I tried not to let it keep me out of the pool. Like you I did many kick sets with fins, on my off days. And I got rid of the paddles for a while.

Land training can help too. It seems that strengthening the shoulder joint with simple out-stretched arm exercises worked wonders. Thanks to my coach I got some instruction on how to do these. And I don't want this to sound like a miracle cure, but the local health food store recommended trying glucosamine with chondroiton. Within two weeks I noticed a difference in joint movement, not just in the shoulder, but in the knees and ankles.
Kind of like putting grease on the rusty axles.

I would definitely talk to a sports related physician as Craig suggests to avoid any future problems. If it doesn't settle down soon, something is not right.

November 7th, 2004, 10:47 AM
I agree with using glucosamine, although most of the published studies deal with osteoarthritis of the knee. You have to take it daily to see a benefit. It does have some antiinflammatory properities also. While the individual studies have been small, a meta-analysis (pooling of the data from a number of small trials) showed a benefit which was statistically significant. There are no known longterm adverse effects. I've been using it for over a year.

jim thornton
November 7th, 2004, 11:27 AM
Craig makes an interesting point about tendinitis, which seems familiar to me. Some people say to give your shoulder a complete rest to let the inflamation completely die down; but others, like Craig and his experience suggests, seem to suggest that restricting mobility too much doesn't help things get better, and may, in fact, prolong the discomfort.

I guess the bottom line is that I will have to go to a sports med doctor/PT at some point, and get the benefit of their expertise about my own specific situation.

Does anyone have advice on my fin question, i.e., what type works best?

BTW, I am going to get some glucosamin today and give it a try. Thanks to all for the great advice already provided!

November 7th, 2004, 12:44 PM
I like the Kiefer silicone training fins--just the right length, very durable and they fit well. I started out with a longer pair from Speedo, almost a dive fin, which worked out well when my shoulder was giving me a lot of trouble. I found the Zoomers too short and hard to kick with.

By the way, you need to take the glucosamine for several weeks before you notice a difference.

November 7th, 2004, 06:57 PM
One note about the glucosamine...I was told to get it in combination with the chondroiton which allows it to be better absorbed by the joint cartilage. And you have to use it for at least a month to see the benefits. I still use it regularly (one year later). I'm not sure about any long term problems either. Becoming double jointed might actually be a plus.

As far as kicking goes, my favorite pair has been the longer fins from Speedo. At the end of the day, the kick sets became fun. Especially when I could kick a hundred yards on my back in under a minute. My main set after a warm-up is 10 (100's) on 1:20. Great way to work on the dolphin kicking after the turns too. The main benefit I found from fin workouts has been greater ankle flexibilty. It will definitely stretch them out in due time.

Hope your road to recovery is swift.

November 7th, 2004, 08:53 PM
I've been there (6 surgeries). I was trained to use the kickboard without fulling extending my arms---your shoulders take a beating that way. What I do is hold the board close to my chest (on a male--roughly at the level of your nipples or a little lower) and then place my arms AROUND and UNDER the sides of the board (kinda gripping it with my biceps) with my hands at the top. Stops the rocking action on your shoulders but still lets you kick.

Also--ice could become your new best friend. You've got to get the inflammation down and that means ice following a workout. Ice massages can be done (freeze some water in a styrofoam cup and peel down the sides to massage the shoulder and biceps).

Anti-inflammatories are also helpful. (bextra, advil, motrin)

Final suggestion--change your sleeping position. If you're a pillow hugger---stop. Try forcing yourself to sleep with your ELBOW lower than your shoulder OR with the arm straight down at your side. Helps prevent the tendons and bones from banging each other (impingement syndrome).

I know you previously contacted the folks at UPMC for another injury---there are a few docs there (on the South Side) who deal with sports injuries who aren't surgeons. There are also 3-4 docs at the same facility who are surgeons--any of them could help.

November 7th, 2004, 09:10 PM
Jim, It sounds like you pushed too hard. A fast 10k race, followed by 6 hours of tennis, would cause problems for anyone. But, the fact that you could train for over a month afterwards is evidence that your injury may not be severe.
A visit to a doctor is always a good idea, if only to obtain info on the most effective medications. Shoulder pain is, unfortunately, a part of swimming. You might try more kicking (I like the Positive Drive fins) and swimming longer, slower, aerobic freestyle sets, at a pace that doesn't hurt your shoulder. Iceing your shoulder after practice will ease the shoulder pain. Your doctor will know the best anti-inflamatories. I had back pain at Nationals and used the Aleeve in the swimmer's package. It really helped. Good Luck. I hope you don't miss much swimming. Jack

November 8th, 2004, 02:56 PM
I had to stop using my arms because of tendonitis for several months last year. I do not like using kickboards because they aggravate my already tense shoulders and neck. I found using the front snorkle made kicking a relaxing pleasure--I could keep my head, neck and upper torso properly aligned and concentrate on my kick and rotation. I also combined using bare feet, zoomers and TYR split fins because it feels to me like each of them move the kicking effort to different muscles. I found not using my arms gave me a new appreciation for finding my power in my core/torso. Once my pain was gone, I moved back into full swimming slowly.

It was psychologically very difficult to be a equipment junkie and to be on the "injured list." I like the competitive scramble during work outs. When I would be discouraged or tempted to just get back too fast, I'd think about how Natalie Coughlin spent a year just kicking when she was rehabing her shoulder, and look where it got her!

November 8th, 2004, 08:22 PM
hey jim, Ask your doctor or coach about the benefits of swimming with your fists lightly closed, any or all strokes.

jim thornton
November 8th, 2004, 09:01 PM
Thanks, again, for the great advice. Swimilly, your comments about Natalie were very inspiring! I ordered some fins today, and used some of our Y's supply tonight (which didn't fit all that well); Monday is our distance night, and I managed to kick about 2100 of the total 3700, using the fins for about half the workout. I also found I can do modified breastroke without much shoulder pain, provided I don't shoot my arms forward too much. Not great, but better than not swimming at all.

Before practice, I did some stationary biking, weight training of the legs and core, and the first jogging I've attempted in a decade. Since I don't want to create new problems for myself, I made sure to take all this easy. The jogging was about one quarter of a mile--less than an active rest recovery set in swimming! Anyhow, perhaps I will be able to get some unforseen benefits out of all this. My legs are in horrible shape, both for jogging, biking, and swim kicking. It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to give the major muscle groups a bit of attention, so conceivably the shoulder problem might have a silver lining after all.

I also made an appointment with a great PT at UPMC's Sports Medicine Center next week. I will keep you all posted.

To those of you who are relatively pain free out there, I say: Enjoy your good fortune. Remember a bit of advice that I forgot to take myself--if you're not used to do something in excess, don't do it in excess now. For the 10 K swim, I worked out a lot for a year, and gradually built up my endurance, so I don't think this is what hurt my shoulder. I think the boneheaded mistake I made was playing six hours of tennis, straight. I'd been playing once or twice a week, but never for more than 2-3 hours at a stretch. The six hours was idiocy, and I'm paying for it today.

At least I won that match! Though future conquests on the court seem suspect at this point...