Swimming is often considered to be a low-impact sport, when compared to other sports, such as running or Pickleball, or even golf. All of the sports listed here, have a direct link to what is known as repetitive use injury. Swimming and competitive swimming are still susceptible to injuries as with any other sport. In swimming, there are four different swim strokes ( freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, and breaststroke) that all produce different types of injuries of the shoulders, hips, back, neck, and knees. Furthermore, as senior athletes ( Age 50 +) we are a unique group of individuals who have completed the work portion of our life, and now attack the fun side of retirement life, as if it was a full-time job. Swimming is often recommended for those who do not do well with high-impact exercises and is gentle on your body and your joints. The water is a natural weight resistance, but what is often missed is doing it in moderation.
My story of long-term shoulder problems spans over many years beginning back in the mid-1980s when the first signs of a repetitive use injury showed up, following many years of youth swimming, and high school swimming, at a high level of competition, as well as many days of two practices a day, creating a pattern of overuse in the shoulder area from many years of swimming the Butterfly stroke at a competitively high level. Although my injuries were to the shoulder area, swimming can also affect the hips, back, neck and knees. The reason for this is that many competitive swimmers have a tendency to experience overextension in the lower back and neck due to the various strokes. These types of athletes swim often and hard, they can develop painful repetitive stress and overuse injuries, and chronic pain as a result of daily practice, competition, or intense training. Swimming can put the body under unique biological stresses that it wouldn’t ordinarily experience out of the water. Shoulder injuries are the most common among swimmers due to the repetitive nature of the sport. Having said that, my experience as a Doctor of Chiropractic and as as a competitive swimmer has taught me two things: (1) With proper coaching and stroke mechanics and (2) the proper conditioning, strengthening, and Chiropractic care program, these injuries can be decreased and even avoided.
Having injured my shoulder in a repetitive sense, which began back in High School, in Warren, MI, as early as 1975, and progressed to a point where I could not even swim laps, in addition to having daily pain in the shoulder and neck area. I was blessed to be a Doctor of Chiropractic in 1988, so I was able to get regular chiropractic care, as well as rehab to keep my spine in alignment, as well as having the consistency of treatment, as well as the use of exercise equipment. This type of treatment allowed me to keep my spine in alignment and my muscles from being imbalanced. However, over time, the main source of the problem required surgery on the right shoulder. It had finally gotten to the point where any motion, including swimming of any kind, just produced right shoulder pain. In 2018, some 40+ years since the original injuries, I elected to do surgery on the right shoulder. Following surgery and about a 9-month rehab, I finally was able to swim again without pain, and this included the Butterfly stroke. Swimming became my rehab treatment of choice, as it loosened up the shoulder area without any additional weight-bearing stress common with gym-type rehabs. I just found it easier to get my shoulder back to normal by swimming. At first, it was simply across a very small pool, the equivalent of 7 yards. I then progressed to doing more and more and eventually I tried a length of the normal competitive pool, which is 25 yards. At this point, I began to enjoy swimming again. . Also, in 2018, I retired from active Chiropractic practice, mainly due to the constant right shoulder pain, as well as other reasons, and two days after retirement I had my right shoulder surgery.
In 2019, an opportunity presented itself where I learned about the Florida Senior Games, and there were areas of Florida, where you could do a qualifying meet to be able to participate in the Florida Games State Finals. My wife, Gail, at the same time discovered these same games and for her, it was running a 5K ( 3.1 miles). Our first Florida Senior Games was in 2019 in Jacksonville, FL, where we lived at the time. That year we both qualified for the Florida Senior Games at the state level.
With no shoulder pain, a complete range of motion, and a solid year of chiropractic care and rehab under my belt, I competed for the first time in 45 years. I prepared for about 8 weeks and did amazingly well for my age at the time, which was 62 years old, taking 4 first places finishes and I was once again hooked on swimming, this time senior swimming, which introduced me to US Masters Swimming. My competitive juices were back, and with my right shoulder pain gone, I was excited to compete again.
Now moving forward in competitive swimming at the Senior level ( 50-99 age group) I realized how important pre-stretching is before workouts, good nutrition, regular chiropractic care as well as proper rest. I have learned firsthand that as you age as a swimmer you need to realize that you can create trauma to your shoulders based on how the shoulder rotates. It is known that about 38% of swimmers can miss swimming sessions due to injury. Most of these injuries are soft tissue ( muscles, ligaments, and tendons). I have learned that over-training your shoulders is never a good thing for senior athletes, as the shoulders are the most mobile joints in the body and key to a swimmer’s success. I have found the above recipe of stretching, sensible workouts ( not over-training), and some manipulative therapy( chiropractic) are keys to a successful injury-free swimming season. It goes without saying that it is equally important to have qualified coaches to keep you from over-training, or doing things you functionally cannot perform without risking injury. Keeping your neck, upper back in alignment contributes to keeping the shoulders functioning properly. Not all shoulder injuries can be helped with chiropractic care, but early detection is the key to any musculoskeletal injury.
Since moving to The Villages, FL, in 2019 and joining the Villages Aquatic Swim Team,(VAST) I have been able to train consistently, and following my shoulder surgery in 2018, and taking my time to properly rehab, with consistent care medically and chiropractic. I have enjoyed substantial success in senior competitive swimming, on a state and national level. Back in 2018, I never dreamed of competing at such a high level in my 60’s. I will soon be competing in the 65-69 age group at the Senior Games Nationals in May 2022, as well as USMS ( Masters Swimming) in April 2022, and August 2022. My competitive times as a 64-65-year-old are faster than when I was 62, so I am excited to see how far up the National rankings I can move, and due to no pain, the sky’s the limit as to how much I can achieve in Senior Competitive Swimming. Additionally, I obtained my Florida license in Chiropractic, after 33 years of practice in California and currently work part-time. Being pain-free, I am afforded the opportunity to do the two things I love, Chiropractic and competitive swimming.
I believe the key is to know your limits as a senior athlete, know your history from a medical point of view, and simply make a decision as to what level of training you are personally able to do. It may not be the same for every senior athlete, and that is ok. Simply put, know your own limits, and follow your intuition as to what is right for you, and learn how to pace yourself, not taking on too much too early. Although this article centered around competitive swimming, the average casual swimmer can also suffer these common swimmer injuries without proper stretching or swimming mechanics.
Dr. Dale Charrette
Doctor of Chiropractic
1988-Present ( California and Florida)
Nationally-ranked Florida Senior Games
Nationally-ranked United States Masters Swimming
Chiropractic Physician at Legacy Clinic of Chiropractic in The Villages, FL