It’s no secret that swimmers often experience a lot of shoulder pain and injuries at some point in their swimmer careers. These injuries can keep you out of the pool for weeks, or even months at a time and they are incredibly frustrating.
In this post, MySwimPro Ambassador Julie Kamat (@summerjulep) shares her experience of how her shoulder injury has completely shifted her training and offers some advice for overcoming the painful experience.
This post is written by guest author Julie Kamat – Take 20% off MySwimPro Coach with her code SUMMERJULEP
Eyes on Olympic Trials
For the vast majority of my swimming career, I’ve only known shoulder pain. I grew up a competitive swimmer in middle and high school and had my first shoulder surgery at the beginning of college. In early 2017, I got back into competitive swimming after a decade-long break.
I set a lofty lifetime goal of trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympic trials in the 50M Free. A lot of intense training would be required in such a short timeframe, and I was feeling good at the start of my comeback with a well-rested shoulder.
Last year, I got back into the pool after a few years of competing in synchronized swimming and also lifting weights at the gym. This helped ease my body into the stresses of swim practice.
Feeling the Pain
Yet, during warm-up at practice last fall, I suddenly felt a tearing sensation in my left shoulder and immediately felt an immense amount of pain. I knew something wasn’t right and kicked the entire practice. One thing I’ve learned from a lifetime of swimming is when something hurts, stop and modify your workout.
After resting for a couple of weeks, I got back into the pool to see if the pain went away. Unfortunately, it returned once I got back into the pool and I knew I had to get an MRI to see what was going on.
Related: Recovery for Swimmers: What You Need to Know
I put off the MRI until the 2017 meet season ended, and I started off 2018 with a huge decision to make about my labral tear – deciding between surgery for quicker results, or a 50/50 chance of using physical therapy to help the labral tear heal slowly.
If the physical therapy alternative didn’t work, then having surgery months later could delay my goals by creating an even tighter timeline. I decided surgery was my best option to get everything fixed as soon as possible so I could get back to training.
Days before my procedure, I felt excitement at the thought of training pain-free. By the time I went in for surgery however, I was a complete emotional mess and was upset I had to go through this a second time.
Related: How Swimmers Can Prevent Shoulder Injury
The Emotional and Physical Recovery
After four days on the couch post-surgery, I was getting antsy and had to get into the gym to do some simple leg work. It was exciting to work out again and I slowly started to incorporate resistance band workouts and single-leg squats. One week after surgery, I began to start gently moving the affected arm around to avoid muscle atrophy.
It was emotionally difficult for me to creep my arm down just the length of a table, when a few days prior I was lifting heavy weights and sprinting down the pool. Remember that you can only move forward, and don’t dwell on the past!
Getting Back in the Pool
After a few months, I began to catch up on my recovery progress, felt no pain continuing my shoulder exercises, and was confident enough to start getting into the pool with simple drills.
It was a challenge to know when the “right” time to start fully swimming again was. There’s no manual, no guidelines. It was a little nerve-wracking to use the shoulder again with the first full stroke. I had to modify each practice and couldn’t follow the team’s workout. I used fins to both focus on my kick strength and take some pressure off my arms to ease back into swimming.
Related: 8 Benefits of Swimming with Fins
Listening To My Body
Being aware of what is going on with your body during your workout is crucial for an athlete. Training smart and knowing when to pull back eventually led to becoming stronger. If anything felt “off” or a little painful, I would alter the movements so that it didn’t cause pain.
I started off swimming sprints with fast kicks and slow arms, and swimming at a moderate pace with fins if it was over 50 meters. Slowly, I started sprinting a few 25s and getting through a few 50s without fins, and fast 75s with fins.
Eventually, I could complete an entire practice with minimal modification and little fin use. Of course, I had days where I could finish an entire practice and days where I couldn’t. It was a struggle. Every day was different – good days and bad days, but each day was a day closer to 100%.
Some days, the back of my shoulder hurt, other days the front. Some days it hurt to pull, others it hurt to bring my arm up and around. It was difficult to know what was bad pain compared to growing pains/aches. By the end of June, I was starting to increase weight at the gym for reps and complete sets of weights that would have hurt the front shoulder muscles weeks earlier.
Finding My Motivation
By July, I was feeling great!
Although, the final surgical follow up was interesting – the doctor told me that I had a year or two left of swimming from natural wear and tear in the joint.
Hearing this during recovery was difficult, but it made me more hungry to prove him wrong and make it my focus to keep swimming for many years to come!
Racing at Pan-Ams
The days leading up to the 2018 UANA Pan American Masters Championships, I had to train smart to minimize any chances for potential injury at the gym and in the pool. Although I was just building up strength, I had to take it down a notch to taper and rest.
With 50+ total hours of physical therapy on top of gym and pool time in the first six months of the year, all the hard work and dedication led me to my best 50M Free race at Pan Ams. I recently completed my physical therapy and I’m lifting and swimming with no pain. I couldn’t be happier!
Watch: Julie Kamat’s Pan Ams Interview on The #AskASwimPro Show
I would say that if you’re experiencing an injury or feeling pain, know that you’re not the only one. Reach out to loved ones, close friends, and social media communities and don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Pain for an athlete comes with the job description, and for me it has been quite a struggle.
Everyone’s journey is different, but we all share the common goal of mastering our bodies and disciplines. Stay positive!
It’s Made Me a Better Swimmer
Dealing with shoulder injuries has forced me to focus on the technicalities of my stroke with the goal of minimizing chances of injury.
After Pan Am this past July, I started loading more work onto my shoulder to see how much it could take. I started lifting heavier at the gym by increasing weights and reps. In the pool, I took some time to swim alone outside of practice for a few weeks and ease into swimming backstroke and butterfly again.
My next meet is the Rowdy Gaines Meet in the fall here in Orlando. My goal for next year is cut off enough time in my 50 Free to eventually compete at USA Swimming meets!
Thank you Julie for sharing your experience! We wish you many years of pain-free swimming, and good luck on your road to the Olympics!
Want to train like Julie? Track your swims and get swim workouts on the MySwimPro app, available on iPhone or Android. Take 20% off MySwimPro Coach with her code: SUMMERJULEP. Click here to start your free trial!