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Swim to recover from injury

By Mark Umbach

Throw one too many plates on the bench press last week? Fall off the treadmill while trying the check out the guy's speed next to yours? Have no fear, some time spent swimming in a lap pool will help get you back on routine in no time...and may have you feeling healthier than you did in the first place.

A swimmer's body is what most men's dreams are made of—broad shoulders, a taut waistline, and six-pack abs. But you don't have to put in the yardage of Michael Phelps in order to reap the benefits of an aquatic workout. In addition to providing a great cardio workout, lap swimming provides the perfect combination of low-impact activity and full-body conditioning to work through injuries that may occur in almost any other sport.

Chiropractic orthopedist Jessica Seaton, D.C., a United States Masters swimmer and former chair of the United States Masters Swimming Sports Medicine Committee, says that swimming benefits all four components of a good exercise program: aerobic, strength training, flexibility, and coordination. Jumping in the pool to get back on your feet keeps your training regimen strong in each of those categories without putting additional stress on your body.

Swimming doesn't just strengthen your heart—the resistance of the water helps build your upper body strength, and the basic motion of the strokes helps improve your coordination. Swimming also allows your body to continue to move without aggravating an injury with the pounding of the sidewalk or from the direct contact of teammates or opponents. That movement lessens recovery time while helping avoid what Seaton calls "deconditioning syndrome" or "disuse syndrome"—characterized by muscle deterioration, stiffening of joints, and other problems that can cause long-term setbacks.

"Patients with most kinds of lower back pain (sprains, herniated discs) respond well to being in the water," Seaton says. "It allows them to move without further injuring their back, while the movement accelerates recovery and will allow them to maintain a certain level of fitness during the recovery phase."

Despite the sport's low-impact reputation, injured athletes should start out slowly, as overexertion in the pool could aggravate their condition. "Athletes recovering from lower back injuries should only kick very lightly or use a pull-buoy (a flotation device held between the legs to keep your back end afloat) if any kicking is too painful," Seaton says. When it's the upper half that's hurting, Seaton notes, "Athletes with most shoulder injuries probably need to stay away from butterfly and backstroke initially."

You must maintain proper stroke technique and body position in the water to conquer your injury—do it incorrectly and you're likely to hurt yourself further. If you're uncomfortable with or unfamiliar with how to swim properly, get a coach or take a swim class. In addition, Seaton says, both swimming newcomers and seasoned water warriors should maintain an out-of-the-water stretching program to sustain flexibility as they work toward recovery.

Mark Umbach is the managing editor of, as well as an active marathoner and swimmer. He works for the National AIDS Marathon Training Program and serves on the board of directors for the LGBT swimming and water polo team West Hollywood Aquatics in Los Angeles.