One of the greatest concerns of any athlete – the damper, disappointment and heartbreak that’s always a scary possibility during any physical activity – is an injury.
Whether a rolled ankle, blown knee or weak shoulder, there is nothing more discouraging than being in the wonderful throes of an exercise routine before realizing that if you want to heal properly – you might just need to rest. I, myself, have had this happen on a few too many occasions, much to my dismay; with an old soccer knee that loves to ache after lots of impact or a still-healing torn hip flexor that has the tendency to feel tight during oodles of continuous movement.
If you enjoy exercise, the endorphins and the time alone, realizing that you might need to take a break almost feels like a non-option. If you’re half-witted about it, like we’ve all been, you’ll try to push through the pain or find a (not so) happy medium that will most likely still aggravate the problem. Sometimes, it takes an overly painful realization or dose of tough love before understanding that you have the options of two weeks to a month of continuing your routine before losing a joint or muscle for life – or two weeks to a month of moderate activity that will soothe your injury, and your mind when it comes to knowing that all hope isn’t lost.
When a few long runs of mine proved to end with a very tender left knee about a month ago, I stupidly pushed through the pain – thinking it would pass. When walking during the day, lifting my leg while sitting in the upright position or pointing my toes became increasingly difficult – it took that dose of tough love from a friend to tell me that I needed to cool my jets and find an alternate means of exercise until I recovered.
“Have you thought of swimming?” I heard from about a dozen people. Insert rolled eyes and immediate disregard. Despite the fact that I swam competitively when I was younger and clearly understand the health benefits of the sport – something about this advice really rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn’t figure out why – but a number of other injured pals seemed to have the same ignorance when it came partaking in the watery activity. Did we not want to get wet? Would it be boring? Was it too much of a hassle finding a pool? Did we want to be sweating and pounding the pavement to feel like we’d exercised? Maybe so. But when I stepped back and realized that it might be my only option during this unwelcome hiatus, I have a pool in my building, and it couldn’t be that hard – I decided to dive in, literally.
I was wildly wrong when it came to all of my previous conceptions about swimming. First of all, it took about an hour of my time – the same as a good run or circuit/weights workout – and it went by quickly. Secondly, it required grabbing a pair of goggles, a swim cap and pressing the elevator button to get to this exercise. And lastly, it is hard. In fact, it’s a workout and a half. And I was incredibly cocky in thinking otherwise.
Water is 1,000 times denser than air. Powering back and forth in a pool while synching your breathing, kicking rapidly and rotating your upper half to pierce the water and pull your body forward with the most graceful of ease – all while somersaulting your weight to pound back off the walls and do it again, and again? Not a jog in the park. It is, without a doubt, a full-body cardiovascular exercise that burns calories, tones muscles and challenges you aerobically.
How do I feel now, you ask? Infinitely better. Not only do my limbs still feel like jelly getting out of the pool (always a good sign), but after a three-week break from my normal routine – I no longer feel weakness in my knee when flipping my feet, walking or pointing my toes. And, two nights ago, I went for a light 5km run and didn’t feel a hint of pain. So, there you have it – swimming is actually a wonderful way to heal. Healing, while working hard.
The next time you feel like you need to take a knee, sit on the bench or simply give up – remember that it’s not the end of the world or your athletic career. Remember to listen to your body, no matter how quietly it’s speaking. We’ve only got one. And sometimes, dipping into something unknown isn’t such a bad idea.
Five beginner swimming tips that I’ve remembered since diving back in:
1. Keep your head down: When swimming freestyle (or front crawl, whichever you please), keep your head facing the bottom of the pool when your face is in the water. Any upward neck slant can cause you to drag through the water, as well as induce strain on the neck and back.
2. Kicking is everything: Don’t stop kicking when you come up for air or when you’re over-focused on arm movement. Swimming is a matter of full body momentum; each piece of your smooth-running machinery helps create a more effective and effortless motion. Keep your feet flexible like flippers and the rest of your legs powerful when scissoring under the water. Michael Phelps has said that, “If you’re a good kicker, you’re a good swimmer.”
3. Breathe quick and deep: Similar to most sports – especially Yoga or Pilates – breathing is, obviously, critical. We don’t want the lifeguards jumping in – that’s just embarrassing. Try not to focus on filling your lungs with these messy gasps for air while water spills off your face; when you alternate turning your neck from side to side in freestyle (in line with the axis of your body), or pull up from a breaststroke, focus on quick and deep pulls for air that fill about 90 per cent of your lungs. This, again, will help with endurance and momentum.
4. Switch up your strokes: Like any exercise, doing it monotonously in the same fashion – especially without music – can get tired. So, switch from freestyle to breast stroke to backstroke or butterfly, and not only watch the minutes fly by, but feel as the different muscle groups are challenged. Although a tough core workout, the backstroke is a great recovery stroke after sprint laps. The breaststroke, commonly misconceived to be the most leisurely, is a great way to simultaneously build upper and lower body strength – while working each body half in unison to push forward. The butterfly is serious stuff. Ultimately, you’ll know you’re doing any stroke right when your lengths are clean and gliding; if water is flying all over the place, you’re flailing or you feel like you’re chugging along, something is off.
5. Don’t quit your other strength training: Like other forms of cardiovascular exercise, you’ll immensely benefit from other strength or muscle-building routines. A short and rigorous core or upper body workout coupled with your swimming or running cardio can highly boost endurance and provide greater ease when slicing through the waves or running longer distances. When your various muscle groups are strengthened, your stamina and overall performance are as well.
I also really don’t mind the smell of pool chlorine on my skin. Is that weird? Tell us about your injury healing routines below!