By Caroline Stanistreet
For competitive swimmers, there is a part of the body that seems to be taken for granted and vastly under-appreciated, until something extremely bad happens to it.
Take one guess…and no, it’s not the usually-overworked shoulder.
It is the spine, that all-necessary part of the central nervous system and the pathway to all great things our amazing bodies do.
I never had back issues until I began swimming. Before my college swim meets, I would lie flat on my back with my bent knees against the wall, stretch it out, then ice it after my distance events. But I could never figure out why it would hurt from time to time, and neither could my coach, nor my trainer.
You’d think in that choosing to swim over playing hockey, tennis, lacrosse, baseball, or most other sports, you’ve introduced your body to one of the most benign physical activities ever. You believe that training and competing as a swimmer will keep your joints happy-happy and body injury-free with this non-contact, non-invasive, virtually perfect way to get in shape.
Those “big” injury risks include whacking arms or hands with another swimmer in your lane, hitting your heels at the end while performing a flip turn too close to the wall, or, the occasional shoulder twinge from too much rotation from freestyle. Those injuries pale in comparison to concussions, torn ACLs (the “old football knee”), and limb breaks and sprains.
So when does the back issue come into the picture? Probably not while you’re young, but years later, when you return to the pool and think that flip turns are habitual, still a timesaver, and look cool to others who can’t do them. Never mind that you spent all those years flipping at practice, then flipping even harder and faster during meets. Your veteran ego tells you “Yippee, you’ve still got it, Sister!” Forget the fact that repeated, hard pushing from the wall then the quick twisting motion to the same side wears your spine out as it grows older. Poor technique may come into play as you age as well, especially if you have no coach hovering over you from the pool deck.
I learned this the hard way when I entered the pool 2 years ago, to train 3 to 4 times a week for an annual team sprint triathlon. My practice consisted of a couple thousand yards of freestyle, often with my head lifted to practice sighting the imaginary orange buoys in open water. With hundreds and thousands of yards of freestyle come the flip turns, and many, many of them.
Since my husband and other friends have suffered a host of shoulder injuries and eventual surgeries, I would often mix up my strokes to ease the shoulder rotation purely out of fear. However, the flip turns just a-kept-on-rollin’ along whenever freestyle was the stroke of choice.
Three weeks before the team triathlon, I bent over to tie my sneaker (Please…I won’t say training shoe, I’m a Baby Boomer), and then…suddenly…it happened.
Snap! Crackle! POP!!!
My lower back got its angry revenge on me. I practically collapsed to the floor, the shock and pain took my breath away, then I gingerly dropped to my knees, immobilized, and baffled as to why this would happen to a perfectly healthy and fairly fit fifty-something.
No one was home at the time, so the tears flowed, accompanied by an immediate effort to stand up. Failure. Just take some deep breaths, this is just a temporary nightmare and you’ll be fine, I told myself. I eventually waddled to my “stressless” chair and sat, but the discomfort persisted. The time grew longer and there I was, hunched-over, agonizing, and still in pain.
My husband eventually came home, took one look at me, and said in an effort to cheer me up, “ah, there’s my Old Lady,” which is a standing joke between us, but this was no joke. It hurt. Standing up straight? Nope. Breathing correctly? Nada. The triathlon…oh, no! I had to do something. My husband said to me “you really need to see a doctor if you even want to THINK about swimming in a few weeks.” I agreed, but where to start? Lucky for me, my husband is in a brotherhood of sorts, with friends who’ve run the gamut with injuries, aches, and pains in every body part imaginable. As a result, most of them have had surgery, physical therapy, and a breadth of other treatments and holistic remedies. Their lists of medical contacts is endless (likely on speed-dial for some of them) and he immediately contacted his best Go-To Guy, who gave us the name of his chiropractor.
So there I went and waited with all the other poor folks who are experiencing back problems, but I was surprised when I observed the mixture of ages, young and old, and in-between, like me.
The chiropractor took a spine x-ray and placed it on the light board. It looked like a yellow road sign for “Dangerous Curves Ahead.” He asked, “So… what did you do when you were about 15 or 16 to do THIS to your back?” Uh, no, it couldn’t be from swimming! I described to him the somersault, pushoff and twisting motion to my right side from flip turns and he said, “well, that’ll do it…and I can fix it!” That reply was my first sign of relief. That serpentine spine of mine was finally going to get straightened out!
Three weeks and several visits later, I was cured, for the most part, and swam a highly successful half-mile in the triathlon. However, flip turns are no longer part of my training regimen. I just can’t. There’s really no reason to since I haven’t had the opportunity to compete in Masters meets recently, but that day will come. I came to the realization that open turns aren’t really a sign of not being cool. It makes me a little sad, but it’s my new normal and I need to prevent any future injury to my back. The chiropractor gave me a list of stretches before and after ANY workout or activity – especially if I’m driving for a long period of time. He said that truck drivers are his most common patient, and sitting in a car is THE worst thing you can do to your precious back.
Lesson learned, make the commitment to take care of your back. No matter your age or swimming ability, STRETCH before and after your swim. Of course, that’s the obvious and first rule of any workout – although some of us tend to forget. Consider eliminating flip turns – unless you are young and competing, or if you’re older and think you absolutely “must” in a Masters swim meet. Moreover, if you want to look cool while practicing at your local pool, wear an extra suit, load yourself up with fins, paddles, a kickboard, an extra pair of goggles and a water bottle in a mesh bag – and skip the flips.