FAIRFIELD COUNTY, Conn. - Michael Phelps makes it look so easy. But for all the speed and grace of an Olympic swimmer, there are a lot of muscles working overtime in creating one.
More than one million competitive and recreational swimmers have made swimming one of the most popular fitness activities in the United States, according to sportsinjuries.org.
Swimming’s popularity is easy to understand: it is a low-impact exercise and is less likely to cause injury than many other activities, which makes it ideal for seniors, pregnant women and those recovering from injury.
Then there are those more competitively motivated athletes who might be looking toward Brazil 2016: More than one-third of swimmers practice and compete year-round, and some elite swimmers might train in the water for more than five miles a day, an activity that can put joints through extreme repetitive motion.
Orthopedist Michael R. Marks of Norwalk Hospital says that the sport can create its own set of injuries.
“Swimming is a great overall activity for general fitness and conditioning because it uses the entire body,” he says. But the other side of that coin is that the entire body can be subject to injury, he says.
“I see neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, lower back, hip, knee and ankle problems related to swimming.” Many of the injuries, he says, can be related to the overuse of a particular stroke. “There is great benefit to alternating your strokes because the body uses different muscles in different ways with each movement.” For example, he says, the muscles and joints used while performing the butterfly stroke are different from those used while swimming the breaststroke, freestyle and backstroke.
Injury, says Marks, is not limited to competitive athletes. Marks says swimmers of all levels can become injured in the water, from the recreational swimmer without formal training who might strain muscles, to the competitive swimmer who is over-training.
Marks says injury can be avoided by following a familiar dictum: "Slow and steady wins the race." As with any exercise program, he says, it is wise to ease into a new routine, and to avoid overdoing by exercising too much too soon.
So, before you plunge into visions of yourself in the next Olympic games, take steps to avoid injury. Michael Phelps will be relieved.