How to make swim progress with a shoulder injury

Most swim injuries are down to overuse, especially in the shoulder. But that doesn't always mean you need to avoid the water entirely, as Andrew Sheaff explains…

Young man swimming front crawl in a pool

Nothing can stop a great training cycle in its tracks faster than injury. For better or worse, swimming injuries tend to be overuse injuries rather than traumatic injuries, particularly when it comes to the shoulder. As there’s usually some sort of overload to the tissues of the joint, that usually means rest or reduced training is in order.


However, the overload is often fairly localised, and that means there’s usually something you can do in the water, even if it doesn’t involve your arms.

This is important because one of the challenges with swimming is that while cross-training can be effective at maintaining general fitness, you need to be in the water if you hope to maintain or improve your swimming fitness.

Here’s are some guidelines for making that happen.

How to stay pain-free

Above all, your number one priority needs to be recovering from the injury. If the injury is preventing you from engaging in full training, getting healthy should take priority over maintaining your fitness.

If you don’t recover from the injury, you’ll never be able to do the training to optimise your fitness. Consequently, it’s critical to avoid any training activities that cause pain. If it hurts, it’s out! Strictly following this rule will ensure you’re not doing anything to aggravate your injury.

Use swim aids wisely

While the overuse of training gear can prevent you from learning effective swimming skills and improving your performance, an injured shoulder is an exception. If using fins, a snorkel, a buoy, or a kickboard takes the pressure off your shoulder, they’re now your best friend.

In particular, fins can make swimming easier on cranky shoulders. If training equipment allows you to keep moving, feel free to use it. However, be judicious in the amount of work you do, as recovering from the injury is still the priority.

Do what you can

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, staying in the water is critical for maintaining swimming fitness. To maintain that fitness, do whatever you can in the water that allows you to stay pain-free. If it’s a very mild injury, try performing other strokes, which might be all you need to give your shoulder a break. Use whatever stroke feels good and allow you to keep moving.

If using your arms is out of the equation, kicking on a board, with or without fins, can make a big difference. While conditioning the legs is of value, simply moving through the water helps you retain the skill of maintaining your body position while moving forward.

If all else fails, practising your floating skills, see video below, will be well worth your effort, improving the most foundational skill for when you return to training, with no impact on your shoulders. Even if it feels like you’re not doing much of anything, any time in the water is time well spent.


Top image credit: Getty Images