Essential Medical Needs for Masters Swimmers

What medical treatments every Masters Athlete should be undertaking

By John Post, MD

We don’t think about it much, the hidden inner workings of the athlete’s body. It’s just sort of there. It’s always done what you’ve wanted in the past, why wouldn’t it just carry on now? Or forever?

You’re probably right of course, and athletes expect, and usually get, more out of their bodies than the average bear. If you expect it to stay that way, there are medical pit stops that should be a part of your annual training plan. First among them might be a physical exam by your physician.

Some things are really easy for us to check off the list on a single visit to that medical professional, such as a 100% skin check and flu shot. Masters athletes stress their bodies to such a degree that the immune system takes more of a body blow than in some other sports. This is one reason why an annual flu shot is just a given. Other medical needs aren’t as obvious, and you should discuss them with your doctor.

Flu Shot

More than 26 million Americans get the flu each year and over 36,000 of them die. According to the CDC, the only folks who shouldn’t get a flu shot are those allergic to them and possibly those with egg allergies, depending on how that year’s flu vaccine is prepared. Flu shots work. Although seasonal effectiveness varies from year to year, in the past decade only four years found them under 47 percent effective. And there’s more good news: There’s some evidence that moderate exercise on the day of your flu shot can increase its effectiveness. When you think about the three to seven days or more of training, you’ll miss should you contract the flu, it’s a no brainer.

Skin Check

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in this country, but if you catch it early, treatment can be straightforward. The Skin Cancer Foundation says, “Knowledge is your best defense,” as one in five people will develop skin cancer by age 70, due mainly to the sun’s harmful UV rays and tanning machines. Typically, these cancers are discovered on sun-exposed surfaces, especially the face, ears, neck, scalp, shoulders, and back.

If you swim, ride, or run outdoors, hearing from the dermatology pros is a slam dunk. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends reapplication of sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or excess sweating. This isn’t a secret: Large races sometimes offer sunscreen at the aid stations. Use it and get regular screenings.


Let’s shift gears and talk about heart tracings, also known as an electrocardiogram or EKG. A lot of docs, and I’m one of them, support at least one thorough medical examination early on in your racing career with emphasis on your cardiac health. Your kids would call it their sports preparticipation physical. Although some sports medicine practitioners preach that everyone should have an EKG, I would leave that to you and your doc to decide.

The goal here is to lower the number of fatalities in the sport. It’s found that over half of triathlete deaths during the swim involve some variety of cardiac abnormality. There are a good number of swimmers and triathletes, without symptoms of any kind, who would sleep better with an EKG in their chart, even if the results are normal. All you have to do is ask. Most docs won’t say no, and early detection of an abnormality could save your life.  Depending on your family history as well as your personal history, your medical provider may recommend an exercise stress test to determine how your heart responds to the stress of exercise, which is the real question here.

Tetanus Booster

An up-to-date tetanus booster can give you peace of mind should you suffer a bike crash or mountain trail fall resulting in an open wound. Or maybe you get snagged on on an old dock or other sharp object during a water exit from an open water swim. It’s recommended that you receive one every 10 years.

Shingles Vaccine

Shingles are nothing to trifle with. There are two available vaccines approved for those over 50, although the CDC recommends using 60 as the appropriate age when the risk of shingles and its complications is highest.  Shingrix is the most recent variety with an effective rate greater than 95 percent.

Bone Scan

Current recommendations from the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force on bone scans are for women over 65 and men over 70 to have them. Even then the expense doesn’t justify the test if the athlete is of the mindset that “I doubt I’d treat it anyway,” as many might be.


Although medical thinking about regular colonoscopies is trending away, it’s still recommended to have one at age 45, earlier if you have any family history of colon cancer.


In the past, blood in either urine or stool sometimes prompted the attitude of “Well, we’ll watch and see if it happens again.” This doesn’t stand muster today. The early detection of kidney cancer and diseases of the GI tract make them much easier treat, so a more aggressive posture is taken with these symptoms. If you experience blood in your urine or stook, get checked out right away.

Two final thoughts about blood. First, if you donate blood regularly: The Red Cross limits you to 56 days between donations, and that would be the absolute minimum time before a big race that you’d donate. Probably longer. Secondly, very few medical sources recommend regular blood work. As isolated values, sometimes they just confuse things.

In short, talk all this over with your health professional to determine what path is best your swim, bike, or tri performance and, most importantly, your longevity.

John Post, M.D., is a member of Virginia Masters Swim Team.

Article courtesy of U.S. Masters Swimming –