How to Start Swimming Again After an Injury or Hiatus

By Scott Bay

Whatever the reason for your absence, getting back in the pool is a process

As you age, your body doesn’t bounce back quite as quickly from an injury or a break in training as it did when you were younger.

So how do you approach getting back in the pool? Very carefully is the short answer. Here are a few guidelines to help you on your way back.

Ask Questions, Be a Good Patient, and Be Patient

If you’ve suffered an injury, the first step is listening to your physician and making sure your physician listens to you. Resuming Masters workouts is a process—here are a few absolute musts for making your comeback.

  • Communication. Physicians are the experts on helping your body heal, but if they’re unaware of your athletic goals and fitness routine, you might not get all of the information you need. Make sure you clearly explain your fitness lifestyle and activity level. There’s a difference between asking if you can swim and explaining your workout habits. If you ask if you can swim, a physician may have a vision of you leisurely paddling around the pool rather than getting in a heart-pounding workout.
  • Follow directions. If a physician tells you how many times or how long you can swim, follow those instructions. You may feel like you can do more or go harder but resist this urge. Doing too much too soon can lead to setbacks or exacerbate an injury, leading to even more time off.
  • Rehab. Coming back from an injury often involves physical therapy. There are many stories of people who only do physical therapy until they don’t have pain anymore and end up getting injured again. It’s important to make sure you follow all of the rehab activities, even if you feel OK. Keep a journal of what you did and what you missed, so when you have follow-ups, you have that information to share with your physician.

Getting Back In

Once you’re cleared to begin training again, you must go through another process. There’s a huge difference between being out for a few weeks and being out for a few months. Regardless of how long you’re out of the water, here are some simple guidelines that’ll help you get back to where you want to be.

  • Start slow. In a certain sense, you don’t have a choice in this. The human body is amazing. It responds to both stimulus (training) by adapting and getting better, and it responds to a lack of stimulus (time off) by letting those muscles atrophy. Be prepared to start off doing a fraction of what you’re used to. Physically and mentally, make sure you’re prepared to take time.
  • Incremental progress. Take your time when it comes to increasing volume and intensity. A good rule is to only increase one of those variables at a time. How much can you increase? There are sports medicine and training guidelines that suggest no more than 10% per week, but that depends on the nature of your injury. Always consult your physician and physical therapist on this topic.
  • Manage your expectations. Depending on the nature of your injury and how long you were out of the pool, your progress may be slower than you’d like. And worse is that you may never get back to where you were preinjury. Both of these can be terribly frustrating. The good news is that you have plenty of time and can also start your post-injury-personal-best list.

Silver Linings

A Masters swimmer in Florida recently provided a great lesson in turning a serious injury into a positive. The swimmer, an accomplished triathlete, stepped off a curb awkwardly and tore his Achilles’ tendon. After surgery, he couldn’t run, cycle, or swim for an extended time. The first activity he was cleared for was swimming.

He made the most of this opportunity by working on his technique while rebuilding his fitness, and he ended up going from the back of the pack in the swim to being at the front and even posting the best time on some of the swim legs. Although his injury frustrated him, it ended up making him a better triathlete overall, even though his run times have gotten worse.

When you suffer a setback such as an injury or other extended absence from swimming, it will help if you can think of it as an opportunity to work on skills you haven’t mastered yet or to redesign your whole stroke Depending on the length of your hiatus, you might be starting from scratch, and that’s a great time to make changes.

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