Return to Sport – Back in the Pool

As restrictions begin ease, we can look forward to getting back in the pool and returning to swim training sometime soon. When swimmers have been out of the water for so long how can we help prevent injuries? There is a little research to guide us; however, as this is such a unique scenario, with the break well over two months, a gradual return is essential. Hopefully, swimmers have been working on maintaining fitness and strength over the last two months but what do we need to think about before entering the water again?  

There are psychological and physical benefits in having a training break, even if it is extended, for the developing and older swimmer. A mental break and time to recover from niggles can be positives at this time.  Swimmers will be keen to return so here we go with some helpful advice to get you back in the pool. 


Every swimmer will be unique in how they cope with returning to training. Many factors including age, training history, growth, fitness level (activity levels over the break), previous injury, stress, illness, sleep and even genetics will have an impact on the body’s capacity to adapt to a change in load. Swimmers who have kept a moderate to vigorous activity level over the break with running, cycling and dryland gym work will return to previous levels of training more quickly.

Research on the impact of 4 weeks out of the pool for 14-15-year old swimmers, confirmed a 4% drop in performance, and 50% reduced efficiency of oxygen transport so the ability to sustain speed after the break was affected. Swimmers who continued moderate to vigorous activity (run, cycle, dryland/gym work) minimised losses in aerobic efficiency, with better performance on returning to swimming. (Zacca, 2019)


  • Phase 1: Focus on stroke technique in a gradual return; alternate days/shorter sessions, depending on the swimmer. Ensure technique does not deteriorate as a result of fatigue. This phase is a great opportunity to work on technique as some motor patterns may change with so much time out of the water due to growth and other activities. Coaches will be able to monitor this.
  • Phase 2: Increase volume gradually to build endurance. Again, this will be on an individual basis depending on the many factors mentioned earlier.
  • Phase 3: Introduce interval work once base fitness improves, continuing to build strength and endurance. A longer recovery is recommended after higher intensity sessions. Closely monitor response to loading in this phase (see  coloured chart below).

Note: Be dedicated to pre-activation and mobility sessions pre-training. If you have been sitting and cycling a lot over the break, then it would be helpful to work on lengthening stretches, reaching the arm up and stretching the hip flexors and abdominals. With swimming requiring full shoulder extension and lengthening of the body, it is important to be able to reach these ranges comfortably in the pool.


The shoulder rotator cuff tendons do not like sudden changes in load. The capacity of the shoulder tendons to tolerate loads will be reduced as it is hard to replicate the same tendon loads in swimming on land. Progress and modify training depending on the 24-48-hour response after training. This is a balance of risk and reward as well! Too easy and progress will be slow, too hard and you risk injury.

Training load needs to match the capacity of our tendons, if swimming loads are higher than tendons can tolerate then injury can occur. A balancing act and a challenge for swimmers and coaches!

Some pain on return to training will be normal but if lasting after training, limit increases in volume to 10-20%. Sleep, stress and previous injury will also affect tendon capacity.  

Use the guide below to help monitor training response and seek advice from your coach or health professional if you experience:  

  • Pain during training (>6/10 for more than two sessions) 
  • Pain after training lasting more than 24 hours, swelling, pain at night  
  • Pain recurring or not improving with each swim session. 


You can download tips to help optimise your return to swim training here > Return to Swim After COVID-19 Break

Keep up activities to help strength and aerobic fitness out of the pool. See your physiotherapist if you would like testing of range of movement or strength and specific shoulder exercises to help improve your shoulder tendon tolerance and endurance while waiting to return to the pool.  

You can book appointments online by heading to our website or by phoning your local practice.

LAUNCESTON – 6334 0622
SHEARWATER – 6428 7500
ULVERSTONE – 6425 5997