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Swimming As Exercise: Advice from a Physical Therapist

SWIMMING AS EXERCISE: ADVICE FROM A PHYSICAL THERAPIST

Swimming is a powerful form of exercise. It can help reduce stress levels, improve your mood, give you better sleep, increase your overall strength and increase your endurance and cardiovascular capacity. Besides being a great workout, swimming is low-impact which means it’s easier on the joints than many contact sports or running frequently on a hard surface. It can burn a great deal of calories and work muscles all over your entire body. If your main focus is another sport, swimming can be a great cross-training form of exercise, and it’s something you can do almost your entire life.
These are some of the most frequent swimming-related questions I get from my patients, and the advice I give them.
I am in the process of training for a half-marathon. Would swimming be a good compliment to all that running?
The answer is yes. Not only is swimming an excellent compliment to a running program, it provides intense cardiovascular/aerobic training that reduces injuries to the runner by working other muscle groups that are otherwise not utilized. For example, runners in general have weak “hip compartments” and swimming helps improve flexibility in a runner’s hip flexors that are often overused. Additionally, runners don’t use their upper bodies with the exception of forward and backward arm movements intended for balance. Swimming uses the upper body and shoulder compartment that helps to improve overall core muscle strength and balance in the runner. 
What makes swimming a good workout option?
Swimming is low-impact which means less stress on weight bearing joints such as the hips, knees, and ankles. Swimming is an overall body workout that utilizes the upper body, core, and lower body. If you are training for a half-marathon, 10K, or marathon distance and over 40, swimming is a great substitute on “non-running” days that will maintain sufficient cardiovascular fitness without the “wear and tear” on the weight bearing joints.
What areas of the body does swimming target?
• Shoulder compartment, Chest ( pectoralis muscles), Upper Back ( Latissimus Dorsi), and abdominal muscles as well as core.
• Lower Body focuses more on muscles used for kicking like calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) as well as hip flexors and hamstrings.
• The core- this includes pelvic floor muscles, abdominal muscles, and lower lumbar spinal muscles. 
Do you have any tips for swimming newbies on how to get started?
The best way to get involved in swimming is to join a USMS Masters Swim Team. Masters swimming is the largest adult fitness organization in the world and there are thousands of teams located in just about any city in the U.S. There is always a coach on deck and many other swimmers with you. The coaches are there to give the swimmer a great workout and to help the “newbie” improve their swimming “biomechanics”. Furthermore, swimming with other people is motivating and fun. Many runners and triathletes join masters swim teams to improve their swimming skills and to prevent and sometimes even treat athletic injuries. Swimming provides that overall “fitness” that is often lacking in runners due to “muscular imbalances”. Swimming helps prevent runners as they age from becoming injured. This latter reason for swimming as one gets older especially into the 50’s is an enormous advantage for anyone training for a half-marathon.
Jeff Cayo, MS, ACT, PT is a physical therapist with OrthoCarolina Pineville.

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How to Avoid Lower Back Pain While Cycling

How to Avoid Lower Back Pain While Cycling

Cycling is a low impact sport, but the repetitive movements and sustained posturing can still be hard on your back and spine. There are several factors that can affect your spine while you ride:

    Your bike fitting: Improper bike fitting can lead to a number of issues. For example, if your seat is too high it can cause you to shift from side as you reach for the bottom of the peddle stroke. This increases your spinal rotation and potentially strains the lower back. Another example is low handlebars. Riding low puts you in a more aerodynamic position, reducing wind resistance and making you more energy efficient. However, this can also put increased strain on the neck as you look ahead, while causing the rest of your back to flex more. If your back begins to bother you, try bringing the height of the handlebars up a bit. If you aren’t sure if your bike fits you well or you find yourself struggling as you ride, you can schedule a bike fitting consultation with a qualified professional.

    Your hip muscles and joints: Your posture on the bike puts your hip flexor muscles in a shortened position. If you work a desk job, your hip flexor muscles are already in this position for many hours of the day. The main hip flexor muscles have attachments to the vertebrae of the low back, so this tightness in your hips muscles can cause pulling on the spine. To counteract this, stretch your quads and hip flexors after every ride. It’s also important to maintain the mobility of your hip joints. Your body requires an adequate amount of bend in the hip, especially the more forward flexed you are on the bike.  Decreased motion at the hip joint causes increased motion of the low back and may result in repetitive strain on the spine.

    Your core strength: The strength and endurance of your core muscles will help stabilize your spine on the bike, preventing excessive repetitive movement. Core strengthening should be part of your routine for safe and efficient cycling. This can include a range of exercises and habits, from planks and Pilates to simply being mindful about your posture. Good form is critical to getting the most out of your conditioning and avoiding injury, so always consult a qualified practitioner before trying any new form of exercise.

    Your approach: Riding in gears that maintain high tension and require less pedal revolutions may seem like a good way to generate speed. But the increased tension means that your body has to work harder, leading to fatigue including the muscles needed for stability of the spine. Furthermore, if your resistance is too high then your cadence will be too low because you have to push harder, and it is less energy efficient.  A cadence of 80-95 rpm is ideal. If you’re a serious cyclist and you’re looking to improve your time, schedule a session with a certified coach who can help you develop an effective strategy that doesn’t increase your risk of injury.