Researchers from the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering in the University of Denver’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science have been spending a lot of their time in the Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness lately, helping DU swimmers avoid injury and improve performance.
Recognizing that upper-extremity injuries are the most common problems faced by competitive swimmers, due to the stress and tension put on the upper body by swimming, trainers in the University’s sports medicine department and engineers from its Human Dynamics Laboratory joined forces to look for a solution.
“Last year we were investigating the highest rates of injuries in athletes and in which sports teams,” says Bradley Davidson, assistant professor of mechanical and materials engineering and director of the Human Dynamics Laboratory. “What kept coming up were swimming injuries, particularly in the shoulder and neck regions.”
Davidson was joined in the study by Julie Campbell, DU’s director of sports medicine.
“We settled on swimming because the injury rates were higher than we would have liked to be seeing,” Campbell says. “And it was very exciting for the engineering department to look at the biomechanics of swimmers, because there hasn’t been a high volume of studies released on the subject. The opportunity to do a lot of really great things was there.”
Davidson and Campbell brought their respective departments together to develop a program that not only would study the causes of upper-extremity injuries in swimmers, but also supply exercises to help prevent these injuries. The trainers in sports medicine came up with 10 exercises for DU swimmers to do before their daily practices, and the engineers at the Human Dynamics Laboratory figured out how to measure variables that effect upper-extremity injuries.
Starting in fall 2013, Pioneer swimmers began practice with an out-of-pool “pre-hab” program consisting of five mobility exercises followed by five stability exercises. Most of these warm-up exercises are done with no equipment, but a few of the mobility exercises involve PVC pipe and some of the stability exercises use bands.
“The reason the swimmers do the stretches right before they get in the pool is to activate or ‘turn on’ the correct muscles, and to deactivate or ‘shut off’ certain muscles that, if overactive, can affect the mechanics of the scapula and shoulder, ultimately leading to injury,” says assistant athletic trainer Katie Forsyth. “If a poor pattern of movement is done over and over again, this can lead to shoulder injury. Making sure the right muscles are firing to put the scapula and shoulder in the proper position can be the key to keeping a swimmer healthy over a long swim season.”
On the engineering side of the program, Davidson and his team have designed measurements for posture, a variable that seems to be a determining factor in swimmer injuries. Before and after swim practice, researchers from the Human Dynamics Lab test shoulder position, expiration, grip strength and head position. The test focuses on first-year students, so Davidson can track results over the course of four years.
“We wanted to use some of our engineering tools to make measures on posture, on expiration rate, grip strength and some other things that are affiliated with health,” Davidson says. “In particular, we focused on breathing health and upper-extremity health. We take photos to look at how posture changes from before practice to after practice. We also make some very direct measurements by using a carpenter’s square.”
The program has been in effect since early November, and Denver swimmers are reporting positive results.
“I’ve already seen positive effects of these exercises,” says swimmer Amanda Sanders. “Prior to doing these stretches, I would get in the pool and my muscles would be very tight. It would take me a long time to loosen up my shoulders and get ready to go. But I feel like the stretches make me feel better when I get in the water, so I’m ready to go and I feel faster.”
Fellow Pioneer swimmer Tim Cottam agrees.
“I’ve noticed on days when I don’t do the stretches that I don’t feel as warmed up as on the days when I do complete the stretches,” he says. “I definitely feel like I’m seeing positive results from the stretching. I can really feel the difference.”
The researchers say the swimming study has been a success that eventually may benefit swimmers nationally and even globally.
“From the sports medicine side, our first goal is to look at injury prevention and decreasing our overall injury rates with our swim team,” Campbell says. “But then we look at it more globally — if we can correct those things, we can look at improving overall performance. Ultimately, we’d like to be able to help swimmers across the country, not just at DU.”