Scroll Top

Avoiding Injury as a College Freshman Swimmer

college freshman swimmer

Swimming as a college freshman is a unique experience.  A college freshman swimmer rarely experiences such changes in their career because of their unique inexperience as well as their exceptional experience in and out of the pool. If it sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Collegiate athletes have a lot to learn in their first year, and one of the biggest lessons in avoiding injury as a college freshman swimmer.

Odds of Becoming a College Freshman Swimmer

Eight million athletes play high school sports every year. In most cases, all of those students are hoping that a college will select them for their teams. Nationwide, only 480,000 athletes compete at the college level.

More than 137,000 male athletes and 166,000 female swimmers swim in high school. The rate for continuing on to collegiate swimming is only 7.1% for males and 7.4% for females. If you are a college freshman swimmer, you join a short list of swimmers who make it as far as you have.

Why A College Freshman Swimmer is Unique

As a college freshman swimmer, you are thrust from high school training and competition to the big leagues. In high school, you were probably one of the top swimmers on your team. In college, you move to the bottom in a new team.

College also presents itself with unique personal challenges that can test your performance in and out of the pool. If you are away at home, you will experience pangs of homesickness, dorm food, and fewer hours in your day. The temptation to procrastinate surrounds you at all hours of the day and night, and your public image will reflect on the team and coaches. Expectations are higher, your studies are harder, and the lens focused on you is sharper. During your experience as a college freshman swimmer, you will undergo a fierce wake-up call, but don’t worry. You are not the only one going through it.

Why a College Freshman Swimmer is Prone to Injury

Collegiate swimming is considered relatively safe for athletes, compared to contact and other physical sports. Instead of experiencing blunt-force-trauma injuries, swimmers face more musculoskeletal injuries.

A 2009 study conducted by Brain Wolf, MD at the University of Iowa, revealed that the rate of injury is about 4.00 injuries per 1000 exposures for male swimmers and 3.78 injuries per 1000 exposures for female swimmers.  The study discovered the following about injuries and their causes:

  • Non-freestyle specialized swimmers were at 33% greater risk for injury
  • Nearly 40% of injuries were caused by out-of-pool activities such as dryland training and strength training
  • 37% of injuries resulted in swimmers missing time in the pool

The study showed that a freshman college swimmer was the most at risk, as they experienced more injuries than their older teammates, and after their freshman year, the rate of injury reduces.

A freshman college swimmer experiences a number of stressors that increase the risk for injury and pain. The study points out that the biggest contributor for increased injury for a college swimmer is the transition from high school and club swimming to more intense training regimens required at the collegiate level. Freshman college swimmers endure longer hours, increased yardage, and intense training. As swimmers become accustomed to the increase, the risk for injury goes down.

Additional factors that can contribute to injuries in a college freshman swimmer are also:

  • Increased stress as a swimmers balance more classes, higher expectations, and a healthy academic life.
  • The desire to keep up with or impress college coaches and teammates
  • Fear of speaking up about injury or pain out of fear of retribution or disappointment
  • Lack of sleep
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Failure to begin transitioning training regimens early on in high school

Most Common Injuries in a College Freshman Swimmer

The 2009 study determined that the 5 most common injuries were:

  1. Shoulder and upper arm injuries
  2. Back and neck injuries
  3. Elbow/hand/wrist injuries
  4. Knee and leg injuries
  5. Ankle and foot injuries

Overwhelmingly, shoulder injuries were the most common among all freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior swimmers. Swimming practice in the pool contributed to 60.5% of injuries among female swimmers and 55.6% of injuries among male swimmers. Strength training caused 30% of injuries in male swimmers and 28% in women.

5 Ways a College Freshman Swimmer Can Avoid or Reduce Injury

College freshman swimmers can take steps to avoid injury long before they arrive on campus for orientation, and while they are on the team. With these 5 tops to avoid injury as a college freshman swimmer, the seasons will get better as the body gets stronger.

1. Start transitioning before college

High school and club swimmers must begin transitioning to the collegiate level demands at least a year – if possible – before they show up for the first day of practice in college. Try and get the strength training and swimming routines the team is doing so you can talk to your coach about learning and transitioning this type of training, especially strength training. We work with many college hopeful swimmers and we have all of them get their college programs once they commit. This gives us an idea of what movements to prepare them for. Even though we don’t use Olympic lifts with our swimmers, if they will be doing them in college, we want them to learn the correct movement in a private setting compared to in a group of 20! 

2. Find a skilled and experienced dryland coach

In high school, you probably went to the gym often and dabbled in strength training regimens. Now, however, is the time for focused training if you haven’t done so already. When you go off to college, you lose your dryland coach and gain a team coach instead. If you want to find your own dryland coach, now is the time to start looking so you are ready to go before you unpack at the dorm. Consider these f factors when looking for a new dryland coach:

  • Whom does the team use.
  • Ask about the coach’s experience and with whom they’ve worked.
  • Look into experience coach has had with college swimmer.
  • Consider how you feel about your first experience with the dryland coach. Is this the right fit for you?
  • Make sure they are comfrotable working with the goal of transitioning you to the college dryland program.

3. Start scheduling

You need to learn to manage your time so your grades and your performance do not suffer. Find calendar apps for your phone, or use a good ol fashioned day planner. Scheduling seems minimal in reducing swimming injuries, but it is just as important as performance techniques and methods. If you can’t successfully keep a schedule, you will struggle to balance studying, classes, swim practice, competitions, and rest. When you begin to fall behind, your performance in all areas suffer, and will stress. Give yourself time, your team time, and your studies the time each deserves without making yourself sick.

4. Manage stress

Stress is common among college athletes, not just freshman athletes. Freshman do, however, struggle to manage it because many of the stressors and demands are new. You need to learn to manage stress for your physical and mental health. Severe stress can inhibit your performance, affect concentration, increase your recovery time, and can cause physical illnesses that threaten to pull you out of the pool. A few effective ways to manage stress in college are:

  • Talk to someone, either a friend, parent, coach, teammate, or coach.
  • Utilize campus resources and mental health support services.
  • Utilize rest days to recover and refocus.
  • Avoid substances such as alcohol, drugs, and pharmaceuticals.

5. Avoid overuse

The number one concern for athletes, especially swimmers, is overuse injuries. Overuse shoulder injuries in swimmers are the most common, and if left untreated, the most devastating. Ways to reduce overuse injuries are:

  • Avoid repetitive strokes, and improve overall stroke technique.
  • Reduce training volume.
  • Work with a trained dryland coach to strengthen muscles and improve muscle timing.
  • Avoid strength training and workouts with non-dryland professionals who don’t have experience working with swimmers.
  • Utilize rest periods.
  • Communicate pain and discomfort.

Read more about “Shoulder Pain Mistakes.”

Conclusions: Advice from Dr. John

As you can see, being a college freshman swimmer can be stressful. It is, however, very rewarding and an honor. You are one of a select few who get the opportunity to swim on a collegiate team. I have been there too, so I know what you are going through. The biggest piece of advice I have for you as a freshman college swimmer is to communicate. Communication is absolutely critical for avoid injury. You must learn to communicate pain, ask for help, and talk to others about your experience and troubles.

As the old saying goes, if you “fail to prepare, you prepare to fail.” Make sure you are preparing yourself for college swimming, bot for the pool and in the weight room.

Don’t let this post scare you. Collegiate swimming comes with its rewards, and you too with experience those. Knowing how to improve communication and reduce your risk for injury will improve your performance and experience with this exceptional opportunity.


  1. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM); Wolf, Brian R., et al. “Injury Patterns in Division I Collegiate Swimming.”  Am. J. Sports Med. 2009; 37 , No. 10; 2037-2042.