As a sports physical therapist at Girl Fit, we see athletes of many different sports. But, do you know in what sports we each competed?! For the first in our series of “Stories From Our Sports”, Madeleine tells us her stories of being a synchronized swimmer, safely stretching to do splits upside down, and how it made her a better PT!
You might know synchronized swimming as the sport where girls with flower caps dive sideways into a pool, but the sport that I competed in was much more intense. Routines are between 2 and 4 minutes of pure sprinting, while spending half of the time upside down. As well as holding your breath while your legs make beautiful positions, perfectly in time with your teammates and the music. The other half of the time is spent treading water as hard as you can with your chest and arms out of the water, while trying to not let anyone know how hard you are working under the surface. Often, we connected to each other to make patterns in the water. Sometimes, we even threw girls into the air to do flips before hitting the water again. And we did all of this without ever touching the bottom of the pool.
Now that I am a sports physical therapist, I think synchronized swimming has set me up to be able to uniquely understand the challenges of other sports, like dance, skating, and gymnastics. Similar to those sports, synchronized swimming requires a unique balance of strength and flexibility, which many sports do not. While I was competing around New England, there would be a section of the competition where we would be tested on our splits, and would receive points if they were “flat”.
Safe stretching techniques and warming up before the “split test”, as it was referred to, was imperative. Similarly, making sure we maintained our hip and leg strength, while also stretching our muscles, was an important part of our training. Since we had to do splits upside down in the water during our routines and skills, we were required to have an “over split” on land. This meant we would put our front foot up on a block while holding our splits. If this was not done safely, this could be an opportunity for injury, because stretching muscles to their end ranges like that can put them in danger of over-stretching or damaging other structures, like ligaments and the joint capsule. Athletes of any sport should avoid holding a split or over split for extended periods of time. Stretches should be held for approximately 30 second intervals, allowing the structures to rest and recover between stretches. We typically recommend 3 sets of 30 second stretches, alternating sides. Stretching is most safely performed after a good warm up and preferably at the end of a workout. Stretches should never be painful and are safest when performed gently. We never recommend having another person press down on you during a split or when stretching, as this can often result in injury. We know safe stretching can feel confusing or counterintuitive as an athlete or performing artist, but that’s why we’re here to help as sports physical therapists!
Another thing synchronized swimming has in common with dance and figure skating is that sometimes we have to match our teammates during our routines. This means we had to practice matching the exact position of our hands, movement of our legs, direction we are looking, and our facial expressions to the same beat of the music. Once, my teammate broke her arm playing with her brother, and was cleared to swim, but could not straighten her arm all the way. To match her, we changed all of our arm moves to have a slightly bent elbow for that competition. Thankfully, she was able to heal up after that, and we went back to straightening our elbows.
I loved my time with synchronized swimming, as a swimmer, coach, and now as a spectator, with the US Syncrhonized Swimming Team competing the the Tokyo olympics this summer! I am glad I had those experiences, as it makes me a stronger sports physical therapist for my patients at Girl Fit.
Madeleine Hines, PT, DPT
If you’d like to schedule an appointment with Madeleine or one of our other sports physical therapists, email office@girlfitPT.com or call 617-618-9290 to schedule an appointment.
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