Aquatic Physical Therapy for Athletes

Aquatic therapy is defined by the Academy of Aquatic Physical Therapy as “the scientific practice of physical therapy in an aquatic environment by physical therapists and physical therapists assistants.” Basically, it means practicing physical therapy in water, usually in an aquatic therapy room with dedicated space for hydrotherapy equipment, such as whirlpools, water current therapy pools, full-sized swimming pools, plunge pools, aqua bikes, and underwater treadmills, among others.

This practice uses the unique properties of water to help not only different types of patients with a variety of medical conditions but also athletes who use it as part of either their training or therapy program.

Aquatic physical therapy programs are being used for cross training by an increasing number of athletes because it can be as effective as traditional land-based training. It provides many benefits to athletes including improving or maintaining function, aerobic capacity and endurance, balance, coordination and agility, body mechanics, postural stabilization, flexibility, gait and locomotion, relaxation, muscle strength, and power.

Aquatic physical therapy programs provide many benefits for athletes including the following:

  • Effortless Rehabilitation

Injured athletes who are not prescribed absolute rest still need to practice some form of exercise to prevent significant loss of conditioning when they are finally able to go back into the sport. However, many of them are often incapable of safely performing exercises on land. Rehabilitation via aquatic physical therapy is said to be effortless because the water provides injured athletes a safer environment to perform their exercises.

Water supports a person by reducing his or her weight by nearly 90 percent. This buoyancy reduces the effects of gravity on the injured or aching joints and muscles, helps alleviate pressure and pain during movement, promotes circulation, and strengthens muscles and tendons. Injured athletes who have balance deficits can also perform their exercises without fear of falling because the hydrostatic pressure of the water supports and stabilizes them.

  • Non-specific Training to Support Your Goals

An athlete playing a sport must undergo sport-specific training to hone and improve on the technical aspects of the sport and enhance their performance. However, sport-specific training is often not enough because it does not provide athletes with certain attributes or skills needed to be successful in their sport. These attributes may include size, strength, speed, and power, among others. In this case, non-specific training is necessary. Non-specific training develops other muscles needed for overall physical development.

There are many different aquatic therapy methods that can be used for non-specific training. One such example is Ai Chi which improves an athlete’s flexibility, core strength, trunk stabilization, and balance. The non-impact movements, patterns, and poses of aquatic Yoga and Pilates likewise improve an athlete’s posture, strength, breathing, core stability, and balance.

  • Flexible Schedule

Each patient is unique and so is his or her recovery. This being the case, a personalized water rehabilitation program is usually designed to cater to the specific type of injury that the patient had and in accordance to his or her physician’s prescribed treatment. Depending on these factors, duration of treatment can last anywhere from a few days or weeks. What’s great is that a lot of aquatic therapy centers usually offer convenient and flexible hours which will allow athletes to arrange their physical therapy sessions around their schedule, even during ’off-peak’ training seasons.

  • Physical and Mind Power Training

Aquatic physical therapy provides many physical and mental benefits to injured athletes, even those who have undergone surgery. For instance, the decreased joint compression allows them relief from joint pain, enabling joint motion early in the rehabilitation process. Functional training in variable depths of water allows patients to progress to more functional weight-bearing exercises. Cardiovascular and core exercises done early in the rehabilitation process also facilitates early cardiovascular endurance.

Aside from the physical benefits, aquatic therapy provides mental benefits as well by allowing the injured athlete to relax. The controlled water temperature helps increase the blood supply to the sore or tight muscles, increasing the athlete’s comfort level. Buoyancy also contributes to relaxation because it supports the athlete’s weight, reducing stress on the joints and relieving him or her from joint pains. Certain aquatic therapy methods, such as Ai Chi, also give athletes a calm meditative state of mind with deep breathing patterns and gentle movement.

Recovery Means Advantage

Aquatic physical therapy helps facilitate fast and quality recovery from training and injuries by way of:

Metabolic Recovery

When it comes to the term “recovery” in sports, people often think of it as repairing muscle. However, there is another more important aspect of recovery that many people overlook and that is metabolic recovery.

Metabolic recovery refers to the process of replenishing the body’s energy stores. These energy stores are called glucose, a form of glycogen stored in muscles and in the liver. When an athlete exercises, those stores are depleted. It is necessary for them to replenish these glycogen stores before their next workout or else they will experience fatigue a lot sooner or even compromise their performance. After training, an athlete’s metabolic rate can be elevated for hours. Metabolic recovery then refers to what happens to the body as it returns to its normal resting state.

Stretching or jogging are some of the methods often done to facilitate metabolic recovery. However, aquatic physical therapy is one of the best options available. Performing upright activities in the water helps athletes recover fast. Flexibility exercises, for instance, help athletes recover from aerobic activity and at the same time improve their performance while reducing their risk of injury. Relaxing and rebuilding muscles can also be achieved more quickly and with less muscle soreness using whirlpools and massages.

Injury Recovery

Every injured athlete is concerned about his or her rehabilitation time. This varies depending on a lot of factors including the type of injury, his or her age, the degree of the injury, the health of the athlete, and his or her rehabilitation plan, among others. However, injury recovery can be hastened with the use of aquatic physical therapy. In sports, a fast yet safe recovery from injury is important because it can affect team morale, reputation, and even finances.

Water is known to have unique natural properties that enable faster healing. Due to the buoyancy, patients feel up to 80% lighter on water than on land, enabling them to practice a range of motions and exercises with less pain and without the fear of falling or re-injury. Knowing this makes patients more compliant.

Aside from this, the hydrostatic pressure also increases blood circulation and decreases inflammation by forcing the heart and lungs to work harder while at the same time helping relieve muscle pains. Water resistance likewise helps tone atrophied muscles faster while reducing associated pain. Lastly, as water flows in currents around the body, it provides gentle massage which results in relaxation. All these aids in faster recovery from injury.

Non-specific Training

Sport-specific training is important for athletes because it trains them to improve on the technical aspects involved in the sport thus resulting in better performance. However, what some don’t realize is that this type of training can be limiting in terms of the muscles that they are able to develop.

Athletes develop well the muscles that are specifically used for their sport. However, there are other muscles needed for overall physical development and in support of the main set of muscles that they use. Not developing the supporting muscles not only limits movement but also inhibits the athlete to be in the peak of health. Sport-specific training does not offer a complete practice of movement and thus are unable to target these supporting muscles. This is why non-specific training is essential.

Aquatic physical therapy can provide what sport-specific training cannot. In fact, the number of athletes using aquatic therapy for cross training is increasing. For instance, water exercises such as forward and backward running, high-knee running, ball push-downs and swimming through the water with a kickboard allows athletes to use different muscle groups, enabling them to mitigate muscle fatigue.

One new aquatic therapy method that can be used for non-specific training is the Swimitation, which is a bath intended both for relaxing and exercising. A Swimitation bath involves the use of a patented ergonomic saddle-like seat with an adjustable backrest. It keeps the body still while giving the person the ability to move his or her limbs freely while exercising.

As a form of water therapy for athletes, the Swimitation bath has a better advantage compared to other hydrotherapy baths. For instance, in other baths, the body becomes misaligned during exercise, which makes it uncomfortable. With Swimitation, muscle tensions are avoided because of the full body support provided by the seat, while still providing a better range of motion for the limbs. Sessions can even be done without the presence of a physiotherapist because patients are securely supported.

Training with a Swimitation bath is an enjoyable experience that does not require any emotional effort. It can even be made more enjoyable by combining it with other wellness treatments such as aromatherapy and whirlpool sessions. Swimitation baths are also conducted in private training sessions that promote moderate physical activity and at the same time provide relaxation as well.

Swimitation baths can benefit athletes in many ways including alleviating back, hip and shoulder problems, improving balance, relieving chronic fatigue, stress and burnout, enhancing capillary blood flow, promoting kidney health, strengthening the nervous system, and promoting cardiovascular and lung health, among others.

Core Muscles

Core muscles are often mistakenly thought of as just the abdominal muscles. However, the muscles in the core region refer to those in the trunk and torso that stabilizes the spine, pelvis, and shoulder girdle. In sports, this group of muscles is critical for transferring energy from large to small body parts. This is why core strength training is important.

Core strength training helps develop core strength and stability which is the key to an athlete’s performance. The better the athlete is in transferring energy from his or her core to his or her arms and legs, the more powerful and efficient the movements will be. Aside from this, since the core muscles serve as shock absorbers as well, core strength training also helps reduce the risk of injury.

Aquatic therapy is ideal for core strength training because of the water’s natural resistance which provides strengthening that cannot be created through land training. The buoyancy also minimizes the risk of injury. Common core strengthening exercises in the pool may include core pulls, core crunches, box pattern, Swiss Ball sit, safety bar lower abdominal crunches, and wood chops.

Swimitation baths are also great for core strengthening because of its unique environment. For one, thermoregulation, which is the body’s natural cooling system, is not going to be an issue because of the indifferent water temperature of 91 – 95F. Thermoregulation affects athletic performance because the more energy the athlete puts into keeping his or her body temperature at a safe level, the less he has left for muscle movement.

Swimitation also provides efficient and effortless training of slow twitch muscles. Slow twitch muscles are those found in the posture and stabilization muscles in one’s core, which provides the foundation for smooth, controlled and coordinated movement. They help enable long-endurance feats such as running because they don’t experience fatigue easily. Fast twitch muscles, on the other hand, have the lowest endurance but are also the most powerful and are necessary for fast bursts of movement.

Athletes have a special need for healthy and strong slow twitch muscles because they help stabilize the joints and can prevent injury to the fast-twitch muscles. The patented seat of the Swimitation bath positions the body in such a way that the entire trunk is fully supported while allowing the arms and legs to have a full range of motion. This helps in minimizing muscle tension and joint pains and allows for countless muscles to have a workout.

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