Physiotherapy for Olympic sailors

In the second of this two part series, Katherine Knight, Physiotherapist for the Swedish Olympic Sailing Team tells Physiospot what it is like to work with Olympic athletes and what the physiotherapists role is in a sailing team.

Why do sailors need a physio?

Many people have an image of sailing that involves a large yacht, warm sunshine and a cold cocktail. Certainly if you visit Monacco and you will see plenty of that type of sailing being enjoyed by the rich and famous. Sailing as an Olympic sport is a bit different. The boats are much smaller, the ride is much wetter and the physical demands much higher. With constantly adjusting the sails, pulling the sails up and down and using their body weight to keep the boat moving as fast as possible, athletes can easily find their heart rates topping 170. The racing is close and intense, with races lasting around 30 mins to 1 hour and often three races in a day, sailors need to be endurance as well as high intensity performers. A day on the water can easily turn into what is effectively a six hour interval session.

What injuries do you see most frequently?

Humans didn’t evolve with sailing boats in mind and the athletes are performing repetitive movements in awkward positions for extended periods of time. The result of which is that overuse injuries in the upper limb, shoulder problems and back pain can occur without the appropriate training. The boats move fast on an unstable sea surface so there are also the inevitable acute soft tissue injuries, usually from impacts with part of the boat.

Working for an Olympic team, that must mean you have a pretty high-tec clinic?

Whilst team’s home training bases are often very well equipped, as with all sports once you are working at a competition venue you are very much improvising with what you have got. I have often found myself working on a yoga mat on the floor of a shipping container but usually it is your hotel room which doubles as your treatment room. This usually means moving beds and furniture around to make space for your treatment couch as well as needing to keep your room pretty tidy.

Describe your typical day for us I don’t think anyone working at sports competitions would say that there is a typical day.

This is particularly the case for sailing. Since the sport is so dependent on the wind, races can easily be delayed for many hours while organisers wait for the conditions to be right. That doesn’t make running and appointment system very easy and you find yourself needing to be flexible. That said a day during competition could look something like this:

  • 0730  Morning treatment sessions / taping
  • 0930  Liaise with team manager / team doctor if on site
  • 1030  Stretching / warm-up session with the sailors before they hit the water
  • 1100  Write management plans for each athlete
  • 1300  Go out on the water to watch the sailors in action and look at movement analysis for    any problem areas.
  • 1600  Evening treatment sessions start
  • Sleep and get ready to do it all again.