Life is challenging at the moment. All you want to do is be in the pool. And unless you’re close to an open water venue – and brave enough to hit single digit temperature water – it’s going to be a while yet before we can get back to it.
In the meantime, there are various things that we can be doing that can assist us. We may not be sharp when the pools reopen, but we can be fit, strong and ready.
If you are a triathlete, then you have some advantages. You’re most likely already doing more cycling and/or running to make up for the lack of swimming. If you’re not a triathlete, then now is the time to start cross training (if you haven’t been already!). That doesn’t mean throwing yourself in at the deep end (pun intended), but getting out and being active at least some of the time.
By doing some cycling, running or other aerobic exercise, you’re working on your cardiovascular system – which is important for being strong and fit in the water. You may not have the same breath control, but at least you are working. What you may well find is that in doing disciplines that you are not so familiar with, not so efficient at, your body will improve more/quicker that by swimming alone. This increase in cardiac output means that when you hit the water, it won’t be quite as much of a shock to the system!
Secondly, get doing some strength work. I’d always advocate doing strength training as part of your normal swimming routine anyway, but not everyone gets around to it – or necessarily sees the benefits of those sort of workouts. Now that we all have a bit more time and space in our social calendar, time to get to work! Being stronger means that you can control your body better, and you can exert more force on the water. More force means more speed. More speed equals pbs and even more smiles!
In an ideal world, we’d all have our own equipment – barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, TRX etc… These are lovely, but most people don’t have much or any of their own equipment. I have a pull up bar that I bought and a couple of very light dumbbells. The good thing is that we can do so much work without any specialist kit. Whether you do bodyweight exercises, like sit ups, press ups, squats etc, or you incorporate some light weights from water bottles or heavy books to do shoulder presses and lateral lifts, or even use your kitchen table to do inverted rows, there are so many options for doing stuff at home, when you get back to the water you might feel stronger than when you left!
Both with cross training (or doing extra bike/run training) and adding in strength work, START SLOWLY AND GENTLY.There’s nothing worse than going into a training session like a bull in a china shop and the following day feeling broken and not able to do anything for a week. Consistency is the key for all training – whether that is training that you are used to doing, or new stuff being added in. When you are consistent, your body will adapt steadily. This means that you will feel energised and ready to go, rather than broken down and suffering all the time.
The final thing that you can do right now to help for when you start back in the water is to do some stretch cord swimming. This is a little bit of a misnomer – in that it’s very difficult to fully recreate swimming on dry land. That said, you can go through the motions of technique with elastic/rubber stretch cords. This can be truly beneficial to your neural patterns and pathways, not only acting as a reminder as to what swimming felt like, but it gives you a chance to drill in better form than you had before. With short sets and the ability to see more of what you are doing than when you are in the water, now is the perfect time to perfect that catch and control of the water, and accelerating your hand past your thigh to exit.
Tie a stretch cord to a door handle, step back until your arms are out in front and taking up the slack from the band, and bend over forwards so that you are chest down to the floor. You’re now in position to think about “pulling”. While the bands won’t necessarily mimic the exact feel of water pressure on your hands, they give a pretty good read on which direction you are pushing in – and trying to make sure that you are directing it backward.
I’ve recently been using a device from a company called Zen8 – and rather than standing, and hinging forward at the waist, they have a narrow inflatable bench (sort of like a rectangular swiss ball) to lie on. It’s a great idea, but equally you could do something similar yourself with a bench or a stool to support you.
Once we get to a situation where we’re allowed to swim again, hopefully our bodys and minds will be super charged and prepped to kick on and keep improving. Now is not the time though to go crazy in those first few weeks back in the water.
Here are some of my thoughts about how to get back to the water after a long time away:
1. Take one day at a time.
What happens when we restart something after a long period of being away, our brains tell us that we’re just going to swim a couple of hundred metres, blow the cobwebs away, and then it will be as if nothing has happened – we’re back! Unfortunately, this very rarely happens. Depending on where we were at before, and then what we have done while out of the water, the return can be slower than we’d like. This is why various training is important now – so that when we get back to the water, we can hit the ground running.
Knowing that this is likely to be the case, we need to remove the ego from the equation. Stop comparing to where you were this time last year (however painful that may be) and how far from that place you are at the moment, and concentrate on the day-to-day, session-to-session operation of being a swimmer again – and everything that comes with it.
2. Aim for consistency first before building effort.
During the initial weeks or maybe month, concentrate on doing as much of your sessions with good form before you start thinking of increasing the effort.
While it might feel good to come out of every session exhausted and empty, this will burn you out physically and mentally – especially when you’re returning to sport. This can be exceedingly challenging for athletes to do; we all love to work hard, we all want to push ourselves all of the time. Drop the intensity for now, your body and mind will thank you soon enough!
3. Build a strong foundation from the outset.
An amazing benefit that comes from the long break (there are always benefits, if you know where to look) is that your slate is wiped clean. This is an opportunity for a fresh start, a do over to allow you time to build better form from day one. By including drills and skills, while you are swimming at lower effort, you can ensure smoother and easier swimming. With this you can improve your flexibility and mobility. Swimming mindfully, you’ll get far more than if you just plough up and down the pool.
4. Be patient
The initial weeks (and months in this case if you haven’t really swum since March 2020) can be mentally trying as much as physically – if not more so. Your brain will play tricks on you and tell you there’s no chance you’ll swim as fast as you used to; that the effort of training is so much higher and tougher this time around; that you don’t have the mental toughness or the confidence that you had before. You have to remember that it will all return; your feel and control of the water, your physical endurance and more, unfortunately just not as quickly as we wish it might!
5. Chart and celebrate your progression
By noting down and measuring your workouts and what you do, it doesn’t just show what you have been up to. It highlights the points mentioned earlier and puts it all in black and white in front of you. It allows you to alter your sessions, to increase volume – both week to week and in particular sessions.
By keeping a record of what you have done, it also allows you to chart the progression of your habits, keeping your regular ‘small wins’ right in front of you. It’s reassuring to see that things that you once found more tough or challenging are becoming less so, that you are heading in the right direction.
When we get back into the water, what should we be thinking about?
First and foremost, think about your technique, think about your form. If you are not working physically as hard, then you have all the time in the world. The smoother and more efficient that you can make your swim, the quicker you will go – and the quicker those improvements will come also.
I believe in building up your swim skills from a foundation, and that you can only really move up each rung of that skill ladder when you can do the most important steps at the bottom.
People love to work on improving their pull, mainly because they don’t enjoy kicking, or doing work at slower speed. The problem that you have with this is that with a sole focus on the sexy/fun/fast parts, it won’t make a huge amount of difference. Getting more power from your pull will make hardly any difference to your swim if you’re kick is leaking energy or creating more resistance for you to overcome.
Before you work on anything else, your body position has to be good and strong. If you can set this up, all other parts of your stroke become so much easier. Because your hips are higher and your body moving as one part, there is reduced resistance, and you’re in a far better position to kick and pull strongly.
Once your body is in the right place (ie at the surface), the next things to do is make sure that your kick is efficient. It doesn’t need to be the most forceful, and you certainly shouldn’t need to kick hard. Your legs should just be creating more propulsion than they are producing resistance.
Following on from this, your improved body position ensures that you will generate more coherent, all together body roll. The advantage of this is that you will be better placed to control the water with your stronger muscles and create more speed! With this, you can get your arm out and over the water easier, and it’s far simpler to breathe.
From all this, it’s easy to see how improving your foundations and strengthening your skills will improve the rest of your stroke so much more than just playing around with the more interesting sections or skills that you find more fun.
Because you’re taking your time getting back in the water, use the time wisely.
All of this is valid, whatever your reason for being out of the water. Start with a good base. Be fit and be mobile. Then take your time once you do get wet. Taking a little extra time earlier on can lead to bigger smiles at the end of the day.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, Facebook or leave a comment on here! Remember, you can always get your swimming reviewed in the endless pool with our video swim analysis packages.