When you start any new fitness plan, it is always best to start slowly, and progressively ease into it to avoid injuries, quick burnout and quitting after a little while. However, most people I know are impatient and are looking for immediate results. It does not work that way. Improving and staying fit for the long run does require long steady work. Swimming is no exception, but offers a few big advantages:
- Compared to a lot of other sports, it is a non-impact sport, reducing greatly the risk of injuries. It also allows you to swim more often per week and for a longer time. This is a nice advantage for the energizer bunnies amongst us. The water also provides a nice cushion all around your body which helps you feel weightless, and massages your tired and sore muscles. Maybe it is the reason why swimming is often recommended when recovering from injuries.
- Thru swimming you will be able to work all your muscles and all your energy systems. If you design or have somebody design for you a well-balanced training plan (we do have some on the US MastersSwimming website), you will be able to “rotate” working each of your muscles, giving them a break. You can also easily work all your energy systems if you can balance sprint days, with endurance days, with easy technique days. When mixing up all four strokes, the possibilities are almost endless, and the workouts can be varied and fun.
- Swimming is technical. To swim well and effortlessly, this does require a progression of drills and a lot of thinking. Even the best swimmers still have some fine technique to work on and improve upon. Whatever your age and your level and experience in swimming, there is room for progression and improvement. Improvement means feeling good about yourself and proud of your achievement.
If you are a swimmer, just starting a new swim routine, you should follow these major basic steps of progression and build upon them. Based on your previous swimming experience, each step will take more or less time, but you should not skip any of these:
Step 1:TECHNIQUE: THIS IS THE FOUNDATION
Within this category, there are three main areas of focus with multiple levels of progression in each:
- Horizontal position of the body on top of the water: can you stay afloat on top of the water, practice a lot of balance drills, learn how to kick, how to use your core to stay in alignment, etc.
- Effectiveness of your arm movements: are you catching the water, are you pushing the water towards the back, are you accelerating, etc.
- Timing of the stroke: are you breathing at the right time, are your arms and legs coordinated or are they working against each other. This is particularly important in breaststroke and fly.
Even if you had a swimming background and you are starting back after 5, 10 or 30 years, you need to spend some time on technique to re-discover your feel for the water. Your body might have changed, technique key points have evolved and you might have lost the timing of the stroke, particularly in fly and breaststroke.
If you have access to an experienced coach, this is a good investment as good technique will prevent injuries, will make swimming so much easier and will make improvements a breeze. For the beginner and intermediate swimmers, it is a must.
Oregon Master Swimming is currently trying to offer clinics, specifically designed to the beginner and/or intermediate swimmers. The intent would be to analyze your strokes and send you off with some drills and /or tips to improve.
Step 2: ENDURANCE:TO BUILD YOUR FITNESS LEVEL
Once you master some basic technique, it might be good to progressively build some endurance. That does not mean to sharply increase your mileage. It is usually recommended to increase your mileage by no more than 10% per week. It also means, “Do not mindlessly swim and swim, just to swim and increase your distance”. Technique should remain the focus, never practice bad technique. When you start getting tired, it is the prime time to revisit your technique. Am I still in alignment? How is my kick? Am I still on top of the water or are my hips sinking?If you do the correction, you might notice it is getting easier to finish the set.
The best way to gauge your improvement in fitness is to have a basic set, for example 10X50 on 1:30, which you will swim on a regular basis (but no more than once a week). With that, there are a lot of ways to assess your improvements, can I now do 11X, can I do them on 1:25, do I feel less tired, am I getting more rest, can I do 2X in free then 1X in another stroke? You get the pictures. You are progressively improving, you are getting fit and you are getting motivated to keep going.
Step 3: SPEED:TO REALLY GET BETTER
The last step of the equation is speed. The thrill of it! Swimming fast is fun but is also very taxing on your body. This is the reason you need to incorporate it in your training even if you will never compete, or if you will be swimming very long distance at a slower pace (Open water swimmers and triathletes can you hear me). Sprints will activate the fast twitch muscles, will stimulate your metabolic system and your whole body. It will put you in anaerobic mode, it will improve your fitness level in half the time!! But beware, don’t do it every day, as your body needs to recover from it.
Once you have gone through the whole progression, keep at it. And do not forget: there are four strokes in swimming (freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly), plus kicking underwater streamlines, open turns, flip turns, dives. There are so many opportunities to start the process again and to make some more improvements. There are so many ways to keep swimming fun and challenging. It is a lifetime sport.