How to successfully return to the pool after a period of absence, from where to start and what to expect…
It is a wonderful feeling to be fit in swimming. You feel powerful and fast. It is enjoyable to cruise through long distances. Pushing yourself feels great and your easy swims are still impressive. But there will be times when you lose that fitness, whether it’s because of lockdown, illness, injury or simply when life gets in the way, and coming back to the water after time off can feel very depressing.
In elite sport, it is often said that one week away from training equates to a three-week regression in performance, so imagine how it feels when you’ve had months away from the pool!
It doesn’t matter if you are a serious competitor or someone who simply swims to keep fit, the psychological challenge of regaining lost fitness is the same. All of a sudden it feels like you’re swimming through treacle and you feel out of breath after perhaps just one length when you’re used to swimming tens or even hundreds of lengths in a row. When you’ve lost fitness, your brain and your body are no longer in sync. You might have felt pumped and ready for a swim, you remember being able to swim fast, you are visualising times when you’ve powered through the water, but for some reason, your arms simply aren’t responding and it feels like you’re stuck in one gear.
Being confronted by this new reality can feel frustrating, depressing and confusing. Progress feels like a massive uphill climb and depending on the sort of swimming you did when you were fitter, it might not even feel like it’s worth the effort. Getting fit in the first place is challenging but regaining lost ground takes a lot of personal motivation.
The first step to returning to fitness is to work out where to begin. If you were previously used to a certain routine, such as a 20 length warm up followed by a few sprint sets, it can be really difficult to figure out what to do for the best, particularly if you can’t make it through the warm up and have lost the ability to step up the pace for a sprint! You want to do something productive and progressive but you don’t want to attempt something that is going to leave you injured or demotivated for future swims.
Before you even return to the pool, you should take a realistic view of what you’re likely to expect in both the immediate and long term:
- If your lack of recent swimming was due to injury or illness, consider whether your personal long term goals are still realistic. Of course it is possible for people to come back from serious injury and take part in epic swimming challenges, but be honest with yourself and consider if it is possible and if any downsides to your mental or physical health are worth the risk.
- Consider adjusting your timeframes. Perhaps you signed up to a long-distance triathlon but something came up at work and you didn’t get the chance to do the full training programme. With a short time left before the event, maybe it’s better to defer your entry and go at it properly next year.
- If you didn’t previously swim for events or challenges, perhaps set a goal to swim regularly each week or set a small, fun, motivational challenge. Sometimes having a target to aim for stops you giving up when it feels like hard work. We’ve put together some ideas here: Set yourself a Challenge – Oshun Swim (oshun-swim.com)
Use the first session to set your benchmarks and then have some fun:
We all have different body types. Some are sprinters, some are built for endurance, some recover quicker than others. You won’t know until you actually get in the water how much fitness you’ve lost. Instead of going to the pool with expectations of past performance (you’ll probably end up frustrated and disappointed), you should go with an attitude of curiosity to find out where you’re currently at.
- Count how many lengths you can swim until you need a rest and, if you’re interested in speed, time a few attempts at a sprint to gauge your current average pace.
- Make note too of how long you need to rest between each bit. Recovery times are a good indicator of fitness.
- Once you’ve established your current ability, it is then important to swim for enjoyment. Stop timing and measuring everything and simply swim to enjoy being in the water. Swim a different stroke, swim under water for a bit, listen to music if you have a waterproof device. Rather than being frustrated at how well (or not) you are swimming, just swim for the sake of getting your arms and legs used to the movement again. It won’t be long before you naturally start feeling a little bit stronger.
Work out a motivational plan:
Compare your current performance to your personal goal and work out some incremental steps in between. This will form your new training plan. For this to be successful, you will need to have set a realistic goal with a realistic amount of time in which to achieve it. You’ll also have to temper your enthusiasm for training. How often do people suddenly decide they’re going to “get fit” and go from no regular exercise to a daily hard gym session only to have to stop because of injury or burnout?
If you’re a sprinter, perhaps you can start with rebuilding muscle by long, slow distance training, adding in some resistance work and then some turnaround sets with increasingly challenging target times.
If you’re a long distance swimmer, perhaps you can start by swimming for half an hour or an hour. Listen to your body and swim as far as you feel comfortable, rest and then continue until your session time is over. Make sure you swim at a manageable pace and gradually, you will naturally increase the distance you can continuously swim. When you are able to swim continuously for the duration of your chosen session time, you can either increase your session time or increase your pace to swim further within your original time.
Keep yourself motivated:
Fighting that depressing feeling that you can’t perform as well as you used to is one of the hardest parts of returning to fitness. Keep yourself motivated by recognising any small, incremental progress, even if it was just swimming one more length than last time. Be your own coach or cheerleader and give yourself a pat on the back for coming back each time to give it a go rather than beating yourself up for not being back to your best just yet.
Swim with a buddy if it helps to stay motivated but avoid the temptation to compare yourself against them if they are fitter than you.
Join a social swimming group or pay for some lessons as this can help you commit to regular training. An instructor or coach can provide guidance for progressive training and the group can offer you support and motivation.
Sign up for a fitness challenge such as the Swimathon to keep you focused and committed to training.