U.S. Masters Swimmer, Terry Heggy, shares his tips for coaches to help your swimmers work back from an extended break.
Returning to the pool after taking time off is tough. Although the cool caress of the water feels wonderful from the first splash, it takes time to regain the fitness, coordination, and aquatic comfort felt before the hiatus. Our job as coaches is to get swimmers back up to speed quickly, enjoyably, and above all, safely.
Step one is to follow all guidelines that pertain to swimmer health. If an individual has experienced medical issues, work with the athlete to determine an appropriate timetable for returning and incrementally increasing workload as appropriate to the condition. Swimmers who have experienced disease or injury may require workout adaptations that adhere to physician-recommended rehabilitation programs. Remind athletes that it’s their responsibility to follow doctor’s orders.
For a program restart after a facility closure, or for athletes who have missed pool time for issues unrelated to their own health, here are some suggestions for those first workouts upon returning to the pool.
Swimmers typically just want to jump in and get to work. But a bit of up-front conversation is in order first. Both team and individual goals may change after a layoff, so discuss what the future holds and how you’ll work together to make your mutual vision a reality. As you inspire and challenge your athletes to strive for excellence, remind them of these critical concepts:
- Technique is the key—Reducing drag and increasing efficiency are far more effective than effort that ignores form. The first few weeks after the return to the pool are the perfect time to focus on improving technique. Judge workouts in terms of skills acquired rather than yards swum.
- Plateaus shall pass—With any increase in workload there are inevitable periods where performance suffers as the body adapts. When fatigue is the dominant feeling, it’s a perfect time to back off and, you guessed it, focus on technique.
This is also a good time to urge people to try strokes or distances they haven’t done before. When the pressure is off and drills are done with emphasis on enjoyment, old phobias and resistance can be melted.
Social elements are an important part of Masters Swimming. When people haven’t seen each other for a while, consider designing workouts with social elements—even if personal distancing restrictions are in place.
- Acknowledge the contributions of individual swimmers by asking each to share his or her favorite drill. Encourage them to contribute silly sets (Tarzan, corkscrew, dogpaddle, syncro, etc.)
- Swim relays. Even if people aren’t near each other, they can shout their support to teammates.
- Designate a “swimmer of the day” and assign a set you know that swimmer would enjoy.
- Use social media and email to communicate your joy in having swimmers back in the pool. Continue any virtual team bonding methods you employed during the hiatus (Zoom meetings, YouTube dryland workouts, etc.) Organize a committee to plan a giant pizza and ice cream party for when there are no restrictions on social activities.
Design a program for returning swimmers that builds strength and endurance with minimal risk of overtraining and injury. It bears repeating that technical focus is a great way to ease people back into the sport as they rebuild their tolerance for a high workload.
- Begin with long warm-up sets that focus on some element of technique (streamline, distance per stroke, head position, etc.) Finish each workout with a low-effort, high-focus cool-down set.
- For work sets, start with a low number of repeats and increase by one each day you repeat the set. Or start with longer intervals and decrease the rest as swimmer fitness improves.
- Consider a test set; something you can repeat each week for the first four to six weeks to track progress and identify plateaus. Examples include timed 500, 800, or 1000s and sets of 10 x 100s freestyle or 5 x 100s IM on a fixed sendoff.
A peripheral benefit is that selling the concept of technique work is easier when fitness is low, but once the idea is accepted and the benefits are noticed, swimmers will continue to embrace technique sets as an essential part of the training program.
Check your attendance logs and team roster to identify swimmers who have not returned after an absence. Contact them with personalised messages recognising their contributions to the team and inviting them back with assurance of a tailored on-ramp program.
Consider offering a “swim buddy” incentive to recruit new members and reward loyal swimmers. Periods of team regrouping are an excellent time to bring existing friends on board without the normal pressures to fit into an established group.
And finally, don’t waste the opportunity to preach the gospel of regular attendance. The inevitable struggle and discomfort experienced after a layoff is a great reminder of the benefit of continual fitness. If you don’t ever sit out, you never have to work back into it. Life is always better when you swim consistently!
Article first published by Terry Heggy on U.S. Masters Swimming on 17 May 2020.
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