Some swimmers are asking me what they can possibly do to stay in any sort of shape and stay on track for certain events they are still hoping to enjoy later this summer after the quarantine is (hopefully) over. There is  much encouragement, advice and interesting ideas for maintaining morale and fitness being shared out there in social media that I didn’t feel a strong need to jump in. However, these inquiries urge me to contribute something by discussing the bigger picture of what other things you can do to support your fitness for swimming.

This essay is part of a series discussing the kind of complementary training you can do while kept away from the pool that will prepare you to be even better when you go back. These are not merely nice suggestions, these are actually essential, fundamental skills that, if made present or if made stronger, could dramatically improve your performance as a swimmer.  


The Bad News First…

The bad news is that, frankly, swimming fitness – that part that makes swimming muscles not feel quickly tired and the breathing labored – is incredibly activity-specific. We only get those aspects of fitness from swimming itself. We can go out running or ride the bike on the trainer or do a rowing machine, but those just don’t compensate for what we can only build in swimming.

The longer one has been swimming with a moderate to high level of swim-specific fitness in place – and I am talking years and decades here – the deeper that person’s swim-fitness ‘bank account’ is from which they can withdraw and bounce back relatively quickly after many weeks away from water.  But for those who swim infrequently/irregularly, or have a short history, you should prepare your expectation of a gradual and careful return, when the pools open up again.

Those with a long history who were consistently performing at a high level (when we all got cut off from the water) may expect to bounce back relatively easily after a couple months away. Those with a short history who were performing at a low level may also return to that low level of performance relatively quickly. It is those with a short history who were only recently starting to perform at a higher level who will possibly have the longer process of getting back up to where they were. But you will get back to it, with a gradual rebuilding process, and it will return faster than when you first built up to that level.

Now with bad news out of the way, I want to call your attention to the fact that your swimming fitness depends on a lot more than just swimming, and you can do things that can make your bounce back go a lot faster once you can return to the water again.


Neural Fitness

Swimming excellence – for ease, efficiency and performance – requires strong skill for motor learning and control. 

Your brain’s ability to build and refine motor circuits can be kept in top shape by making yourself continue to learn complex motor skills that require full attention. Think of any movement art that you don’t know how to do or do well or that provide new levels of difficulty you haven’t explored yet – those are your opportunity to work your body-brain connection and keep it humming.

Becoming masterful is not the point so don’t look for what you might possible conquer in the weeks ahead – look for an activity that is going to push you to concentrate and learn to move and control your body in new ways. Being a novice is an advantage. If you say busy pushing your brain and body to build new skills in these weeks away from the water, they will be primed and even stronger to get back to your swimming skill and fitness projects when that opens up again.


Mobility & Muscular Fitness

I know there are lot’s of ideas out there for how to build your swim-specific musculature on land, but nearly all of that works individual muscles or greatly abbreviated combinations of muscles isolated from the actual full-body choreography that a safe and technically correct stroke requires. And it works those muscles in positions and loading conditions quite unlike the unique resistance that water creates. Nothing besides swimming builds the full, exact cooperative arrangement of muscles, as they need to be for actual swimming. It is around that extremely specific movement pattern in that aquatic situation that motor control and strength together need to be developed in the way that benefits your swimming performance. 

I see physical and psychological value in doing those swimming-specific, dry-land activities and if you like doing those, and know how to do them properly without creating new problems for your body, then those could be a good thing. Just keeping your body moving and working A LOT is going to be good for you physically and mentally, and if you believe its doing your swimming good (and assured it is not doing your body harm) then the placebo affect is a valid and good thing too.

However, this is your opportunity to do a few things for your muscles and tissues that you may have not given great attention to while you’ve been swimming so much. You may now have the time to work on specific parts of your body and that are tighter or weaker or less coordinated than their counter-parts. This is your opportunity to improve the foundation of your general condition and strength so that you are even more prepared for the highly specialized training you do in swimming, when that starts back up again.

I highly recommend that you build general coordination, proper mobility, stability and strength around the fundamental human movements, because virtually all sports, exercises and their variations are built around these fundamental movements. If you have limitations in any of these fundamental movements YOU WILL have limitations in your sport activities that depend on that fundamental movement. Not only will being coordinated, mobile, stable and strong in these help you be better in your sport, more importantly, these fundamental movements make you capable of the full range of normal daily activities that you need now and to your oldest age.

  • Pulling – pulling something toward your body (or pulling the body toward something)
  • Pushing – pushing something away from the body (or pushing your body away from something)
  • Squatting – upright, as if to pick up a heavy object from the ground
  • Lunging – a long step forward and then lowering down, rising back up
  • Hinging – bending over to touch the ground, then straightening back up
  • Rotating – holding an object and turning the torso
  • Anti-rotation – moving the hips or shoulders while torso resists turning
  • Walking

Can you do all of these movements with good technique, with your full body weight, in the full range of motion?

Can you do each movement with an amount of weight (or resistance) added that might be similar to how you would use that movement in the normal challenges of daily life?

If you have restriction or weakness in any of these movements, that’s what you need to work on. While being isolated at home it’s not easy to get professional help, but you would do well to seek (remote) attention from a physical therapist or trainer who may guide you in how to improve this part of your body.

You may have another favorite activity like yoga or pilates that covers a lot of these for you. That would be convenient. When you engage in these complementary activities, you may become more aware of how much they are touching each of these fundamental movements. If you happen to notice that your current routine does not cover all of these, then you can use that as motivation to seek out new moves or exercises within your art to make sure you do. 


Metabolic Fitness

First, keep your body moving as much as you can. Keep the metabolic fires stoked. DO NOT go dormant with your body, but instead take up the challenge to increase your overall rate of movement throughout the day, every day. This means altering your lifestyle. And, I am not necessarily talking about more exercise, though that could be a welcome part of it. Walk the dog more often, stand up at your desk, go do yard work or do someone else’s yard work. Climb trees. Reorganize the junk piled up in your garage. Do 5 push ups and 5 air squats at the top of each hour. Find ways to use your body more.

Be more physical about everything, so that you can keep the base metabolic rate high, or perhaps increase it a bit more. Your metabolic engine is what prepares and supplies energy to all parts of the body, and removes waste. You can keep that system fit and ready for swimming – perhaps make it even better than it was – without swimming. But you must move your body more and challenge that metabolism to keep up.

The second part of metabolic fitness is nutrition. This is your opportunity to make things even better, not let them fall apart!

I have heard some friends confess how they just want to comfort feed themselves at this time – treat themselves with junk food and veg out in front of the screen because of the uncertainties and stress. This is absolutely NOT THE TIME to be eating poorly, or to be sedentary,  because this is exactly the opposite of what you need to do to avoid depression and a suppressed immune system.

This is your opportunity to reshape your nutrition into something better than ever. Improve the content of what you eat. Improve the quantity of what you eat. Improve the timing of when you eat. You will feel better. You will perform better. You will feel even more proud of yourself.

This is a great time to listen or read or watch Michael Pollan’s book In Defense Of Food too. Listen to any number of Rich Roll’s podcasts or Peter Attia’s podcasts. Look up thousands of short, informative topical videos on Nutrition Facts.

Rather than try to go radical all at once, here is a game you can play to gradually improve your nutrition.


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