In my home state of Oregon USA, the various businesses and facilities are able to open up , county by county, as each meet certain requirements. The local fitness club where I swim and teach opened up a few weeks ago and then the pools did also. Tuesday I finally made it back in the water for the first time in over 3.5 months. I can’t recall the last time I have been away from the water that long! 

Despite this exile, my general fitness has stayed strong because my running training and my home exercises have been consistent. Yet, these cannot maintain the muscle tone that is specific to swimming and specific to the choreography of each stroke style. Though there was absolutely no resistance in my heart or breathing, I was aware of that lack of tone right from the first few stroke.

I started out very gentle and stayed that way. It was immediately apparent that my big muscles and their connection to the core were very strong from hard planks, pullups and pushups that I do regularly. When done properly, those body-weight exercises build really good strength and stability around the shoulder joint. But the small stabilizing muscles in the arms and around the shoulder joint, the ones that hold the arms in just the right shape in freestyle to hold the water were quickly feeling a little stress, even with gentle strokes. The ideal position for the arm to get a good grip on the water is in competition with the ideal position of the shoulder joint to keep it stable and safe. I could find my sweet spot right away, but I was also aware that I was not strong enough to maintain it, so I had to back off the grip a bit.

This little stress around the joint is something that one could so easily ignore and push through, in eagerness to go as strong as that big muscles were ready to. Certainly, the majority of my body was pleasingly strong and ready, but the system as a whole was not. This is the pitfall that gets athletes in trouble when returning after time away – they get going at an intensity that matches their stronger parts and pay for it with strain and injury to the weaker parts. Listening, respect and patience are key.

It was actually useful to pay attention and feel the warning strain in those small special muscles because it urged me to more carefully shift the load of each stroke, to anchor each stroke in the center of my body and put only as much pressure on the shoulder joint as it was prepared to handle this first day. After 600 everything felt better and pleasingly connected, but on an occasional stroke I would feel a little bite around the right shoulder in particular and that kept me alert on every stroke.

Rather than swim freestyle continuously, I mixed the stroke styles so that I would stimulate the tissues in one way for a short while then switch, cycling through different patterns (this is an equivalent to the run/walk approach I would recommend for a return to running).

I came to the pool with an open mind as to how far I might swim this first day, and determined to be gentle (you can review my approach to the return). I wondered if I might do 1800 (a mile) but I firmly decided that my body would tell me, and specifically, the weakest members of the system would tell me when I had had enough if I kept listening carefully and respectfully. I ended up swimming 4 rounds of (100 free, 50 breast, 100 free, 50 back) for a total of 1200.

As predicted, the chlorine irritated my sinuses and burned my bronchial tubes a little, and it remains even 24 hours later. I could see a lot of chlorine flakes on the floor of the shallow pool – perhaps evidence that they are increasing the chemical load of the water out of extra caution.

Quite a few local friends have been going out in wetsuits to swim in some lakes in our area. I have been tempted to join them, but without being acclimated to the cool water and without a wetsuit I’d be driven to move too aggressively to stay warm and I knew my shoulders would not be ready for that additional stress. So, I have waited for the pool to open so I could more carefully restore some freestyle specific strength first, then later I will head outside. However, if there remains a threat to our pools closing again, I am highly motivated to acclimate again and keep it so I can stay going in lakes despite.

Honestly, I was not so excited to get back in the water (shallow, short, chlorinated pools are not my first love). My whole body and mind have been tuned to running for several months and so I was not in mental ‘swim mode’. But it didn’t take but a few lengths and my nervous system melted and knew it was back home. As much as I love running, even the hardest swim workout imaginable leaves my body feeling a lot better than a hard run does! A gentle swim is just the sweetest caress, leaving me wanting more.

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