Article image

by Elaine K Howley

April 3, 2020

Staying fit and healthy is important, but flattening the curve for fellow humans takes precedence

As Masters swimmers, we have a love of the water, swimming, and working out that often transcends physical health. And being forced out of our normal training routines for any period of time can be disruptive on many levels. This is the case for most of us right now as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the closure of pools and gyms across the country, effectively sidelining most swimmers.

Although many of us are grieving the cancellation of big events we were training for, such as the U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championship and many open water swimming events planned for this summer, it’s important to remember that we’re all having to make changes to our daily lives and some sacrifices. This pandemic doesn’t discriminate and it’s not just you. As of March 28, cases of COVID-19 have now been reported in 170 of the world’s 195 sovereign nations. Being socially- and community-minded right now should be your top priority.

How COVID-19 Affects Health

Although you need to stay home as much as possible to help flatten the curve and protect the vulnerable, that doesn’t mean that you can’t get creative to keep boredom at bay, maintain fitness, and keep your mental health on track during this high-anxiety time. After all, staying fit is one of the very best things you can do for your physical and mental health.

Cedric Jaime Rutland, a pulmonary and critical care physician in Orange County, Calif., says that he continues to do his at-home Peloton workout every day before heading into the emergency room where he’s treating the sickest COVID-19 patients, because although no one knows for sure with this specific virus, the general rule of thumb is that those who are fit and healthy typically bounce back from infection more easily. “The healthier you are going into this, the more likely you will recover,” he says.

Because this virus is so new, we still don’t know a lot about it. Tod Olin, a pulmonologist specializing in exercise medicine at National Jewish Health, the premier respiratory hospital in the U.S., says that scientific studies are ongoing. But what we know so far is that COIVD-19 is an upper respiratory disease that can lead to complications in some patients including pneumonia. In severe instances, this can cause lungs to fill with fluid and cause difficulty breathing.

Olin, who is also an advisor for USA Swimming at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., and a respiratory consultant to the U.S. Olympic Committee, says that current data indicates that about 6 percent of people who get the disease will wind up critically ill in the intensive care unit. “We don’t really understand what distinguishes those people” from people who have a mild case of the disease or are asymptomatic,” he says. “Often there’s an underlying cardiac problem or respiratory disease, immunosuppression, or diabetes.”

Though older people and those with chronic health conditions are more susceptible to the disease, Rutland says “we are noticing that younger people are getting ill,” too. Being younger than 60 and healthy does not mean you cannot get sick.

In fact, retired South African Olympic swimmer Cameron van der Burgh, 31, contracted the illness. On March 22, he tweeted that it was “by far the worst virus I have ever endured despite being a healthy individual with strong lungs (no smoking/sport), living a healthy lifestyle and being young (least at risk demographic).”

Van der Burgh’s experience underscores that even elite athletes are just as able to contract and transmit the virus as anyone else. Some may experience symptoms while others may be asymptomatic, but it’s believed that even in the absence of symptoms, you can still spread the virus.

Therefore, Rutland says “athletes need to understand they can still get this illness. They’re not invincible.” This is why social distancing, hand-washing, and canceling large gatherings are so important right now.

Get Creative While Staying Socially Responsible

This is all a warm-up to explain why so many pools and gyms are closed and why you should think twice before you head out to a group workout. If you can’t go to the pool or access open water, what can you do to maintain your fitness—while keeping your sanity—in these very uncertain times?

Think about what exercise options are available to you given current restrictions, Olin says. “Safety is the first concern. Make sure [the activity you choose] is socially safe and currently legal.” Many beaches and parks are now closed to discourage groups from congregating, so be mindful of local ordinances if your planned exercise activities would have you venturing outside your home or off your property. “Have social consideration for what you’re doing,” Olin says.

Next, think about what might be fun and sustainable. “You’re much less likely to do something if you don’t like it,” Olin says. If you hate running, don’t force it. Find something else that’s more appealing. Maybe dancing, jumping rope, or completing a high-intensity interval training workout in your driveway would be more fun (and also keep you in one place rather than sending you out into the world) to get your heart rate up.

Focus on strength or resistance training. If you have resistance bands, now is a great time to reacquaint yourself with them and do those rotator cuff exercises that are so easy to blow off. If you have access to a swim trainer or other swimming simulation equipment, that can be a valuable replacement activity for swimming. If you don’t have a set of free weights at home, improvise with anything from soup cans and bricks to other items you may have just lying around in the garage or basement. Most any kind of weighted object can be deployed creatively to become a makeshift strength training tool.

Technology can also help keep you connected to your coach and other swimmers even if you can’t be in the same space right now. Charlotte Brynn, a New England Masters Swim Club member and USMS Level 4 coach based in Stowe, Vt., has been offering free dryland workouts every morning at 9 a.m. Eastern via Zoom (Meeting ID 915 3209712) and Facebook Live. Her workouts are sweat-inducing, heart-thumping, and strength-building but require little in the way of actual equipment.

Make Peace With the Situation

Beyond working out at home, some coaches and swimmers are deciding that it’s also OK to take a little break. This is an extraordinary moment in human history, and maybe being hyper-focused on swimming and your own endeavors shouldn’t occupy all your attention right now.

Olin says that when he met with swimmers training at the Olympic Training Center in mid-March to talk about the situation and what would happen if the Olympics got canceled, most of the swimmers initially thought about how their own training would be impacted. But after learning a little more about the global health crisis unfolding, he says most of them began to understand the bigger picture and what’s actually at stake here.

“Within 15 or 20 minutes, most of them went from thinking ‘What’s happening to my training?’ to ‘Wait, should I be worried that I’m going to get this? Should I be worried about my parents?’ You could feel it branching out,” he says of that socially responsible mindset.

And pointing out that one of the coaches who works with the team is in his 80s and on immunosuppressant medications that could elevate his risk of getting COVID-19 and subsequent complications drove home the point to many of these young and robustly healthy swimmers that their most important role in all of this is to stay home to protect the vulnerable.

Sure, they’re still disappointed that the Olympic Games have been postponed. But Olin says the community spirit many of the swimmers began showing was inspiring and something he hopes amateur athletes can embrace the same way.

So, it’s OK to feel disappointed. It’s OK to mix up your fitness routine however you can while staying socially distanced. It’s also OK to take a step back all together for a little while. Shannon Keegan, an Oregon Masters member and the coach behind Intrepid Water Adventure Swimming noted in a blog post on March 28 that “I’m not going to tell you how to work out during isolation. I’m not even going to suggest that you have to!” Rather, she’s encouraging her clients to understand that you can “have a huge break from swimming and still come back and do awesome things.”

It’s OK to feel sad, angry, and disappointed about seeing events you’ve been working so hard for get canceled. And know that you’re not alone if you feel less than whole when you can’t swim as much as you’re used to. It’s only natural to experience these emotions. But, as Keegan notes, “overcoming adversity is as much a part of being an athlete as training; we’ll get through this.”

Stay home, wash your hands, flatten the curve, do what you can to maintain health and fitness at home, and know that we’re all in this together.


  • Technique and Training


  • Training