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by Matt Donovan

April 2, 2020

A less-than-ideal pool shouldn’t keep you from working toward your swimming goals

The initial reason for writing this article is to help during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many swimmers are finding that there are limited pools to train in, but some are fortunate enough to have access to a backyard pool. If you come across this article many months down the line, know that these concepts are still applicable. If you are on the road for work or vacation and you have a hotel pool at your disposal, try these workouts to stay active.

Please be certain to know the depths and dimensions of the pool before any training sessions begins. Use all best practices regarding safety and never swim alone.

Kicking for Cardio

An adverse effect of not being in a competition pool is diminished cardio training. However, with a clock and a wall, you can still accomplish a good amount of cardio work. Think of your more traditional pool sets—10 x 100s on 1:30, holding 1:20 or better.

In this wall kicking scenario, everything is the same, aside from the actual swimming. Hold the wall and kick aggressively for 1:20, take ten seconds rest, and repeat. This can be done with different styles of kick and longer/shorter intervals. In between “100s”, feel free to take a “25” or “50” to stretch out your arms.

With your training partner, challenge yourself to keep your face in the water the last five seconds of your wall kick interval (be certain that you are exhaling during this time and not holding your breath). This can help simulate the end of a race from flags into the wall.

Wall kicking is the perfect opportunity to work on breathing patterns. Visualize your swim and where you should be taking breaths. If you are not strong at bilateral breathing, this is the time to put in the work.

Wall kicking with a flip and breakout is an excellent way to do sprint work. Again, please be completely aware of the dimensions of the pool before you begin. With a partner (one person doing the wall kick, one person being the starter), begin kicking on the wall for a predetermined period of time (say, 10 seconds). At the 10-second mark, the starter blows a whistle, the swimmer then does a flip turn on the wall and sprints to a breakout (stroke of choice) then change roles. This can be done a variety of ways; mix up the times and strokes and make a game of it. It is an excellent sprint workout, and with enough repeats and shorter rest it has tremendous benefits for distance swimmers as well.

Reminder: Extended breath holding should never be a part of any training activity. It is ineffective and dangerous.

Shoulder Work

This time can be used to help your shoulders in two ways. For those who go to the pool consistently, this may be a blessing in disguise. Give your shoulders a real break. If you are working cardio and core seriously during this time frame, a one- to two-week vacation for your shoulders could end up being perfect for your body and long-term training goals.

Use the pool to do some shoulder rehab, or as I like to call it “prehab.” Internal/external rotation drills have a positive impact on shoulder stability and injury prevention. Most swimmers are aware of how to do basic, low-impact, external rotation exercises on land with bands or light weights. Perform these same exercises in the water.

To start, simply move your hands back and forth (a few inches under the surface) the same way you would if on land. If you feel good and would like to add some tension, put on a paddle or even submerge a small pull buoy to simulate added weight.

For shoulder strength training, look no further than your kickboard. Remember those age-grouper days when your coach let you have “play time” and use the kickboard to make a wave pool? Guess what? Your coach was not as much of a pushover as you thought. Going back and forth in a seated row position with the kickboard is an amazing back and shoulder workout. Position the face of your kickboard parallel with your chest. The more you submerge the kickboard, the more resistance there is and the “harder” the workout becomes. As above, use our example of 10 x 100s on 1:30. The more you do this, the more creative you can get.

Legs Feed the Wolf

Other than taper, there is never a bad time to do leg work. These three leg sets can be done for reps (e.g., 10 rounds of 10 on 1:00 rest) or done as an interval (e.g., 10 minutes of 30 seconds of effort, 30 seconds of rest).

If your pool is deep enough, vertical kicking should be a part of your routine. It is important to have good posture with an engaged core. Your teammate can be your guide and help point out when you are losing form.

In the shallow(er) end of the pool, you can work on your jumps. The two most productive are the tuck jump and streamline jump.

Tuck Jump – With your hands at your sides and your back straight (imagine River Dance), jump by bringing your knees up to your chest and back down to the bottom of the pool as fast and as forcefully as possible. Do not submerge at all.

Streamline Jump – With your hands in a perfect streamlined position, submerge to your chin and immediately jump as fast and as high as you can, over and over again.

Both jumping activities will provide a great deal of cardio and a great leg workout with minimal impact on your joints. If you watch your form carefully, you can learn how to best push off the wall coming out of a turn.

Final Thought

During this unprecedented time, it’s important to stay connected. Contact teammates (past and present) and see what ideas they have to stay in shape. Additionally, reach out to coaches (past and present) and see if they can help you define some goals and skills to address during this time. Sharing video is always a great way to get tips. Play your cards right, and you may come out of this experience stronger than you entered it, and ready to tackle your season goals.


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  • Training