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Get in Swim Shape! Attaining Big Improvements in Small Steps

Here are 5 essential tips for getting the most out of your training time when you’re back from the off season.

There’s a reason that gyms fill up with people in January but end up relatively empty by the end of March.

New gym-goers end up doing too much, burning out and then never picking the habit up again.

Committing to getting in shape means creating daily habits that keep you motivated over the long run. When you go “too big, too fast,” you risk burning out your momentum in a much shorter period of time.

Those who see results are the ones who make small steps toward bigger changes over the long haul. That’s true of swimmers and triathletes as well.

If you’re looking to get back into swim shape after a hiatus or the offseason, or if you simply want to improve the quality of your training sessions to get in better shape, take small steps, not a giant leap.

Here are a few strategies for getting in swim shape in small impactful ways.

Get in swim shape

1. Set Realistic Expectations

According to Stanford University researcher B.J. Fogg, baby steps are the key to successfully making changes to your daily habits.

When it comes to getting in shape, small, sustainable habits over long periods of time produce more results than more aggressive training sessions (going “all in”) for a short period of time.

Matt Dixon, the author of Fast-Track Triathlete, believes that “massive training sessions” when developing the habits needed to get in shape can backfire because they rely on emotional hooks rather than dedication.

“In the long term, heroic efforts don’t work,” he says.

What does work? Setting achievable goals over a longer stretch and staying realistic about what you can achieve in a given amount of time. This is especially true for athletes who are new to swim-specific training, like triathletes or those looking to swim for the first time.

Nine-time Ironman finisher Sam Cardona will tell you, “You can be very fit as a runner, but if you go to a pool, you probably can’t swim that far.”

Just as new runners or weightlifters shouldn’t expect to run a full 26-mile marathon or lift 300 pounds their first day in the gym, swimmers should set realistic goals for what their workout sessions will look like.

Cardona adds, “You don’t need to swim for 45 minutes or swim in an Olympic-size pool.”

Instead, create training sessions that feel comfortable during the early stages, while still motivating you to do a little more every time you’re at the pool or swim training at home.

2. Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

Another reason that many gym-goers and athletes get derailed when trying to get in shape is the focus on the number of exercises or training sessions over the quality.

Physical therapist and trainer Kellie Sikorskiand says one of the biggest mistakes she sees athletes make — that ultimately leads to injury and failure — is not focusing enough on the core elements of fitness when starting out.

“When you’re getting back into fitness, your exercise plan should include components of cardiovascular endurance, resistance training, and flexibility, she says. “Combined, all three components will give you the most longevity with your goals.”

It can be easy to set your mind on seeing results, which may push you to workout harder than you intended. Focusing on the essentials, on the other hand, like proper form and breathing techniques will improve the longevity of your fitness.

Sam Cardona also notes that it’s important for swimmers to focus on body alignment when starting out.

“People always want to swim a lot, but their technique isn’t good,” he says. He adds that most swimmers don’t breathe efficiently and they don’t rotate their hips and bring their head enough above the water to catch their breath.

Get in swim shape

3. Choose the Right Gear and Equipment

It may be tempting to buy new or “upgraded” gear when you’re trying to train after the offseason, but new gear isn’t always the answer to motivation and habit creation.

In some cases, you may need to update your current gear with something more functional, especially if things are worn out or otherwise unhelpful to meet your fitness goals.

But you probably don’t need as much gear as you think.

As it’s more important to focus on good form over flashy equipment, when you do need tools and tech to help you out, choose the gear that will help you track your progress, maintain your form and otherwise add value to your workouts.

Kickboards, for example, can help you isolate your legs during training, freeing you to focus on proper kicking form rather than staying afloat. This type of gear can be a boon for motivation, rather than a hindrance.

On the other hand, something like a fancy waterproof watch might be cool, but unless you’re using it to track specific metrics, it might not be necessary.

If you do want to invest in equipment right away, choose tools that will help you workout from home or otherwise stay motivated when you can’t get to the pool, like a swim bench and other low-cost fitness equipment.

4. Measure Your Progress and Get Feedback

One of the downsides of the “small steps, big results” approach is the potential to lose sight of your end goals and your cumulative progress.

When you “go big” right away, you see results much faster. While this approach could lead to burnout, it’s easy to see why it’s so motivating, at least at first.

In order to maintain your motivation while taking smaller steps, be sure to measure your progress to realize your improvements.

Ideally, set up some benchmarks to track your physical improvements. For example, do a time-trial for a set distance at the beginning of your improvement program.  Then do that exact same time-trial every 4 weeks to monitor your progress in time per distance, perceived exertion, power numbers, heart rate, etc.

The Vasa SwimErg has a precise Power Meter, is an ideal way to monitor your ability to sustain power (watts) over a set distance.  Plus, your results can be sent to a swim coach for analysis, which provides an objective set of eyes to assess your physical progress.

Get in swim shape

It is also very useful to track your mental progress.

Research shows that mental training is one of the biggest elements of training success, yet is also one of the things that people don’t track or measure as closely.

Take note of things like your confidence levels and your emotional state while you’re training, too.

5. Train with Others or Get a Swim Coach

Another component of successful training is accountability, especially if you’re struggling with burnout or find yourself skipping sessions.

If you want to improve your consistency and accountability, train with someone else and/or work with a good coach who will guide you to “play your plan.”

This might mean making time for group practice. Laura Hamel, Communications and Publications Director at U.S. Masters Swimming, says that “the ideal setting for any swimmer, regardless of ability or experience, is a group practice.”

The only exception, she says, is if you’re uncomfortable swimming in front of others and you want to time to improve your techniques. If you’re spending your time during training sessions feeling self-conscious, you’re less likely to improve.

If you really want to improve your progress over time without burning out, you will most likely need help from a qualified coach or trainer at some point.

If you’re not into group training (or even if you are but want extra help), consider hiring a remote coach who can check in on you and help you maintain and meet your goals over the entire swim season.

Other swimmers and swim experts who know what to look for can help you improve your techniques in small, manageable ways every session without overloading you to the point of exhaustion.

Final Thoughts

It’s not always easy to get back into shape, but the key to success is to start small.

Easing yourself into the training process will yield better results over the long term, giving you “big gains” that are sustainable.

This means you can be stronger, better and faster all year long, rather than having to stop and start up your training sessions during the swim season.