Swimming Again – Returning to the Water

April 28th 2020

By Matt Hill
Categories: Swim

Swimming Again – Returning to the Water

Sometimes we have no choice but to have breaks in our training. And very often, it is swimming training that suffers.

These off-periods may voluntary, an end of season break, or might be enforced due to work hours, facility closure (pools, etc) etc. Once in a while, something more extreme happens, as we are currently experiencing in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Whatever the reason for stopping, we will at some point be able to train (swim) again.

It will be HARD

With several weeks away from swimming (or any activity), your body will have made adaptations and, being blunt, returning will be hard and movements will feel “strange”. This is normal and because:

  • you WILL have lost your “connection” to the water – you will have desensitised;
  • the muscles WILL have “forgotten” how to move and contract in sequences needed for swimming; depending on your background this can be a significant loss;
  • your aerobic efficiency and strength – swim fitness – WILL have dropped.

The key is to ACCEPT these points and carry on! Manage your expectations, you won’t be getting back in the water and re-joining where you left off. The good news is that all the training you clocked up prior to not swimming will have had a benefit and you are NOT starting from scratch.

Stay calm, control your demons (ego), get swimming again and train for the current moment, not where you “should” have been.

Limiting the losses

 If you know that you are going to have to take a break from swimming (work or maintenance closures related) you can plan ahead to mitigate your losses. In case of 2020 with enforced (world-wide) closures due to COVID-19, you can still control the losses by adapting as soon as possible.

When it became increasingly obvious that facilities and lockdowns were going to be implemented in early March 2020, we began altering our athlete’s programmes and providing swim substitute options using swim bands / swim benches.

Our goal was to get our athletes, and followers on social media, informed and able to start mitigation measures as soon as possible, to limit the loss of feel, coordination, and fitness.

We know full well we cannot completely replace swimming, but the sooner we get athletes activating and using the swim muscles the better their chances of retaining this aspect of swimming.

Most MoT athletes and followers were soon getting their swim muscles working, having resistance bands/cords laying around in their kit bags or buying them online. One or two had swim benches – a bench supported on a frame with either an erg or pulley system that allows the user to lay down on the bench and perform the underwater arm movements.

By introducing these activities, they have done all in their power to control the losses (controlling the controllable). Our swim strength plan is an ideal way to get started, or to complement your pool swimming.

More specific mitigation

For those athletes fortunate enough to have access to some water, no matter how odd it may have originally seemed, there are other opportunities to get back in the water. Exploring and utilising water options such as paddling pools, short personal outdoor plunge/dip pools as well as early use of lakes and the sea (where possible) have proven to be fun and useful.

Paddling pools and personal pools

Paddling pools and short personal pools are not limited in their use, simply using some rope or bungee cord to tie around your waste and an anchor point (tree, pool ladders, etc) allows you to swim in your own endless pool!

Using a wetsuit to keep warm and provide some buoyancy; swim sets of strokes, counting 25-100 strokes at varying efforts before resting.

Open water

If you have the opportunity of open water swimming in lakes, reservoirs or the sea, these are the perfect solution for short swims. Don’t forget to wrap up with a wetsuit, boots, gloves and hoods if necessary! Extended the sessions when possible (warm enough).

As with pool swimming, we highly recommend open water swim sessions are broken into sets and reps, rather than swimming straight long distances. Plot out a distances of 50-200m along the shore (making note of landmarks) to allow you to swim with good form and focus. Don’t forget to practice your sighting skills.

Swimming again – back to real pool training!

When you can get back to “serious” swim training in a pool, make it enjoyable for yourself; start simple and start easy. Accept that you will be less “acquainted” with the water and the demands of swim training.

Don’t rush things, have this mindset for a few weeks, or as long as it takes to feel comfortable again. Your time during sessions should be enjoyable and you should finish in a positive mood, looking forward to the next swim.

To further ensure you take it easy and enjoy swimming again, don’t forget your old training friends; the pull buoy (buoyancy shorts, or bottle buoys) and paddles.

Buoyancy helps put you into a good position to swim, places your upper body into a more mechanically efficient position, stretches the muscles that get tight from sitting down and makes the sessions more enjoyable.

Paddles (re)establish “connection” to the water. This is especially true for adult, non-swimmers who don´t have the neuromuscular wiring that provides “feel” of the water.

Loss of connection – paddles fix this

If you are an adult non-swimmer, you know what we are talking about here; you turn your arms over but don’t really know where your hands are moving, what shape they are in, whether the fingers are closed or open, etc.

Any ex-swimmer reading this also know what we are talking about; how often do you wonder “why can’t others just move like I do in the water” or “I’ve told them so many times to “fix” this, why are they still doing that?

Paddles add a fixed object to the equation – water resistance pushes the paddle into the hand, which provides a much better awareness. Swimming without paddles lacks this physical, solid connection.

If you have previously not used buoyancy or paddles, now is the time to start. They will drastically improve your comfort and help you settle back into swimming. If you use a pull buoy for buoyancy (rather than buoyancy shorts), it does NOT mean you keep your legs still – kicking, or allowing your legs to move, IS allowed! Let your legs find their natural rhythm, without thinking or manipulating them.

Session content when returning

The first few weeks you should add manageable doses, rather than setting out to do long sessions, and swim the whole stroke.

Don´t introduce vast quantities of drills or isolation movements, you need to get your body used to replicating the swim movements as a whole movement. Drills and isolation work is confusing for the body. Time out of the water has already impeded your connection and coordination; swimming lots of drills will further delay your return to swim fitness and efficiency. Whole movements are NEEDED.

Break your sessions into sets of repetitions with adequate rest. 25m to 100m reps at EASY effort, with a sprinkle of HARD, strength based efforts (10-25m at a time). This will ensure you can swim well and is a great way to build your comfort and confidence again.

Please don’t swim any long sets of 200 to 400m and definitely not up to 1000m; your stroke will quickly deteriorate, your body will start to form bad habits and you WILL overload your muscles and joints, potentially injuring yourself within a couple of weeks.

Our Swim Intro plan provides an ideal set of swim sessions will help you get back into the routine of swimming.

The swim movements

As we’ve discussed in previous articles, swimming movements should be performed with simplicity in mind. This is especially important for adult, non-swimmers. Those with no competitive swimming background and have NOT accrued thousands of swim training hours throughout childhood; engraining neuromuscular pathways and promoting life-long mobility in otherwise tight joints.

Break the swim stroke into REPs:

Recover – anything goes providing is quick and relaxed

Enter – your hand at shoulder width, arm’s length (NO reaching)

PUSH – straight back

There should be no (intentional) kicking. Breathe regularly (as needed), and doing so unilaterally to use your natural strength and rhythm. Keep a continuous arm movement (no dead spot or stalling).


If you are in doubt and able to get a video of yourself swimming, send it to us for an online swim video assessment. We will assess and advise how you can be more efficient with your movements and time in the water.

See the progression, keep the excitement

Start swimming again by introducing the whole swim movements with short sets and while using buoyancy. Do this and you will notice quick progression. Noticing this will boost your excitement and keep you coming back for more! Consistency (and enjoyment) is the key to being race-ready.

In the early days, aim to get out of swim sessions feeling relatively relaxed, like you could have done more. Getting out red in the face, breathing heavy or burning should not be your goal.

Yes, you will know you’ve worked; your body won’t be used to using swim muscles to repeat the movements, the water pressure / resistance on the body is “new” again and your breathing will be  restricted, but you should finish feeling able to do more.

Finishing each session like this for the first few weeks will do wonders for your mind and body; taking small steps towards a healthier and more progressive race preparation.

Swim HARD not fast

REMEMBER that to go forwards in the water you need to push water backwards; this is the ONLY propulsive part of the stroke.

The HARDER you push water backwards, the faster you will move: this is the key to the sprinkle of harder efforts. However, don’t fall into the trap of confusing pushing HARD with pushing fast, to swim fast.

Pushing HARD requires you to use your hand and forearm to hold the water and use your muscles to apply force against the water resistance.

Pushing fast often means the swimmer isn’t “holding” the water – the hands will “slip” – and the stroke will be short.

Slipping Water and short pushes

Slipping water occurs when the hand rotates (usually to a thumb pointing forwards orientation) to:

  1. reduce the pressure and the effort of the push
  2. which is not a conscious move. It is linked to tight shoulder joints and your body simply offloading the muscles when it becomes fatigued

The body is always looking for the easiest route, slipping the water reduces the surface area presented to the waters. This then makes it easier for the muscles to replicate the movement but doesn’t actually make you swim faster.

The other common problem with thinking fast strokes rather than HARD pushing is that the push to the rear will shorten. This is because your thought processes will be on getting the arm out and over to the entry again.

Pushing all the way to the rear, arm’s length, can and should be repeated at ANY intensity of swimming. When you swim easy, push back long, when swimming hard, push back long, just alter the effort and force applied.


When you return to the water, dig out and dust off your buoyancy tools and paddles and swim manageable easy sessions – with a sprinkle of HARD.

Build these sessions with 25m’s, 50m’s, 75m’s and 100m’s, with adequate rest, and implement the simple swim REP’s. Your sessions may be 1500-2500m long, but it will comprise high quality movements; the short repetitions with rest facilitates this.

Use small swim paddles to connect you with the water; smaller for aerobic swimming, larger for strength swimming (after a few weeks).

Remember; ACCEPT it will probably feel “off” to start with and you will need time to regain your fitness and coordination. To help settle back into things faster and safer, follow the simple recipe above. You will progress safely, effectively and keep your excitement levels high.