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Training Fitness Swimmers

Tips for making fitness swimming exciting

Ali Hall | August 1, 2010

Recently I attended the Walnut Creek Intensive Swim Camp, a fun-filled three days of instruction and long workouts with tons of individualized feedback. Swimmers couldn’t approach the wall without hearing something about their streamline (or lack of it), distance per stroke, cross-over, or maybe even some praise for not breathing the first stroke out of a turn. And the program was created and coordinated by Kerry O’Brien, swimmer extraordinaire, who is also head coach for Walnut Creek Masters, an incredible group of fitness and competitive swimmers a few hundred members strong.

After we had swum our final yards of the weekend, I was talking with a Walnut Creek fitness swimmer and I was marveling at what a wonderful program they seem to enjoy with Kerry as their coach. “You bet!” she said, “I told my husband that when I retire in five years, he can forget about moving. I’m not leaving Walnut Creek! I might lose my marriage, but I’m not giving up this swim program! It’s what keeps me together!”

What is it about fitness swimming, about fitness swimmers, that they are willing to risk divorce for a program that works for them? What is Kerry doing over there? How does he train his hundreds of fitness swimmers, how does he help them keep their love for fitness alive?

So, I asked him and this is what he had to say about training fitness swimmers, words of wisdom for coaches and swimmers alike:

With over 50,000 registered USMS members and a large National Championship consisting of something like 2,000 entrants, it is reasonable to conclude that most of our membership is of the fitness persuasion. But this certainly does not mean that they are not motivated and do not want to be challenged. They come to our programs with defined goals in mind, and eager to connect with those who can make them a reality. Make sure you are a part of that process. Shared goals stand a much higher chance of being attained.

Regardless of age and ability, competitive or fitness, all swimmers want to be treated the same - differently. A somewhat confusing statement, but by this I mean that once a coach is aware of any physical limitations a member might have, that coach should understand that most all swimmers want to be held to the same expectations and training standards. If, as a coach, I believe it is important for my meet swimmers to pull bottom arm out of their breakouts to carry more speed to the surface, I need to convey that importance to everyone as a training discipline, regardless of if they will ever use it in competition.

Goals and goal setting should always have more than one variable to define success, and should not always be time based. Number of workouts per month, increased yardage goals, better understanding of pacing and descending, mastering the flip turn; these are all great goals that can occur without ever touching a touchpad.

We will explain to prospective members that regardless of their interest in competition or fitness, we train everyone as if the were preparing for Nationals, just because we believe that training all the energy systems (aerobic, anaerobic threshold, and sprinting) is the best possible way to maximize fitness level. Giving swimmers recorded sets that show progression from week to week or month to month helps build a sense of accountability and at the same time being tangible evidence of improvement.

Try to always find ways to create a self-accomplishment that surfs on the edge of a group dynamic where contribution is important. Regardless of ability level, their participation to an overall goal that merits all efforts lessens the anxiety of person-to-person comparisons. A team goal for the Hour Swim or Swim Across America are both established events that allow for such an opportunity, but other like-types of events can be designed in-house  within your team to achieve the same outcome.

The Walnut Creek Masters Mission and Vision:

In an atmosphere that creates personal challenge; physical fitness, teamwork, and social camaraderie, Walnut Creek Masters strive to have every member exit the pool with a heightened sense of accomplishment and self-worth.

I think if we can challenge our swimmers daily to compete within themselves to accomplish those things that they deem important, we will see them again tomorrow. The ultra-optimistic side of me as a coach also believes that every swimmer is just steps away from a starting block. – Kerry O’Brien

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