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So You Want to Be a Masters Swimmer?

Ways to start smart and keep going

Lisa Wolf | February 6, 2012

Hazy recollections of predawn workouts, monster sets and two-a-days, sometimes flit across my memory like a vague dream. I know it happened years ago but as a parent of two teens, a swim coach and someone with a day job, I find it difficult to find pool time for myself. Life is complicated with work, family obligations and an aging body conspiring to make daily practices a thing of the past.

However, despite limited time in the water, average Masters swimmers can make tremendous strides in their cardiovascular status with the idea of training “smart” vs. “daily.” Recent studies show that even athletes in their 40s and older can continue to develop increased aerobic capacity and continue to reap the benefits of improved fitness. Think of Dara Torres.

If you are new to Masters swimming or returning to team after a long layoff, a few common sense tips can help ease your way back into the pool.

First of all, as you all know, a trip to the doctor for a physical checkup is essential before entering into any exercise program. It can spot any potential issues that could impact or limit your training.

If you’re reading this, you probably have already decided to join the ranks of more than 50,000 Masters swimmers across the U.S. Congratulations!

Getting Started

Rome wasn’t built in a day and you are not going to turn into Michael Phelps overnight, so a gradual increase in time in the pool and yardage is paramount to avoid burnout and injury. The rule of thumb is no more than a 10% increase in training per week. Two or three workouts a week should be a good start for someone who has been out of the water for an extended period of time and twice a week for those new to swimming.

Time in the water should gradually increase. If you can only make 45 minutes of a workout, then slowly increase it to an hour over time. Use your coach to help. Remember that every four to six weeks you need a down week—lesser yardage, to allow your body to recover from your increasing workouts.

Many coaches plan workouts according to a training cycle for the entire season and they can help guide you in improving your yardage. If you miss a workout—or even several consecutive workouts—do not fret. Just get to the pool and get back in. If you travel for work, look up other Masters teams at “Places to Swim” on usms.org. Most teams welcome visiting swimmers all the time and it’s a fun way to see other teams in action and to experience other coaches’ workouts.

Train Smart

Monitoring your heart rate is a great training tool. The general rule of thumb is 220 minus your age is your target heart rate. When starting an exercise program, aim at the lowest part of your target zone (50 percent) during the first few weeks. Gradually build up to the higher part of your target zone (75-80 percent). Don’t go into the “red zone” (over 85 percent). If you find yourself in the red zone, back off your speed and recover into the proper zone. Your coach may sometimes give you a percentage for a set and you should try to stay or reach that range.

You can train in the red zone for short periods of time and you may be asked to do so as you progress. This is called anaerobic training and your body is being asked for all-out effort for a burst of speed (probably a 25 or 50 yards on a short set). The goal is to deplete your glucose store and train your body to function on limited oxygen and glycogen.

If you find yourself hitting the red zone it too often, take it down a notch, but do NOT sit out. Active recovery is a term used to describe teaching your body to recover while still swimming. You slow down your pace to moderate and allow your heart rate to lower. It’s not a “dawdle” swim—it’s moderate. One of the worst things you can do is to be zooming along, reaching for the red zone and stop suddenly. First of all, it’s debilitating to your cardiovascular system and it doesn’t help you learn to swim through a tough set.

Open water swimming is a situation where training for active recovery will be useful. Take, for example, the Chesapeake Bay Swim or a triathlon with a river swim. It means a crazy wave start where you’ll need to sprint until the crowd thins out, but then you’ll be swimming with and against the current for at least part of the swim. If you can learn to sprint and then swim with active recovery, you will increase your chances of a successful swim and decrease your chances of panicking to the point of dropping out.

Challenge Yourself

Endurance, or the ability to make an entire workout, is hard won. Challenge yourself in different ways periodically. Interval work is key to increasing your aerobic capacity. If the set is 8 x 100 on 1:40 and you have problems for the last 4, then skip a 50 at the end of one and then plow back in. I call it the “reset” button, as it gives you a chance to lower your heart rate a bit, catch your breath, and to loosen your muscles to allow you to regain your stroke. The same goes for longer distances: if the set is 500s, then skip a 50 periodically to allow yourself to recover. However, that doesn’t give you carte blanche to continue this practice indefinitely—it’s just a way to get you in shape to do the full set.

Now you’ve finished a great workout and the last minutes of practice are approaching. You feel awesome and pretty pleased with yourself, right? Well, don’t ruin it by suddenly getting out of the pool to talk to your friends or to drive home. You need to properly warm down (also called cool down). You need to do a few laps (preferably at least a 200) at the ‘dawdle” speed to allow your heart rate to return to normal and your muscles to loosen up. They don’t put horses back in the stall while still hot, so why would you want to do that to your body? Trust me, the hot tub will still be there after a few more minutes spent looking at the black lines on the bottom of the pool.

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About the Author—Lisa Wolf

Lisa Wolf is a Masters coach with the Montgomery Ancient Mariners and the District of Columbia of Aquatics Club in the Washington, DC area. She’s also a USA-S age group coach with the Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club and works with several other local swim programs. She’s  a certified USA Triathlon coach to better serve the growing triathlon community within USMS. Coach Wolf is a regular contributor to USMS publications, USAT Multisport Zone newsletter and local club newsletters. As current Potomac Valley Fitness Chair, she’s an avid recruiter to USMS, with the belief that “everyone is a swimmer, some of us just haven’t started yet.”

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