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by Scott Bay

February 1, 2019

New thinking on swimming and rest for experienced athletes

At the 2017 ASCA World Clinic, Coach Bob Bowman talked about how Michael Phelps needed more rest both between efforts and between workouts in his “old age.” The audience got a chuckle out of it. Bowman explained what he meant in terms of more rest and less yardage and gave several examples using graphs of workout volume versus rest and training and racing times. Although his 17 years of longitudinal data only pertains to one swimmer, there are some great takeaways for Masters swimmers.

Kids and Adults are Different

The body responds to both physical and mental stress in the same way. As a Masters swimmer, you’re probably worried about your job, bills to pay, and family. No wonder doing the short-rest sets and two-a-days that are common for age-group swimmers seems so difficult to try and do now.

Age-group swimmers also grow stronger by working out and eating. Masters swimmers might have hit their strength-gain plateau and are headed in the other direction.

This is where the motivation piece comes in. Most Masters swimmers today who are also former age-group swimmers were brought up with “more is better, and much more is much more better” philosophy of swimming in which they’re supposed to push through pain. But it’s important to remember that more isn’t always better, and that pain is the body telling you to back off.   

Workout Design

There’s a country song that says something to the effect of, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” There are lots of things we could do at age 17 that are beyond us today. Some may cringe at this thought, but for busy Masters swimmers, a very successful means of continuing to do what you love AND be competitive forever is to figure out what is the least amount of work you can do and still accomplish your goals.

This isn’t an advocation for being lazy but a strategy for recognizing the other stressors in life and making sure that swimming relieves rather than adds to them.

In workout design, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when you go to the pool.

  • Interval and distance—The clock is your friend and not your boss. It lets you know how fast you’re going versus your perceived effort. Not every day will be magical and if you have to increase the rest interval or shorten the distance, there won’t be an age-group coach screaming that you missed it.
  • Quality versus quantity—How many repeats can be done really well? Maybe it’s one fewer and maybe it’s one more. The key is to challenge yourself but not kill yourself. When your stroke gets sloppy, back off.
  • Getting it right—If you’re beating on the water but making the interval, are you making progress? Probably not, and you’re inviting injury if your technique suffers.
  • Hit the snooze button—Your body will tell you when to take a day off. It’s wise to listen to it. As mentioned earlier, recovery time will change with age. What you could bounce back from at 17 will take longer now.

The Long Game

One of the best things about Masters swimming is that you can do it for your whole life. As you age up, redirecting your energy and focus, keeping current on new approaches to training and technique, and knowing when to take a break can help keep the sport fresh. With each new chapter, you may find that some of your most rewarding swims are still ahead of you.


  • Technique and Training


  • Recovery