How to Get Through the Loss of Swimming
Experts explain how to deal with this tough situation
If water is your happy place—and even if it’s sometimes been a frustrating and challenging place—having no pool and no access to open water because of the COVID-19 pandemic is going to hurt.
But there are ways to stay sane and get at least some of what the water was giving you in other ways. And we’re not just going to say dryland here, because we all know that although it’s really critical, it’s just not the same.
“It’s similar to when you’re dealing with an injury and are unable to do the sport that you love,” says Carrie Cheadle, a certified mental performance consultant and author of “Rebound: Train Your Mind to Bounce Back Stronger from Sports Injuries.” “The last thing you want to hear when you’re a swimmer and have an upper body injury is someone saying to you, ‘Well, at least you can run!’ because you don’t want to run, you want to swim!”
So what are you going to do to get even close to what you used to get from swimming?
First figure out what you got from swimming
“Early on, I realized that one of the hardest things we’re going to cope with isn’t necessarily the loss of movement, I think it’s going to be the loss of connection,” says Jen Schumacher, a member of Novaquatics Masters and assistant director of the performance psychology program at the Center for Enhanced Performance at West Point, referring to the current stay-at-home orders around the world to avoid spreading Coronavirus disease.
That might be in combination with other things swimming gave you. Maybe it’s a sense of escape, putting your head underwater and not having to answer to anything or anyone. Or maybe you get flow or a feeling of rhythm and structure. Or the feeling of getting fit. Or setting a goal and getting a sense of achievement from working toward it.
“There are still things we can find that hit each of those needs, just in a different way, and perhaps not all at the same time,” Schumacher says.
You know the basics. For connection, don’t underestimate the power of a text check-in with your lanemates or a full-on Zoom virtual training session. Those who like to escape might find it helpful to do meditation. If you can’t do moving meditation—like running, cycling, walking, or yoga—consider the more traditional type to get your head where you like it to be. “Finding some space to meditate won’t address the physical component of this, but it can help you decompress,” Schumacher says.
Making art or cooking can get you in the zone, too, but you’ll then want to layer fitness onto your day in whatever other way you can.
Then consider how you can make this work for you
“Think about how you want to feel when you get back into the water and what decisions you need to make now in order to work towards that feeling,” Cheadle says.
Getting back in the water will be easier if you’ve spent this time maintaining your aerobic fitness and making the whole chain stronger, Schumacher says. So create a plan that helps you deliver your best self toward the edge of the pool, river, lake, or ocean when you’re able to get in again. Dryland is a lot easier to swallow if it’s in the envelope of things that will help you become a mentally and physically strong swimmer a few months from now (start with these great swim-specific exercises now), rather than making dryland the goal in itself.
Change how you think about your training plan
“You not only need to modify your training plan,” Schumacher says. “It’s equally important to modify your perception of the training plan. You need to believe that, for instance, run training will get you to a place where you can reasonably get to your goal.
“You will lose a little feel of the water, but you’ll get that back, usually after a two- to four-week miserable process. But it’s exponentially easier to get back to swimming when we’ve kept our fitness levels in some other way. For me, that’s looked like much more dryland endurance training,” says Schumacher, who’s been working toward an English Channel crossing this summer, the fate of which is now uncertain due to travel restrictions. “Until the water warms up to about 50, I’ve not only switched the way I’m training, but I’ve convinced myself and I continue to remind myself that right now, I’m laying down a really strong base.”
Commit to your new plan
This isn’t just your second-best plan. It’s your plan. Let yourself get into a high-performance mentality about it, if that’s what you did before. Put your swimsuit on under your workout clothes—as long as the thought of wearing it energizes you rather than breaks your heart. Competitive types might get inspired to do more planks than your lane leader.
Act as if you’re getting back in soon, but create a contingency plan
Train as if you’re going to get in the water soon, but consider a nonswim goal, too, Schumacher says. If you’re running to stay aerobically fit, consider a virtual 10K or join any of the innumerable gym challenges going around.
Swim in the sink—or read about it
Not too long ago, renowned open water swimmer Lynne Cox, known for her 1987 Bering Strait swim and dozens of other open-water firsts and notables, was forced out of the water by a heart condition that left her barely able to walk. In her book, “Swimming in the Sink,” she reveals how part of her recovery process was just like it sounds; experiencing the pure joy of water by filling up the sink and moving your hands and arms around in it.
“Having a tracker is huge,” Schumacher says about how to deal with this uncomfortable time. Maybe it’s a calendar where you can check off the days that you’ve done some sort of exercise, or a sophisticated online tracker like USMS’s Fitness Logs (where you can also track nonswimming activity). No matter what, it’s important to give yourself credit for what you’ve been doing.
“If you can look at this calendar when you’re able to get back into the water, you’re going to see weeks of completely full checked-off days,” Schumacher says. “And you’re going to be able to get out there with the confidence that you might not have a feel for the water today, but you know you have great endurance and it will all come together pretty soon.”
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