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by Marty Munson

May 25, 2020

These five strategies can help make your return to the pool successful

The thought of getting back in the water right now, for most swimmers, is probably twofold. One: “Woohoo! Finally!” The other: “This has the potential to be really ugly.”

True, your first few strokes in the water aren’t going to be like the last few you took before going on hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But there are ways to approach re-entry without getting frustrated or beating yourself up about where your swim fitness is.

“It’s not unlike a comeback from an injury,” says Darrell Phillips, certified mental performance consultant and adjunct faculty member at the University of Kansas. “You need to be realistic about what you expect. Nobody who knows sport and training and competing would expect someone to have the same split times. It’s realistic to think there will be a drop-off.”

Remember that you weren’t always as fast as you were when the break happened; you trained to get there. So you can train to come back.

“You just need to be mentally prepared to be realistic about what could happen and what might happen, and control what you can control,” Phillips says.

These strategies can help.

Think about what you want from swimming

As soon as you get word that your swimming spot will be open—or you can even do this if you’re still waiting—“think about what it is about swimming that you like in the first place,” Phillips says. Maybe it’s the community, the feel of the water, the feeling of being buoyant, or feeling like you did your best after a hard effort. “Remind yourself of the positive benefits of being a swimmer,” Phillips says. “They’re going to be there for you.”

Have a chat with your monkey brain

“You have so many aspects of your personality that pop up during any type of event,” says Chris Bagg, a Level 2 coach and co-founder of the Portland-based Chris Bagg Coaching Group. “There can be a super aggressive ‘let’s race and destroy the universe’ part, and another part that’s nervous about failing.”

That worried part is what some mindfulness teachers call the monkey brain, and it’s the one that keeps telling you when you get in the pool that your performance isn’t good or you’re going to be embarrassed about your splits on Strava.

“You don’t want to banish that ‘chimp,’ or it will sit in the corner throwing food at you to get your attention. It’s a functional aspect of your personality that’s trying to protect you from embarrassment,” says Bagg, a member of Oregon Masters. “Instead, talk to your chimp a bit. Tell it that you know it’s trying to protect you, but ‘if you can work with me a little bit and be patient, it’s going to be a lot easier and less painful to get back to where we were.’ You’re having a conversation rather than a fight, and it can be a game changer.”

Decide what will make your first workouts a win

Write a new script for what success looks like your first day of training or your first few weeks of training. What kind of goals can you aim for that aren’t based on your times or goals you have for competition?

“Redirect the energy toward something positive and productive,” Phillips says.

Maybe your goals for the first week might be to get to the pool three times that week. Maybe it will be to focus on your alternate-side breathing for a third of the session. Or to really make your best effort on your flip turns every single turn. Give yourself wins to check off no matter how weird it feels to be back or no matter what your times are.

Beware the clock

Try not to look at the clock too much.

“I’d let at least three or four weeks of consistent swimming go by before you start to analyze what you’re doing,” Bagg says. “Just do your best instead of going off the pace clock—or try to shift back to a method of working that’s more based on perceived exertion.”

If you really can’t help yourself and you do look at the clock, “be aware that some split times might be the same for the first 10 minutes of practice, but not during the last 40 minutes,” Phillips says.

And don’t expect every day to get consistently better.

“I wouldn’t be surprised to see Monday’s workout start out fairly close to your old times and by Friday, things go to heck in a handbasket. Expecting keeps this from being such a slap in the face—or mouthful of water,” he adds.

Rethink your speed identity

It can be helpful to stop thinking of yourself as a certain speed of athlete, Bagg points out.

“If you look at your career as an athlete, it’s a lot like the stock market in the long term,” he says. “Athletes forget that there are incredibly normal market corrections that occur throughout their careers.”

And he cautions against misremembering your former best times: “I think that athletes actually over-remember not just the bad, but also the good. The race where you averaged 1:29 per 100 become the race where you swam 1:20.”

So, leave your ego and your identity as a certain pace out of things at first.

“Think of yourself like the rest of the world—as coming back from an interruption that’s out of your control and not your fault,” he says.

Take these steps before you get into the pool, and once you hit the water, Bagg says, “you might discover you’re enjoying swimming more.”


  • Technique and Training


  • Fitness