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by Robert Boder

November 1, 2005

A mixed blessing

The first reaction to the idea is "It can't be done". This is quickly followed by "those old timers will run you out of the pool and you will never be able to swim sprints". If you are under 50 and looking for national recognition you might be right. However if your goals are more modest, not only can it be done but it has been done in a crowded 4 lane 25 yard YMCA pool. I made two men’s 60-64 national top ten times swimming alone without coaching or fixed workout plans! Here is what works for me.

My goal is to make New England top ten times in as many long course events as I can. I swim all year but limit my serious training to the spring and summer.

Swimming Alone

Swimming alone is a mixed blessing. On one hand you can set the pace without anyone thinking you are dogging it on bad days. On the other hand it is hard to stay focused and push during speed work.

A big issue is maintaining or improving your technique. To maintain technique I rarely swim more than 200 yards of a stroke without switching to just kicking or a different stroke. Avoiding bad habits is the hardest part of swimming alone.

Crowded Pool Advise

Here are some general rules to follow when training in a crowded pool:

1.      Choose a lane based on the speed of current occupants and when they are likely to leave the pool. If there are too many swimmers just pick a lane for kicking until space opens up. This is less frustrating than bumping into people. Look for opportunities to switch lanes as conditions permit.

2.      Do kick down and swim back laps. This will slow down your pace to fit in with the traffic flow. On the swims limit yourself to only 2 or 3 breaths per length.

3.      Get a pair of training fins and just stand and kick in place in the deep end of the slowest lane. You can also do this during water exercise classes.

4.      Swim only front crawl in crowds. Breaststroke kicks hurt. Backstroke arms sweep too wide. Forget that butterfly even exists.

5.      Switch direction to avoid a swimmer traffic jam at the turn. It is a good way to get 25 yards of open water before you overtake the slowpokes.

The bottom line is to learn how to make your time productive while respecting fellow swimmers. It is not always easy but it can be done. Be flexible and remember there is always tomorrow. Train multiple times a day if possible. Also some pools, like the one I use, are kept too warm to push for extended periods. After 15 minutes of fast swimming I need to slow down. In my workouts I never stop. Why? For the simple reason if I have half a lane to myself or am circling with compatible swimmers the last thing I want is another swimmer coming into the lane. Defend your turf but just don't be a pain in the ass about it.

Workout Suggestions

I do a lot of distance in full stroke sets of 100 or 200 yards. Between swims I will kick 50 yards on my back or side. Remember to defend your turf by never stopping! If you are resting on the wall someone will jump in and join you. In any case don't dwell on lap counting or following a fixed workout. Your body and the wall clock will tell when you are done. If you adopt this approach to workouts it is important to have a good sense of pace. I try to do 1500 to 2000 yards in total and complete the distance in about 30 minutes. My daily goal is 3000 to 4000 yards. I frequently have to settle for less.

Whenever you get a chance time yourself in 100s or 200s. You must know how fast you are swimming. I avoid repeat sprinting sets with short rests of more than four swims. Don't be stupid in your quest for glory. Do this for fun and a healthy life style.

If you find someone to swim with follow their workout plan if they suggest one. You may pick up a routine you like. One I learned is to do 3 sets of four swims each. The sets go 4x200, 4x100 and 4x50 yards. The rest between swims is the time it took in the previous swim. In each of the four swims try to swim faster than the previous one. Take longer breaks between the sets.

I also like to do kick down swim back drills of 200 yards or more. This helps in two ways. I can focus on technique or speed in the swim. The kick portion eases the pain of my always sore rotator cuffs. Add aerobic content by breathing only 2 or 3 times in each swim length.

When alone in a lane practice butterfly and breaststroke if you plan to race these. Breaststroke can be a nice intellectual exercise to learn to swim correctly. There are great web sites that explain how to do both strokes.  Applying what you learn helps avoid the tediousness of the same workout day after day. Experiment, it makes you feel good about the days you don’t want to work hard.

Kicking and slow drills should be done when the pool is full of swimmers. I read that the legs are the first part of your body to fail in long course races so I put more emphasis on kicking and use fins to do vertical kicking during the water exercise classes. I was much stronger in my long course swims after doing this.

A tip I would offer is:

·     Try warming up at your home pool before going to local meets. My second daily workout always feels better when it comes within a few hours of the first one. The warm up at home serves the same purpose. This has an added benefit of avoiding the crowds during a meet's allotted warm up period. Spend less time swimming and more counting strokes from the backstroke flags or just seeing the walls for flip turns at the meet warm up.

I need to stretch more, pay closer attention to eating habits and become acquainted with swimmers at the meets. I will investigate using post exercise recovery drinks for this summer's training.  Being sore all day is not much fun. The end result of hard work should enjoyable. There aren't many things better than making a new friend.

Closing Thoughts

As an older swimmer looking for advice, I find articles about older swimmers’ success but very little about their training or attitude towards competition. I want to know just how much aerobic stress is reasonable. How much can or should we push without causing harm to our bodies?

I compete in close to home mini-meets. One of these days I may even get my wife to watch. My fifteen-year-old son was my “coach” at the MIT mini-meet last summer. It was a great experience for both of us. He saw me turn in two national top ten swims. Share swimming with family members and make friends.

Don’t let the challenges of training alone during lap swim periods stop you from setting and accomplishing goals. It can be done and the benefits can't be beat. Keep your goals reasonable and enjoy any success you may have. By improving your heath you win every day. Get in the water and keep going!

This month's article is by Robert Boder, the Competitive Swimming Aquatics Director and Swim Coach at the Charles River YMCA in Needham, Mass.