If there’s anyone who knows what it feels like to plough up and down a pool for hours on end it’s an Olympic swimmer. Those specialising in the longer distances are all too familiar with the two-hour training sessions (usually morning and night, five or six times a week), involving length after length of slogging through the water.
Earlier this month, while on a Swimfit trip in the Caribbean, I spent a few days with the 24-year-old Olympic 400m and 800m freestyle gold-medallist Becky Adlington. As a middle-distance swimmer for many years (she’s recently retired from competitive swimming), she knows only too well how it feels to spend hour upon hour in the pool. After we’d run through a few technique drills, I had a very different question for her: just how do swimmers stay motivated and stave off boredom? And what can those of us who aren’t professionals do to get the maximum enjoyment from swimming? She gave me the following tips:
1. Have a session plan
“Make sure you have a programme laid out to follow to keep motivation up, so you know what you’re doing each day,” says Adlington. The reasons for this are manifold. Firstly, you can make notes with times if you want to then review things after a few weeks/months and see how you’ve improved. Secondly, it removes all that faff and indecision when you get to the pool and wonder how many lengths to do, which stroke, what speed etc. Thirdly, a good programme will be designed with your goals in mind, so every session has a practical purpose.
2. Make it varied
Make sure the sessions (the ones in your new plan …) aren’t the same each time. Going to the pool twice a week to do 30 minutes’ gentle breaststroke isn’t necessarily wrong – and might well make you feel better – but it’s not really going to help you reach the next level in training or increase fitness levels. Essentially the bedrock of the average training schedule will include technique drills, distance work, speed work and an easy recovery swim, but if none of that makes sense, join a swimming club or hire a coach and they can point you in the right direction.
3. Set yourself small targets if you’re struggling to stay in the zone
“If I was ever bored I would try and count my strokes,” says Adlington. “I’d do different things like see if I could do fewer strokes in the next length (staying the same speed) or see how many strokes I could do without breathing. I wanted to stay focused and in the zone with a technical distraction, but also not distract myself completely by thinking about lunch or dinner!”
4. Set goals for each session
“Every session you have a goal – to hit those splits, or to complete the distances. It’s all short term. As an athlete we never really think that long term – what I’m doing now, this week, or for those trials in two months. It’s too risky as you could get injured or ill, so don’t think further ahead. Think about the process and not the outcome.”
5. Mix up the environment
“A 50m pool is great for distance or open-water swimmers to train in, but it’s extra tough on the shoulders as you don’t get a break, whereas a 25m pool gives you a chance to practise more turns and is a little easier on the body,” says Adlington. She agrees that, for the average swimmer, “it’s a question of what’s available to you”, but adds: “If you can vary it, and switch between 25m, 50m and open water, that’s ideal.”
6. Don’t forget about props
“Hand paddles are absolutely great for building up arm strength,” says Adlington. Most of us have childhood memories of holding on to floats and just working on our kicks, but you can also use a “pool buoy” – a small, figure-of-eight-shaped float – between your legs so that you have to rely entirely on your arms to move along. Wrist and ankle weights are also common ways to turn a swimming workout into a strength session, but try taking them off for the final 10 minutes and sprinting (you’ll feel particularly speedy and light after being so weighted down before).
7. Swim with someone else
“If you don’t have a coach, swimming with another person really helps,” she promises. “Even I struggle on my own at the gym, for example. I prefer going with a friend. If I’m on the treadmill, I’m just like, ‘Ah, I’m bored’ and I get off. With someone else you push yourself a lot harder, you do a lot better.”
Lots of us are more likely to turn up to training if another person is depending on us. But that doesn’t mean you have to do the same session; just use your training buddy like a prop! He or she might be training for a middle-distance triathlon while you are recovering from a running injury and want to do gentle non-impact distance work in the pool. It doesn’t matter, as long as you meet somewhere, go in together, tell each other what you have planned out for that session and then wait until you’re both finished.
• Virgin Holidays has a “Swim Palm Island with Becky Adlington” package including a workshop with Becky from £1,899pp, including seven nights in Palm Island and flights with Virgin Atlantic from London Gatwick on an all-inclusive basis. Price is based on two adults travelling and sharing a Palm View room. To book: virginholidays.co.uk; 0844 557 3859; palmislandresortgrenadines.com.
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