Check your fitness levels before you dive back in!
Many of us are itching to get back into the swimming pool once the current lockdown restrictions are relaxed. I’m a professional swimming and aqua aerobics instructor, as well as an accredited AquaStretch practitioner, so in normal circumstances I’d be spending a lot of my working life in the water or standing at the side of the pool. My family had got well used to the lingering smell of chlorine whenever I walked into the house!
But even if you’ve managed to keep up a regular land-based exercise routine while the pools have been closed, when the day finally comes to don your cossie and goggles once more don’t just jump back in the water and expect to pick up where you left off. Lots of us have taken up walking, jogging or cycling to keep aerobically fit, but if you’ve neglected upper body work you may have lost strength in your arms and shoulders. Plus your form may need some attention. So throwing yourself back into drills and lane jogging as if the last few months never happened may put you at risk of muscle strain or injury.
My advice is to take it slowly, and always consult your GP if you have any concerns about your fitness levels, or are thinking of taking up a new exercise regime.
What to focus on after a long break from swimming
If you were a regular swimmer who enjoyed a few laps of the pool several times a week then you should transition back to swimming very slowly. Think back to when you first began your swimming routine. No doubt you started small then worked up to a target number of laps per session, and/or set yourself a time goal. That’s the mindset you will need to go back to.
Be patient with yourself, take it day by day and focus on your form before setting yourself stretch targets. When we lose the feel for the water we may become unbalanced, and when we’re unbalanced we tend to compromise on technique. For example by lifting our head too high out of the water to breathe, which may throw off our body alignment, ending up in a corkscrew-style kick, which slows us down and puts undue strain on our muscles.
Whichever your choice of stroke (freestyle, breaststroke etc) focus on the following in this order for the first half of your session:
Head position, rotation and breathing
Arm position, elbow height and stroke recovery
How your hands enter and exit the water
You can also wear fins (if the pool allows it) which reduce stress on your shoulders and allow you to concentrate on your body form and stroke technique.
For the second half of your session grab a kick board. This will allow you to isolate your legs, keeping your body in the correct position with your hips high in the water. Now you can focus on kicking and building up your speed, with the added benefit of strengthening your ankles and mobility.
Focus on re-establishing good habits and confidence and your previous levels of pool fitness will return.
What to do if you haven’t been able to exercise during lockdown
If for whatever reason you haven’t been able to keep up any aerobic activity, then it’s even more important that you work on your overall fitness levels before jumping back into the pool. If you’ve been sedentary then I recommend that you do some gentle stretching and conditioning exercises at home first before even thinking about getting back into the water.
Swimming is a great overall body workout since it uses multiple sets of muscles at once. So to get yourself back to swim fitness you’ll need to focus on your core, arms and legs and pick exercises that will gradually develop your power, speed, mobility and flexibility.
There are lots of weight-bearing exercises you can do at home such as burpees, planks, squats and lunges that will slowly warm up your muscles and rebuild your fitness so that your first swimming session is not such a shock to the system. One of the best things to come out of lockdown is the massive growth of online fitness classes and video tutorials. So have a look online to find a class that will give you a good overall body workout.
And while exercising in your living room doesn’t compare to the sheer joy of gliding through the water, it can help to improve your health and fitness ahead of getting back into the pool in the coming weeks and months.
What to do if you’re suffering from joint or muscle pain
If enforced lockdown has meant some old injuries or pains have resurfaced, then it’s vital you get some physical therapy before resuming any form of regular exercise, including swimming or aqua aerobics. While one of the best things about water-based exercise is the ability for your body to be supported by the water, this doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to dive back in and expect to exercise as vigorously as you did before.
If you’re in pain it may be tempting to skip exercise altogether, but exercising is one of the best ways to lessen the pain. Assisted stretching in water, such as during an AquaStretch session will help, but what can you do while the pools are still closed? We’re all being encouraged to leave the house once a day to get some fresh air and exercise, so why not build in a half hour gentle walk into your daily routine if you are physically able to?
Or you can do some simple stretching even while sitting at your computer or watching TV. I’ve even created a series of gentle exercises you can do before you get out of bed in the morning to warm up your body! Stretching and getting all your body parts moving in a full range of motion is always helpful.
Or you can try some gentle strength-training exercises that work your joints. You don’t need any special equipment since a can of baked beans is as good as a dumbbell, plus you can try some sit-ups or push-ups using a rug or a thick blanket for an exercise mat.
If you’re counting the days until the pools and leisure centres reopen, then you’re not alone! But please resist the temptation to dive back into the water without listening to your body first and paying attention to what it’s telling you. The smallest sprain, muscle twitch or niggle – if ignored – can manifest into a serious issue, so take it easy until you’re fully back to fitness and form. Your future self will thank you!