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A Beginning Guide to Practices & Workouts


Q: What are easy exercises I can do away from a pool to help my swimming?

A: Stretching is very important. Ideally you should stretch before and after practice, but stretching is a fine exercise even if you can't swim for a day or two. There are lots of different stretching routines that are good for swimmers. Ask your coach to recommend one and/or look into the various stretching books.

Light weight training or using an elastic cord are excellent to help your swimming. As with stretching, find a routine that you like and that works for you. Generally look for motions that are similar to motions in your stroke and use light weights with many reps.

There is a great deal that you can do in very small pools other than lap swimming. Try kicking standing in place if the pool is deep enough. One minute of kicking equals 50 yards of kicking. Try kicking pushing against the side of the pool. This is very effective with breaststroke but be careful because you put much more stress on your knees than you do when you use a kick board.

Sculling drills can be done in very small pools. In large pools, you often neglect them to do laps and get in yardage. If you don't know any sculling drills, ask your coach to give you some.

Q: What are good foods to eat before a practice? How long before?

A: Eat normally before practice, but don't eat foods that will sit in your stomach or upset it. Generally, don't eat anything an hour or an hour and a half before practice because the blood that is necessary to digest this food won't be available to power your muscles.

More important than eating before practice is eating after practice. After a hard practice you have depleted your muscles and they need replenishment, especially of protein, so eat something within half an hour of finishing practice.

Q: What should I avoid eating or drinking before swimming?

A: Be guided by your own experience. Some very good swimmers with cast iron stomachs eat pizza and drink Coke before swimming. Others have nothing but a toasted bagel and Gatorade.


Q: Why should I warm-up? Can't I just swim easy at the start of a set?

A: You need to warm up your muscles and also to get a feel for the water. Each set in practice has a particular objective. If you are warming up during the beginning of a set, you almost certainly aren't working to meet the objective of the set.

Q: What makes a good warm-up?

A: A good warm-up includes enough swimming, kicking and pulling so that you are warmed up and have stretched your muscles. Remember that part of a good warm-up is some dry land stretching before you even get in the water.

Q: Can I warm-up too much?

A: The objective of warming-up is just that. Each of the sets that follow your warm-up have a specific objective. If you spend too much time and energy on warming-up, you won't have either the time or energy to concentrate on the critical facets of your training.

The same is true for your warm-up at a meet. Know how much swimming you need in warm-up so you can do your best in a race. This varies for each individual; develop a warm-up that works for you.


Q: What is an interval, how do I pick one, and why would I want to do one?

A: Interval swimming is a way to improve your aerobic conditioning. The correct interval is the fastest time that you can swim repeat 100's or 200's without cross-ing your aerobic threshold. Perhaps the best way to determine your interval is to swim a 1,500 or 1,000 in a meet and then use your average 100 or 200 time for your interval.

As your conditioning and skills improve, you should lower your interval.

Q: How often should I swim a week, and about how many yards per practice make a good workout? Will doing more yards improve my swimming?

A: Swim a minimum of three times a week for at least 1,500 to 2,000 yards a session, and don't swim three days in a row and take four off. If you can only swim three times a week, try and space your workouts.

More important to improvement than yardage is a focus on streamlining, body position, and stroke technique. Swimming for yardage alone can just ingrain your stroke flaws.

Q: What would I accomplish by swimming one long distance instead of lots of short distances? (for example, one 500 instead of five 100's)

A: The advantage of swimming long distances is perfecting your stroke through the discipline of a longer swim and the particular conditioning that comes with long swims.

Q: What would I accomplish by swimming several short distances instead of one long distance? (for example, five 100's instead of one 500)

A: The advantage of swimming interval 100's comes with pushing yourself to swim each one of them a little faster than you would if you were swimming a longer distance. And if you do the first 100 in an interval set too fast, you can recover during the rest interval and adjust your pace for the remaining 100's.

If you go out too fast in a long swim, your stroke breaks down and you get little or no advantage from the swim.

Q: How do I know if I'm working hard enough during the practice?

A: One of the best methods of checking to see if you are working too hard is to check your pulse after a set. If your pulse is over 80% of your max a minute or two after finishing a set, you are working too hard. Know your resting pulse, your maximum heart rate and roughly how long it takes your pulse to recover after you have pushed it to its max.

Your recovery rate is as important as anything to check whether you are working too hard in a practice. If you find after several hard sets that your pulse isn't recovering at near its normal recovery rate, you are probably working too hard.

Another good check is to take your resting pulse the morning after a hard workout before you get up. If your resting pulse it more than 5 beats higher than your normal resting pulse, you worked out too hard the day before.

Q: I'm just interested in fitness, not in competing. How should my practices be different?

A: Generally, do the same warm-up and aerobic conditioning sets, but you needn't do the sprint sets and specific sets to prepare for a particular race.

It makes sense to try and swim all four strokes to give you some variety and a challenge. Many fitness swimmers swim only freestyle and often ingrain flaws in their strokes by getting in a rut of always swimming the same stroke the same way at the same speed.

Q: I do open water/triathlon swimming, not pool meets. Should my practices be different?

A: If you are practicing in open water, your workouts will be very different from pool workouts. If you are working out in a pool for an open water swim, have your coach design workouts that will condition and prepare you for the special demands of open water swimming.


Q: After swimming a set, I'm always out of breath. Is this good or bad?

A: You should be breathing hard after a set, but how quickly you recover is a better gauge of how tired you are than just breathing hard.

Q: My (shoulder, biceps, forearm, thigh, etc.) muscles get sore during practice. Is this normal, or what should I do?

A: If your shoulder, elbow or knee are sore after practice, you have a potentially serious problem and should immediately work with your coach to figure out what the problem is. In many cases a technique flaw is putting undue strain on your shoulder, elbow or knee. Find out what the flaw is and spend as much time as necessary changing your stroke to eliminate the problem.

If the large muscles in your arms, back or legs are sore after a workout, it probably means that you were really working. If they are still sore 24 hours after practice, then talk to your coach about what the problem might be. One of the great things about swimming is that sore muscles most often are gone the next morning.

Q: Sometimes I get a cramp while I'm swimming. What should I do?

A: The first thing to do is to determine what is causing the cramp. Some people get cramps in their calfs because they always push off with the same foot. Others bend their knees too much in their kick and therefore strain their calfs.

Older swimmers above the age of 50 are prone to cramps in the extremities because the microscopic capillaries break down with age and normal use. Swimming makes heavy use of the feet, ankles, lower leg, and hands and often produces cramps in these areas for older swimmers. A short five minute rest and a little massage usually solves the problem. But this is a signal for older swimmers that they are doing too much.

Ask your coach to help you figure out what the probable cause is and then help you make the corrections to prevent future cramps.

You may also be prone to cramps because you aren't getting enough of the critical minerals and salts to prevent them. Bananas, V-8 juice and many of the sports drinks are excellent sources of these minerals and salts.

Q: How do I get rid of a cramp?

A: The best temporary means of getting rid of a cramp is to massage it out and rest out a set. Often you can go back and swim without it reoccurring. If it does, stop swimming, massage it and take a long, hot shower. After practice, icing the muscles that tend to cramp is another way to relax the muscle.

Q: How can I avoid getting cramps?

A: Figure out what is causing the cramping. Strengthen muscles that tend to cramp. Make the changes in your technique to reduce the stress on the cramping muscles.

Q: What can I do to avoid getting water in my ear and/or ear aches?

A: There are several products available that allow you to mold a wax or synthetic plug for your ears that will keep out most of the water. Swim Ear is a liquid that you put in your ear after practice that will work the water out. If you have chronic problems, see an ear doctor.