Published: 22 April. Written by: Lizzie Simmonds.
Hey everyone! I’m Lizzie Simmonds, an ex-Olympic swimmer and now a Vitality Performance Champion. Now that the pools are open, I wanted to give you all some advice on getting into swimming as a family and how to continue progressing your swimming abilities.
Like most sports, there are lots of different ways to improve at swimming, and some of them don’t even involve getting in a swimming pool! Whatever your age and skill level, there are a number of fun and easy things you can do to help your progress in the water. I’ve listed my favourite below, catering for all abilities:
Posture and body position are really important for swimming, although it’s easy to forget about them because we are usually horizontal whilst in the water! If your core isn’t very strong you may find it harder to maintain a straight body, which often leads to your hips or legs dropping towards the bottom. This can increase your drag, which results in more effort but can cause slower times.
For beginners and young children, try correcting posture on land before you do so in the pool. Instead of reprimanding kids when they slouch, ask them to imagine there is a piece of string attached to the top of their head pulling them towards the sky!
If possible, try working at a standing desk, taking walking meetings and calls, and correcting your own posture as soon as you notice it slipping. Yoga and Pilates are a great way to begin building more core strength.
To really challenge your core, try exercises such as planks in the gym. Whenever you do abdominal exercise make sure you hold a neutral pelvis and engage your tummy muscles. In general, slow, high quality reps are more effective at building core strength than doing hundreds of reps with poor posture.
Fuelling your body correctly is essential for any type of activity and swimming is no different. A healthy balanced diet is important for everyone, but there are a few more tips for those looking for extra gains:
When you’re just starting out, even short swimming sessions can be challenging. Having a carbohydrate rich breakfast and lunch will make sure you have enough energy and having plenty of protein after tough sessions is important too. Staying hydrated should be another priority—it’s difficult to know how much you’re sweating when you’re in the water, so having a drink on the poolside is really important.
The question I get asked most by young athletes is ‘When should I be eating before training?’ The answer to this is that it’s a really individual decision and sometimes takes a bit of trial and error to get right. In general, having breakfast half an hour before diving in shouldn’t be a problem. For those afternoon sessions, having a good lunch a few hours before training is important, but you may need to top with extra snacks to keep you going through long sets. Having a banana or cereal bar in your swimming bag is a sensible choice, just in case you need an extra boost!
If you’re training seriously, you may want to start planning your nutrition more specifically. This might mean increasing your caloric intake on intense training days and keeping your protein high after tough sessions. Protein bars and shakes are an option, but there are some great homemade options that are healthy, simple and often much cheaper. One of my favourites as an athlete was a homemade protein banana milkshake: simply whizzing a banana, high-protein yoghurt, milk, peanut butter and some ice in a blender. Delicious!
You may have seen swimmers stretching on the poolside before and after sessions, and whilst this can help flexibility and mobility in the water, it’s important to remember that stretching should always be done under control, otherwise you may risk an injury. Here are three simple ‘swimmer-friendly’ stretches to build into your weekly routine:
Front crawl and backstroke are rotational strokes, meaning your body rotates on an axis as you switch between arm strokes. If you have poor rotational mobility on land, you may also struggle to be efficient at these strokes. Try lying on your back on the floor, with your arms out to the side. Take your left knee and pull it across your body gently with your right hand. You should feel a stretch in your lower back. Hold for a few seconds and repeat on the other side.
The lats (latissimus dorsi) is the largest muscle in the upper body, connecting the bones of the upper arms to the side of the body, spine and hips. We utilise this muscle when doing every stroke in the swimming pool and having strong lats can help improve your times in the water. When your lats are fatigued and tight, you may find you have slightly less ‘reach’ in the water—essentially your arms are a centimetre or two shorter than normal! Stretching your lats before sessions can increase your distance per stroke, helping you maximise your efficiency in the water.
Taking care of your hamstrings may seem a little odd for swimming but having tight hamstrings can really hinder leg kick. In addition, having good hamstring mobility is really important for starts, as it’s difficult to find the correct position on the diving blocks if you can’t reach your toes! Try starting with a simple sitting or standing hamstring stretch with straight legs and remember not to push to the point of discomfort.
Training for five hours a day in the water, as I did when I was competing professionally, can be incredibly mentally challenging. But very few athletes train alone; even if the sessions contain long reps of ‘head down’ work, there are usually other athletes around you, putting in the same effort and encouraging you. It’s no different for swimmers training at lower levels; having training partners can make a huge difference to your motivation and mindset.
This doesn’t mean you need to join a swimming club, although that may be an option. Once it is safe to do so, try swimming with a friend or find someone who is at a similar level in the public sessions and ask to join their workout. Coming up with creative sessions together can make even the toughest training fun, and you might make some new friends in the process!
Track your progress
Finally, make sure that you set yourself small goals, track your progress and reward yourself when you hit your targets. This works for children too – a high five for a great effort (even if they didn’t quite master the butterfly stroke on their first attempt) goes a long way and rewarding the family with a fun film night is the perfect way to relax after an afternoon of lengths. (Link to Rakuten?)
I hope you’ve enjoyed my top tips over this blog series. Swimming is an important life-saving skill, but can be a hugely fulfilling and enjoyable activity too.
Getting bored of doing the same swimming structure every week? Lizzie Simmonds takes you through some ways to switch-up your swimming routine!
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