As MJ Gasik reflects on her experiences as a USAT, Ironman U and U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS) Level 4 Certified Coach at Tri Right Coaching, she believes she’s asked one question more than any other: “Am I good enough to join a Masters swimming program?”
The question isn’t overly surprising; most people feel intimidated when they first consider joining a Masters swimming program, but there are options to help ease this anxiety. Not only can participants receive individual swim instruction before continuing the program (especially if they believe they’re not quite ready for its requirements), but they can also partake in free trials at most Masters swimming facilities across Chicagoland.
Getting Your Feet Wet
“Kick the tires on a few different programs. If you’re looking for coaching and feedback, see which Masters Swimming program offers that,” says John Fitzpatrick, founder and head coach at Chicago Blue Dolphins. “Also, see if there are lanes (at about your speed) that will push you.”
Once you participate in some free trials and find the program that’s the most ideal for you, it’s important to then focus on increasing your endurance and fitness, which will ultimately improve your confidence and overall experiences in Masters swimming, leading to a potentially long association with your chosen program. Ask yourself why you’re getting in the pool in the first place, and determine how you hope to achieve your short- and long-term goals.
“It can be as simple as fitness or it can be a specific race-oriented goal,” states Laurel Liberty, the head coach at Libertyville Masters. “Both the athlete and the coach should know why they are there.”
She adds, “Goals help you get the most out of your practice and avoid just following the black line. In addition, goals help coaches direct the workouts and keep athletes on track.”
These goals should also be revised frequently, which is not always easy, considering your many daily responsibilities. But if you don’t stick to a plan, you won’t succeed in a Masters Swimming program. Not to mention, you should not focus on your times or speed until you’ve consistently practiced in the pool for two to three weeks, regardless of how fit you may be.
Once you’ve practiced regularly and are determined to improve your speed and efficiency, you must focus on your technique, receive feedback from a coach, use your whole body to swim and learn how to swim all four strokes.
“Variety is the spice of life and will prevent over-use injuries. Swim at least 25 percent of your workout time with non-freestyle strokes,” says Sue Welker, head coach and founder, Naperville Waves Swim Club. “This will help balance your body, increase your awareness of the water and prevent injury.”
Tackling the Waves Year-Round
Although Masters swimming programs are especially ideal during the wintertime, when many triathletes prefer to only train inside, you should consider participating in a program year-round, according to Liberty. After all, the fall and winter is the best time for endurance athletes to build an aerobic base, work on their stroke mechanics and make any technical changes they’d like to implement before the spring and summer.
On the other hand, spring is the most ideal season to focus on sprinting, as the USMS Spring Nationals typically occurs in late April or early May. Once athletes build their speed during the spring, they will then train for open water swimming in the summertime, from lake swims to simulated open water swims in pools.
“A typical practice for us is about 3,500 yards, half of which is a warm up. The main set is usually anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 yards of variations in speeds,” Liberty states. “It’s designed around our goals and whatever time of year it is.”
With regards to this variation, all Masters swimming workouts are provided in a structured environment, one that primarily involves interval training—with intervals ranging from 25 to 500 yards—according to David Polkow, head coach of the West Suburban Multi Sport Masters Team and president of West Suburban Multi Sport Club.
“Training incorporates all aspects of the sport, as we have days that focus on technique, distance, sprints and stroke,” Polkow says. “Distance swimmers sprint, sprinters do distance and our fitness group has a great workout. It’s all done at their level—and it all comes together to make athletes more well-rounded.”
In addition, endurance athletes must be prepared to complete quite a few sets off the pace clock. Fixed intervals are expected, and athletes must also learn how to circle swim, pace themselves and have an appropriate amount of space between themselves and whoever is swimming in front of them. The sets are also likely to have a higher intensity than what many swimmers are used to, according to Fitzpatrick.
“Some groups will also do more non-freestyle strokes,” he adds. “The butterfly is always a hard sell for triathletes, but, by becoming a better backstroker and breaststroker, you’ll have two more strokes to add to your swimming arsenal. And, as a result, you’ll work different muscles and have a fall back on race day if freestyle is more challenging because of water conditions.”
Welker recommends endurance athletes to swim two to three times a week to improve their endurance and fitness. Each workout should include a proper balance between a warm up and a main set, while also spending five to ten minutes to “cool down” a bit after the main set.
“Many athletes also participate in dryland or other training to supplement their swimming. Our particular program holds practices for 45 to 90 minutes per session from four to eight times a week, depending on the site and time of year,” states Chris Colburn, head Masters coach at Academy Bullets Swim Club. “We swim anywhere from 1,300 to 5,000 yards per practice, depending on our focus.”
Corinne Grotenhuis, owner and coach of the Elgin Blue Wave Masters Swim Team, slowly adds yardage to her practices every week. Athletes are provided plenty of rest after each set, and all four strokes are used during each workout.
“As the swimmers start to feel more comfortable in the water, more yardage will be added,” she says. “Usually by the end of November, pending the lane, swimmers may get up to 4,000 yards.”
Conditioning, Competition and Camaraderie
As most endurance sporting events are pretty taxing on the athlete’s body, swimming is the one discipline that protects muscles and joints from frequent pounding and other repetitive motions.
“Swimming also really develops core strength, as it’s a total body workout,” Welker says. “Just ask any ultra-runner how difficult swimming is.”
“Swimming is a great cross-training exercise, especially for runners, as the emphasis is on the upper body and core musculature,” says Mary Pohlmann, M.D., Ph.D., USMS Certified Level 2 Coach, Saluki Masters Swim Club. “Thus, there is the opportunity to give the lower extremities some reprieve from the repetitive high impact of running.”
In addition to conditioning different muscle groups and injury prevention, doing some off-season swimming can help improve form and technique.
“By fixing all aspects of athletes’ strokes, they will be more efficient, relaxed and comfortable in the water, which helps when race day nerves come into play,” explains Jayne Artwick, Masters coach at Swift Aquatics.
Triathletes’ improvement in pacing must not be overlooked either, as Masters Swimming workouts incorporate interval training so that triathletes don’t just swim whichever distances they believe they can finish during a given time period.
“For example, by keeping track of one’s time on a pace clock during a set of four 50-yard swims, with each 50 being swum faster than the previous 50, an athlete can develop knowledge of the muscle exertion needed to achieve a slow, medium and fast pace,” adds Pohlmann.
With regards to pacing, Fitzpatrick advises triathletes to conduct some of their training at a higher intensity level so that they can broaden their fitness and learn how to coordinate their movements at slower and faster paces. “Speedier muscles” will be necessary when you start and finish your race, as well as when you pass other swimmers. If you can develop them as much as possible while you train, you’ll be well prepared for race day.
The motivation of swimming with a variety of swimmers in one lane—who are all trying to complete the same workout as you—is also significant. Not only will you meet new friends, but you’ll also be motivated to improve, especially when you compare your times with other swimmers, as some will be more experienced and faster than you. And you’ll be held accountable by your fellow peers to continue to improve.
“When you swim with other people who are faster than you, there is a visible physical gap that shows you just how much you need to improve,” states Craig Strong, a swimming, cycling and triathlon coach at Chicago Endurance Sports. “This gives you a real-time and objective goal that is more helpful than simply chasing after a number.”
You’re Not Diving in Alone
One of the largest benefits of seeking a Masters swimming program, and one that’s often unique to endurance athletes, is having a coach. As swimming is such a technical sport, the more trained eyes that observe your stroke, the better, as coaches will notice bad habits and offer insights on how you can improve your stroke and overall performance on a long-term basis.
“Focus on one aspect of correcting your stroke and get that part stronger by readjusting until it feels smoother. One small technique change can really make or break getting stronger,” says Kate Schnatterbeck, a certified USAT and ASCA coach, who is also the president, owner and founder of Tri-umph, Inc. “Sometimes it’s hard for the swimmer to perceive if they are using proper techniques on their own, so a coach is critical.”
“I usually use an app on my iPad to tape swimmers and then share videos with them right away so that they can see what I see,” says Susan Scanlan, Masters Swimming coach at Sage YMCA. “I point out what is hindering them and give a suggestion for fixing the problem. I will then tape them again later on in the practice, show them any changes (using a split screen) and provide additional suggestions for improvements.”
And as you search for a Masters Swimming program in your area, remember that each one is different; a program that’s ideal for your friend may not be the best fit for you.
“Find a program that has a qualified coaching staff—coaches that are actively engaged throughout your workouts,” Gasik says. “And make sure all swimmers can have their own unique goals.”