Winter Swimming

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Don’t let Chicago’s bitter winter weather keep you out of the water. Whether you’re refining your triathlon skills or simply trying to stay in shape, the city has plenty of swimming options, from pools at local gyms and Chicago Park District facilities to expert guidance from area instructors.

“Winter is definitely a good time to work on technique, to try to become a better, faster swimmer,” Craig Strong, co-owner of Precision Multisport, which specializes in training triathletes, says. “This time of year certainly involves more endurance and technique work.”

Chicago Blue Dolphins trains between 150 and 200 adults of all ability levels. Like Precision Multisport, Chicago Blue Dolphins uses the winter months to button down the form and stamina of swimmers.

“The biggest challenge people have is that their bodies are out of balance,” John Fitzpatrick, owner of Chicago Blue Dolphins, says. “Their legs are sunk too far down, so they have to kick down to get back up to the surface. They’re exerting way too much energy. There are also people who just kind of spin their arms around so that they’re taking way too many strokes to get down the pool. And then there are people with breathing problems, be it the bubble exhalation or they simply don’t know how to turn their body properly to get air.”


Bishop Racing also addresses such ills. A former swimmer at the University of Minnesota and the University of Arizona, owner Bill Bishop brings big-time experience to his 80-odd students.

“Our approach has a couple different tiers,” Bishop, who works with many triathletes and road runners, says. “One is to make sure that the workout is structured to the particular athlete. For example, if you and I were to work together, I’d ask you how much time you have to swim, where you plan to swim, what kind of equipment you use and how much you have been swimming so far. That way we can understand where you’ve been and where you need to go. In my experience, it really does require a little bit more of a personalized approach [to properly teach swimmers].”

Bishop’s second tier involves utilizing computer software and video to analyze a swimmer’s technique. Based on their findings, Bishop and his coaches “implement drills into workouts so that each swimmer is actually practicing the specific techniques they need to improve. Slowly but surely, swimmers’ strokes get better and stronger. As both those things happen, we revaluate and then implement new ideas.”

Across the coaching spectrum, technology has become an integral part of indoor training, including for Fitzpatrick, who says his organization uses “underwater and above-water video to really give people a visual representation of what they should be doing and what they’re not doing.”

Additionally, the Chicago Blue Dolphins location in Bucktown (2222 N. Elston) has an “endless pool” that brings yet another dimension to the learning process. In the 15 feet by 15 feet endless pool, a student swims in place against a current.

“We have mirrors in the floor [of the pool] so that you can watch what you’re doing,” Fitzpatrick says. “The coach is sitting next to you and is able to make adjustments to your stroke in real time. And we have the capabilities video-wise to make a static video of you. The other part about the endless pool is that by swimming against a current, a lot of the problems you might have with balance show up.”

All this indoor work aim to prepare swimmers for rugged, choppy open-water conditions on, say, Lake Michigan once summer arrives.

“The actual swimming technique is easier to work on in a pool than in a lake,” Strong says. “We work on buoyancy, propulsion and distance per stroke.”

Adds Bishop, “The biggest challenge that swimmers have in the open water is being able to execute the type of fitness they see in the pool, because there are so many other distractions and forces of nature that weigh on you when you’re outside. The biggest thing we try to do in the winter months is get people strong enough and in touch enough with proper techniques for when it turns warm outside and we change our focus to executing as effectively in open water as we saw in the pool.”

So regardless of your ability level or your goals, don’t make the mistake of putting away your swimsuit during the big freeze.

“We’ve got some people who are just learning to get to the other side of the pool and others who are swimming at the very front of the pack in some of the largest triathlons in the world,” Bishop says. “We also have a couple professional athletes. We’re really catering to the entire spectrum.”

If you lack the time to join a class or take private lessons, fear not. We picked the brains of local coaches for a few tried-and-true workouts you can do on your own.

From Craig Strong of Precision Multisport, for beginning swimmers and advanced swimmers:

  • “Beginner swimmers should complete a 10-minute swim without stopping. From there, they should get their average 100 pace (four lengths of the pool). Then they should try to increase their swimming up to 1,000 yards broken into intervals such as 10 x 100 or 5 x 200 and attempt to finish their swims coming in at their average pace with minimal rest (10 to 20 seconds).”
  • “More advanced swimmers should complete a swim of 3 x 300 with 30 seconds rest between. This will give them their average pace per 100 as well. They should try to increase their swimming up to 1,500 to 2,000 yards broken into intervals and work to come in at that average pace, giving themselves minimal rest. An example: a 6 x 200 coming in at an average pace of 1:45 per 100 yards and giving themselves 20 seconds rest.”

From Bill Bishop of Bishop Racing, for intermediate swimmers:

  • “We try to introduce longer-distance swims that are backed up by some shorter-rest 100s. That gives swimmers the ability to get in a larger endurance effort. It breaks them down and makes them tired. An example is to swim a 600 freestyle in a negative-split, meaning you go the first half easy and the second half hard. Afterward you take a one-minute rest and put on paddles and a buoy. You then pull 12 100s with 10 seconds rest in between each 100. The goal is to hold the fastest time possible on each 100.”