Here’s Your 3-Week Plan For Returning to Swimming

As pools and open-water swim venues start to reopen, coach Gerry Rodrigues provides a plan for getting your swim fitness back.

After more than 10 weeks out of the water it’s not surprising that the news of some pools and open-water venues reopening elicits excitement—quickly followed by fear and anxiety about returning to swimming: “Will I remember how to swim?” “Is this going to feel horrible?” “What if I’ve lost all feel for the water?” While some of these thoughts and feelings might be valid, unfortunately there’s just no easy way to get that swim fitness back, and when it comes to open-water swimming, it’s not just fitness—there are a host of additional skills to hone and practice too (and then practice some more). 

Triathlon swim coach and open-water guru Gerry Rodrigues, who is the founder of the Los Angeles-based Tower 26 swim and triathlon program, advises returning to the water—be it the pool or ocean, lakes or rivers—with caution and to keep safety front of mind. His new book, Triathlon Swimming, is now available to pre-order from VeloPress and covers all aspects of mastering swimming for triathlon for athletes of all abilities. 

He said: “If you have access to both a pool and open water, it is far better and safer to start in the pool first. If you have no alternative and it’s only open water available, then, of course, do that but safety needs to be paramount. Swim with a buddy or a few training partners. If you have to swim alone use a float device attached to you so you can be easily seen. If you’re not a strong swimmer and have not been swimming for 10 weeks or more and you just head straight out into open water you need to be very careful.”

Regardless of whether you’re swimming at the pool or in open water, Rodrigues advises that your training approach in these early weeks back is steady and controlled—now is not the time to begin an aggressive training regime. He strongly recommends just focusing on the first three weeks to begin with, aiming to swim three times a week for these three weeks.

“Ideally you would do all of these sessions in the pool, but if you don’t have that option available then these workouts can be adapted for open water too,” he said. 

The “three times a week for three weeks” approach is one that Rodrigues has tried and tested with the many thousands of triathletes he has coached, dating back to the early 1980s. “It is the timeline through which we typically see adaptation happening. Those workouts throughout those first three weeks might not feel great, but they will help get you back to a good place.”

He said the workouts and returning to swimming approach outlined here is similar to the foundation phase he usually starts in January at Tower 26, except very rarely would athletes be going into that phase with 10 or more weeks out of the water. “For this reason we want to come back making things slightly easier than normal; this is an unprecedented situation.” 

He continued: “I would never usually advocate a steady swim of 30 minutes continuous swimming, that is typically what I would consider a ‘low value’ swim workout, but in this situation this is the perfect start. It needs to be a low intensity ‘reacquaintance’ session where you are getting used to moving your body through water again and it is all low stress. The first week back in the water, whether pool or open water, should all just be 30-40 minutes of steady swimming, all at low intensity.”

Of course, if swimming in the ocean and conditions are not conducive to easy “low stress” swimming then push your workout to another time when conditions are safer and calmer. 

In your second week back in the water, you can start to change the complexion of your workouts slightly, Rodrigues said. “Now is a good time to introduce some light intervals whether in the pool or open water. The entire session should generally be easy with a little sprinkling of intensity. And don’t be alarmed, but your heart rate will go up easily because you’re simply not used to being in the water.”

returning to swimming
Coach Gerry Rodrigues provides a three-week plan for getting back to swimming. Photo: Gani Pinero

Plan For Returning to Swimming

Week 1 workout (pool or open water):

30-40 minutes continuous low intensity swimming

Week 2, pool workout:

Warm-up: 10 minutes easy swimming

Main Set: Approx. 18-20 minutes long, as 8, 10, or 12 x 100* with 15-20 seconds rest between each rep @ 75% effort, certainly nothing above 80%
* (number of 100s is dependent on ability/fitness)

Cooldown: 10-15 minutes pull, focusing on good alignment

Week 2, open-water workout:

Warm-up: 10 minutes easy swimming, practicing sighting every 6-10 strokes

Main Set: Approx. 18-20 minutes long, swimming in a pack, each swimmer takes it in turn on the front and increases effort to 80% for 50 strokes when there, then rotates to the back of the pack and reduces effort

Cooldown: 10 minutes relaxed swimming, focusing on body position and practicing sighting every six strokes 

In the third week back in the water, you should be starting to feel some familiarity and getting back some feel for the water, but don’t panic if you aren’t. If you feel comfortable doing so, you could start making intervals slightly longer. In the pool this could look like a main pyramid set of 400, 300, 200, 100, and more advanced swimmers could have two main sets, covering 2K (at most) for the total main set. 

Week 3, pool workout:

Warm-up: 10 minutes easy swimming

Main Set: 400, 300, 200, 100 – taking 15 seconds rest between reps. More advanced swimmers could do: 400, 300, 200, 100, 100, 200, 300, 400 with rest intervals as follows: 10-15 seconds rest after the 100, 30 seconds after the 200, 45 seconds after the 300. As with the previous week, effort should not go above 80%.

Cooldown: 10-15 minutes pull, focusing on good alignment

Week 3, example open-water workout:

Warm-up: 10 minutes easy swimming, practicing sighting every 6-10 strokes

Main Set:
1 x 5 minute swim @ 75% effort sighting every 6th-10th stroke.
1 minute easy swim.
8 x (50 strokes @ 85% effort sighting every 6th stroke; no less. Recover 20 strokes very easy).
Rest and recover 1 minute easy after your last round.
Repeat 3 cycles through. A cycle is both the 5 minute swim and the series of 50 stroke higher efforts.

Easy 5 minutes swimming, not a hard stroke.

Rodrigues added: “Remember there are no races on the horizon and there might not be any at all this year, so there’s no need to dive into an aggressive training regime. Enjoy your swimming and don’t make these first sessions any longer than an hour. Beyond that, look at your goals. Perhaps you might start taking part in some virtual races that involve solo pool swims (as they become available). If so, prepare for those distances and use this as motivation.”

Triathlon Swimming is now available to pre-order from VeloPress and covers all aspects of mastering swimming for triathlon for athletes of all abilities.