Since I started doing triathlons in 1997 there's only been one year when I continued swimming throughout the winter. Every other year I've taken a long hiatus from the pool and started over in the spring. I suspect that a great many other triathletes do the same thing.
While dry-docking for the winter isn't exactly going to help anyone's swimming, it won't necessarily ruin your chances of swimming well this summer, either. A smart approach to resuming your swimming will help you regain your stroke and swim fitness quickly. Here, I'll boil my approach down to four basic tips.
Tip #1: Keep it Short
My first swim workout after a hiatus is 10 minutes long. I warm up with a few lengths of easy, ugly freestyle, do some form drills then cool down. After just 10 minutes my shoulder muscles are burning, and the following day they're sorer than they were after my last 4,000-yard workout of the previous season.
That's why I keep my first swim of the spring, and indeed my first several swims, very brief. The potential for damaging those atrophied swim muscles to the point of injury is great in these crucial early days, and there's nothing to be gained from swimming beyond the point of moderate soreness, anyway.
The progress you make in swimming performance over the first few weeks comes almost entirely from gains made in neuromuscular coordination, not from actual fitness development. So swimming carefully and mindfully with a strong emphasis on technique is far more helpful than swimming longer but sloppily.
For the same reason it pays to swim only very short intervals during your early swim workouts. Don't allow fatigue a chance to spoil your form and draw you into bad habits. Rest after every length in your first workout and every second length in the next few workouts, and so forth, to stay fresh and swim right.
Tip #2: Go Drill Crazy
If you had a nickel for every time a coach badgered you to do more technique drills, you could buy your own pool, but when you're just returning to swimming after a layoff drills are particularly helpful, for two reasons.
First, they make it easier to regain the efficient stroke you had at the end of last summer by breaking it down into bite-size pieces that you can work on individually. Second, swim drills aren't especially taxing, and each works the muscles in a different way, so collectively swim drills allow you to spend more time in the pool with less wear and tear on your atrophied swim muscles.
I don't introduce real freestyle interval sets into my swim workouts until I've been back in the pool at least eight or 10 times. Until then it's just a warm-up, a set of four to six different drills, and a cool down.
Tip #3: Swim Often
Of course, there's something to be said for volume. While it's important that you minimize the risk of developing injuries and bad technique habits by avoiding swimming in a fatigued state, you'll improve faster by doing as much swimming as possible within this constraint. Since swimming long is not yet an option, your only way to maximize repetition is to swim often.
I recommend swimming every other day, which is often enough to stimulate rapid progress but not so often that muscle damage in the swim muscles is allowed to accumulate. After three weeks or so you should be ready to handle back-to-back swim workouts. For example, you could move to a four-swims-a-week schedule with pool workouts on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.
Tip #4: Keep Raising the Bar
If you're like most triathletes, numbers motivate you. Take advantage of your psychology to stimulate rapid gains in swim fitness by competing against yourself each time you go to the pool. Keep a detailed workout log in which you record distances and split times, and push yourself to raise the bar with every visit to the pool. To avoid overtraining, put more emphasis on improving splits than on increasing yardage.
One of the benefits of resuming swimming after a winter off is you really can get faster every time you swim, for a while, especially if you make it a conscious objective. Indeed, such rapid progress is almost enough to make you glad you stayed dry for three or four months.