It's not easy to design a generic training program, given that everyone has different capabilities and strengths, but there are universal guidelines anyone can follow to make sure they're on the right track.
What follows are a few ideas and suggestions for those of you who are interested in staying in swimming shape on a consistent, injury-free basis.
Swimming is one of the best forms of cardiovascular exercise available to us. Of course I will say that, given that I've been swimming all my life, but there is no denying the fact that it is one of the only exercises that utilizes all muscle groups while constantly stimulating the heart rate.
It is also the least likely sport to result in injury due to its low-impact nature, and is even practiced as a form of physical therapy by athletes suffering from ailments in other, less forgiving sports.
Like any cardiovascular exercise, it is necessary to swim consistently for maximum results. Most people who yearn to stay in shape make an effort to do some form of cardiovascular training three to five times a week for 20 minutes or more per session. With that in mind, anyone looking to swim for fitness should be able to swim at least 20 minutes at a time, several times a week.
Suppose you can swim for 20 minutes, with generous breaks at each end of the pool. You should plan on swimming for 30 minutes, then, so that your actual exercise time (as opposed to rest time) ends up around 20 minutes.
To begin, commit yourself to three times a week, 30 minutes per workout. Try swimming for as much of that time as you can, and count your laps. You should be able to cover anywhere from 20 to 30 laps, at least. If you are capable of doing more, you should be swimming for longer periods of time, perhaps 45 minutes or even an hour.
Sample: Basic Training Swim Workout
2 laps (100 meters)
1 lap easy
1 lap fast
(repeat five times, with no rest if possible: 500 meters)
2 laps KICK
1 lap backstroke
1 lap freestyle
1 lap breaststroke
1 lap freestyle
Total: 1,000 meters
The above workout is an outline for someone wanting to achieve basic conditioning while maintaining muscle tone and flexibility. If it is too much of a challenge, you may need a few swimming lessons to correct your technique before tackling the sets above.
If the workout is too easy, then you ought to increase the distance and create intervals to challenge yourself. As you get in shape (and you will notice your conditioning improve with every week, if you stay committed), you can modify the routine to your needs, adding ladder sets, pulling and kicking drills, and pace or sprint sets to spice things up.
Eventually, you will be able to swim up to an hour, or up to 3,000 meters (two miles). That should be your goal. Anyone who can swim two miles several times a week is in no danger of being out of shape!
Being the proponent of cross-training that I am, I would urge any diehard swim fanatics to work a few other activities into their routine. If you are swimming three times a week, the best advice I can give you on the off days is to do some light weight training.
Weights done in moderation provide toning and build muscle mass that would otherwise be lost in a swimming-only regimen. In addition, weights done properly can strengthen specific tendons and muscles that have a tendency to flare up with frequent swimming; rotator cuff / shoulder injuries being the most common of these.
Running has always been a favorite break from the pool for me, and if you are fortunate enough to have good knees and feet, it can be a terrific supplement to your swimming. Also one of the most effective forms of cardiovascular training, running can challenge you in respiratory ways that swimming cannot: Try running up a steep hill, or sprinting short distances around a track. These drills will increase your heart rate a lot faster than swimming can, if you have been doing it a while.
Although I have only taken a few yoga classes as a form of recreation and research, swimmers everywhere have told me about the benefits of this latest fitness trend. At the very least, I know that it helps develop flexibility, which is important if you are on a weight-training regimen.
With a swimming routine like the example above, you should gradually mix, match, and build other activities into your regimen to achieve your fitness goals. Throwing a different sport or physical endeavor (such as weightlifting, running or yoga) into your swimming schedule offers a jolt to your routine and a respite from the workout rut that sends many people back to the couch.
By swimming several times a week and complementing your training with other forms of activity, you can achieve an overall level of fitness that will keep you happy, healthy and injury-free.
A former swimmer at Stanford University, Alex Kostich has stayed strong in the sport at the elite level even while maintaining a day job. The three-time Pan-American Games gold medalist still competes in—and wins—numerous open-water races around the world each year, as well as competing in the occasional triathlon and running race.