Swim, Eat, Massage: How to Train Like an Olympic Swimmer

The English Channel is called the Mt Everest of swimming. Formed 10,000 years ago after the last ice age ended, it separates Southern England and northern France. Spanning around 560km long (350mi), it’s the smallest of the shallow seas making up the continental shelf of Europe. It’s also the busiest shipping area in the world.

With around 600 tankers and 200 ferries traversing the crossing on a daily basis, the English Channel is one of the more dangerous swims any person can undertake. And it wouldn’t be until 24 August 1875 that a successful, unaided swim across the Channel would be recorded in the history books by way of Captain Matthew Webb.

Captain Webb swam a little over 34km (21mi) in 21 hours and 45 minutes using the breaststroke technique. This record stood for 36 years.

Since that fateful day in 1875, more than 1800 people have attempted the same feat, succeeding over 2300 times.

Swimming – The Ancient Discipline

Photo credit: Bradshaw Foundation

Man evolved as a land mammal. But as far back as the Stone Age, man has already learnt the art of swimming. Ancient cave drawings depict men swimming in lakes and rivers. Even Greek mythology mentions swimming.

The first swimming championship was held in 1846 in Australia. It was a 400m race (440yards). The following year, the first swimming organization was formed in London. At the time, they had six indoor pools with diving boards.

It wasn’t until 1896 that men’s swimming officially became a part of the Olympic Games in Athens. The world swimming association, Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur (FINA), was formed 12 years later. National swimming associations began sprouting across Europe and North America after.

Out of Rivers and Into Pools – Swimming as a Competitive Sport

Swimming as a sport has evolved so much from the old days. A hundred and twenty years ago, a 200m contest is more of an obstacle race compared to the sport we know today. Back then, athletes swam in open water (the Seine River in France, for example) in a race that included climbing over poles and boats and swimming underneath them.

Today, competitive swimming entails breaking personal and world records and beating competitors in events. The world saw the rise of swimming greats Mark Spitz (a 7-time Olympic gold medalist), Ian Thorpe (aka the Thorpedo), Dara Torres (who blazed the trail for women in competitive swimming), Michael Phelps (the owner of the enviable record of having the most Olympic gold medals ever) and Singaporean Joseph Schooling, who gave his home country its first Olympic gold and beat Phelps’ 100m butterfly record in the process.

Photo credit: Erich Schlegel-USA Today Sports

Competitive swimming employs four major styles:

–        Butterfly

–        Backstroke

–        Breaststroke

–        Freestyle

This has been largely unchanged in the last 4 decades.

Swimming competitions reward the swimmer who has the fastest speed. But there are many professional swimmers that do not hold national or world rankings and are still counted among the best due to their technical skills. Swimming may look like a leisurely pastime, but athletes go through intense training regimens to achieve peak conditioning.

A Day in the Life of an Olympic Swimmer

While swimming probably developed as a necessity during ancient times, it has since progressed to a leisurely activity and further into competitive sport. And training to be the best in this sport is no mean feat.

Water for Miles – Train Like an Olympian

Let’s look at the most medaled Olympian, Michael Phelps. Phelps, when he was swimming competitively, had one of the most physically demanding workouts of any athlete.

Phelps used to swim 80,000 meters (approximately 50 miles) every week. That’s almost the length of the entire Panama Canal. He would practice twice a day, totaling between 5 to 6 hours in the water. On top of that, he’d do speed and endurance training that includes:

–        Vertical  and underwater kicking

–        Sculling

–        Training gear in water

–        Training paddles

–        Snorkels and kick boards

–        Sled push

–        Sled reverse Flye

We can argue that Phelps is actually superhuman, sure. But even swimmers below Phelps’ caliber train like crazy. Here’s what a good 8-week beginner program looks like:

1.     Warm Up

Stretching and warming up is vital to any good athlete. They prepare the body for the workout you’re about to subject it to and helps reduce soreness after the sessions. Any of these are good warm up activities:

·       Take a brisk, 2-3 minute walk.

·       Go for a gentle 5-minute swim.

Once you’ve warmed up, you can continue by doing some stretching exercises either on deck or in the pool.

Stretching improves flexibility and enhances swimming form. Stretch major muscle groups, paying special attention to the traps and levator scapulae, pecs, and mid-back (latissimus dorsi).

You can also opt to use a massage gun like the HYDRAGUN to help stretch muscles. Massage has been endorsed by USA Swimming for its beneficial effects in the improvement of recovery time and management of injuries.

2.     Start Small

Starting small ensures you have the time to build your stamina and don’t gas out while in the middle of a swim. Start by swimming 100 meters, divided into 4 segments with rest periods between each. Don’t worry about how fast you can finish and use a stroke that’s easy for you. Most opt for the freestyle or front crawl.

Do this 2 to 3 times per week if you’re just starting out and 3 to 5 days a week if you’re a more advanced swimmer.

3.     Incremental Increase

This 8-week program follows an aggressive progression in swim length.

·       Week 1: 4 x 25m

·       Week 2: 4 x 25m

·       Week 3: 6 x 25m

·       Week 4: 6 x 25m

·       Week 5: 8 x 25m

·       Week 6: 1 x 50m, 6 x 25m

·       Week 7: 1 x 50m, 8 x 25m

·       Week 8: 1 x 50m, 8 x 25m

Try to do the swims with only 15-20 breaths rest between lengths. If you find that it’s a struggle to finish, you can adjust accordingly.

Dry Landing

Swimmers train in the water, obviously. But it doesn’t end there. Swimmers also go through what they dub as “dry landing.”

In the case of Phelps, this meant adding a weightlifting program that had him doing dumbbell presses and raises as well as compound exercises to increase flexibility.

Some of the best dry-land exercise for swimmers are:

1.     Pull-Ups

Target: back muscles (traps and lats), biceps, core

Why Do It: It develops back muscles and biceps which every swimmer benefits from.

Do It Right:

2.     Straight Leg Raise

Target: abdominal muscles, obliques

Why Do It: It activates abdominal muscles and provides core stability in and out of the pool.

Do It Right:

3.     Lateral Lunge

Target: hips

Why Do It: It improves hip rotation by opening up groin and hip muscles.

Do It Right:

4.     Squats

Target: legs (quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves)

Why Do It: It strengthens the legs and strong legs allow for better starts and turns.

Do It Right:

5.     Medicine Ball Leg Curl

Target: Hips (glutes and hamstrings)

Why Do It: This forces the hamstrings to work, resulting in improved leaping ability.

Do It Right:

Table Training

Dry landing isn’t the end of training though. Because of the intense exercise, swimmers burn thousands of calories every day. This in turn means changing their diets.

Michael Phelps was known to eat a crazy 12,000 calories every day. A typical day’s menu would include:


–        3 fried egg sandwiches with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, fried onions and mayonnaise

–        5-egg omelet

–        Bowl of grits

–        3 slices of French toast

–        3 chocolate-chip pancakes

–        2 cups of coffee


–        1 pound pasta

–        2 ham and cheese sandwiches with mayo on white bread

–        Energy drink (around 1000 calories)


–        1 pound pasta

–        1 whole pizza

–        Energy drink (around 1000 calories)

Eating that much food may seem amazing, but it’s hard work. A regular adult male usually needs just 2000 calories per day. Phelps consumes twice that in one meal.

Tapering Off

While the usual regimen may look daunting, the cycle of training does go through a process called “tapering” before important races.

Tapering means reducing exercise in the days leading to competition. This allows the body some rest. This does not mean not exercising altogether, but rather, doing fewer workouts and decreasing the swim distances.

This is also a good time to indulge in massage therapy, whether through traditional means or using a percussion massage gun like the HYDRAGUN. The goal is to allow muscles to recover while increasing red blood cells, oxygen and mitochondrial activity.

Rest and Recovery

Track and Field star Lauren Fleshman once said, “Anyone can work hard. The best have the discipline to recover.” That’s true of any sport, swimming included.

Do recovery right by:

1.     Consuming post-workout snacks

Post-exercise, replenish your glycogen stock by fueling up and eating a 200-300 calorie snack. This also helps stimulate muscle synthesis.

2.     Focusing on active recovery

Active recovery, or doing light to moderate exercise on rest days, has been shown to decrease lactate concentrations and decrease residual muscle fatigue.

Can you still swim on rest days? Absolutely. But opt for just 30 minutes or less of pool time and swim at a more leisurely pace. The goal is to get your circulation going without adding to the lactate buildup and fatigue from the previous days’ high-intensity sets.

Just Keep Swimming

Whether you swim for sport or for fun, swimming has many health benefits. It builds:

–        Endurance

–        Muscles strength

–        Cardiovascular fitness

It also aids in weight loss, can be done by someone recovering from injury and a safe exercise alternative for pregnant women. Studies show that just 2.5 hours of swimming per week can help decrease the risk of chronic illnesses.

On top of the physical benefits, it also helps with mental health by lowering stress levels, depression and anxiety.

So whether you’re doing it for recreation or are aiming for a podium finish in the Olympics, swimming is a fantastic sport. All you need is the proper training mindset coupled with discipline, add some help from massage guns and other recovery tools and you’ll get along swimmingly.

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