from James Fike, Founder and CEO of Fike Swim
Last weekend at the Bison Aquatic Club Turkey Meet in Edmond, OK, I cut two more tenths off my personal record in the 100 yard breast with a 54.46, at the age of 39. The best feeling in the world as a swimmer is looking up at the scoreboard to see a new best time. The two seconds between punching the wall and seeing the time is somehow filled with two days of feelings, from dread to excitement. And when your eyes finally focus on the neon numbers, the rush of euphoria sweeps all the pain of the last 25 yards away. Those numbers validate everything you’ve worked so hard for. It’s a feeling that never gets old, no matter how old you get.
I worked for 18 years to experience that feeling again one year ago at the KMSC Pro Am. It happened again in January and I wrote about how my training changed to get there. For the first time in my life I felt like I had my swimming figured out…then COVID hit. Three months went by without a pool, and then, after my pool and gym remained closed, I restarted in a different pool that is only 3.5 feet deep and in a different gym with less equipment. Add to that the responsibility of overseeing three kids’ virtual learning and summer camps for seven of the last nine months and the anxiety starts to build that the chance to keep improving is gone forever.
That’s not overly dramatic at the age of 39. You don’t know if or when you’ve reached your peak. It could have happened back in January. It didn’t, since I managed another best time last weekend. But it could be any day now. That haunts me, but it also pushes me to work every practice like it’s my last. Below is an update of the four segments I wrote about last time.
With my kids “going to school” from home, my workout schedule, which was previously concentrated in the middle of the day from 11am to 2pm Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, had to undergo a huge change. Now training had to be early morning from 6am to 8am in order to get home and get my kids going on their virtual assignments. That meant Monday, Wednesday, and Friday would be easier swim days but hard lifting days. And Tuesday and Thursday, which had been recovery days, would be high intensity swimming days, along with Saturday. The rub was that every day was now hard in some way. But recovery is critical, you can’t work every day at 100% for very long. The solution was to follow this schedule for two to three weeks, then have a week of easy swimming Monday through Friday and back to hard aerobic on Saturday.
As I said in February, the focus is still on great technique, high intensity, and finishing races strong, but with particular emphasis on getting a consistent lunge forward in my breaststroke and improving the 2nd 50 split. Maybe the best part of hitting a new PR last weekend was that it came entirely from the 2nd 50. To be honest, I was starting to give up on ever going faster than 29.5 and to instead embrace my early speed and bring down the first 50 by getting even stronger and more powerful. After all, the only time that matters is the total. But I worked towards both. The following represents a week of back-half focus:
30 minutes easy in the water doing drills, sculls, and breath control, but missing the dive/reaction work and vertical kicking that a deep pool afforded me pre-COVID
6×100 dolphin kick @ 2:00, desc 1-3 and 4-6 to hit 1:05 on #3 and 1:02 on #6
50 free @ :35 85% effort
50 breast @ 1:10 95% effort, goal=:33 low
The idea here is that you don’t have to swim all 100 yards of your stroke in order to get faster. Particularly with explosive movements like breaststroke and butterfly, it’s easy to lose that dynamic motion and settle into poor stroke mechanics, especially if the set is 8×200 or 15×100. Doing the first 50 freestyle at 85% allows you to go into the second 50 fatigued but fatigued generally and not worn out by your stroke’s specific movements. The muscles are ready to switch gears and perform sharp breaststroke motions.
WEDNESDAY same as Monday
4×50 @ 1:30 fly sprint
200 easy @ 4:00
4×50 @ 1:30 breast sprint
100 easy @ 2:00
4×50 @ 1:30 fly sprint
There are a few reasons to mix fly in. First, breast and fly are complimentary, short axis strokes. Second, it’s also good mentally to change strokes. Third, I’m that rare breaststroker who loves fly.
FRIDAY same as Wednesday
2×50 @1:20 w/ stretch cords, 6 strokes fast, easy back
8×25 @ :40 sprint
4×50 @ 1:20
6×25 @ :35
6×50 @ 1:20
4×25 @ :30
8×50 @ 1:20
2×25 @ :25
This has been my favorite go-to set for two years now. It’s deceptively simple, incredibly painful, and great for back-half speed. Just as the lactic acid starts locking you up you get a rest, but only enough to start the next 25 with good technique.
This is an extremely high-intensity week. Usually it’s followed by a week of easy swimming to avoid digging myself into a hole.
As my routine changed with COVID it became very clear how important small-muscle exercises and body-weight exercises like push-ups have been to my gains on large-muscle exercises like bench and deadlift. A few weeks went by where I abandoned the small-muscle shoulder exercises on Wednesdays because the new gym doesn’t have resistance cords. My shoulders started to hurt during bench, forcing me to reduce weight. After two weeks of re-focusing on small muscle exercises the pain was gone and, with the addition of 300 push-ups each week, the gains were back. Since February, my bench press jumped to 305lbs from 295 and deadlift jumped to 375lbs (with more reps) from 365.
Below is a sample week about three weeks into a twelve-week lifting cycle that goes from 3-4 sets of higher reps (8-12) to 5 sets of 5 reps to max lifts, with two recovery weeks of 4 sets of 3 reps at 60% weight thrown in for strong transitions from high reps to low reps to max lifts.
- Shoulder warm-up with pulley cable
- Bench Press 4×8
- Deadlift 4×8
- Seated Rows 4×8
- Barbell Reverse Lunge 3×16 (engages small muscles for balance and stability)
- Lat Pulldowns 4×8
- Bicep Curls 3×10
- Tricep Extensions 3×10
WEDNESDAY (small-muscle focus)
- Eight shoulder exercises with pulley cables, set of 20 for each arm
- Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press (left arm holds its dumbbell up while the right lowers and presses its dumbbell, then the right waits for the left) 5×5
- Pistol Squats (three types for each leg with 20lbs in each hand and 20 reps for each; these are my least favorite exercise, which probably means they’re the best 🙂
- Four Yoga Ball Exercises (laying chest on the ball and 7.5lbs in each hand the arms move 20 times to form the letter T, then 20 for Y, then L, then W)
- Inner Thigh Squeeze – 20 reps of steady squeeze together and slow release apart
- Bicep Curls – 2×10 reps of steady curl and slow release
- Pull Ups – 4×15
- Trash Bin Jumps (the new gym doesn’t have boxes so I jump over large trash bins at home)
- Push Up Jumps
- Shoulder warm-up with pulley cable
- Bench Press 4×8
- Leg Press 4×8
- 2nd Type of Seated Rows 4×8
- Single Leg Extensions 4×8
- Single Leg Curls 4×8
- Straight-Arm Pulldowns (mimicking the breaststroke pullout) 4×8
- Bicep Curls with light weight, max reps in 1:03 (100BR Olympic Trials cut)
- Tricep Extensions 3×10
The focus is going to change in the next full lifting cycle. At 215 lbs I want to keep gaining strength but not add more weight. Push-ups and weighted pull-ups will be added. Front and back squats, which had been hard on my knees in the past but are now doable thanks to pistol squats, will rotate in to replace leg press and lunge squats, to try to develop more speed and power.
I achieved my weight goal and hit 215 lbs. That feels right. My goal now is to stay put or even shed a couple pounds while still getting stronger. Nothing much has changed from the nutrition section I wrote in February. You don’t have to become a purist and eat only organic, whole foods to see benefits. Pick a couple of the biggest weaknesses in your diet and fix those. If, for instance, you like to snack on junk food in the afternoon, try switching to your favorite fruit or veggie.
The first 60 days of diet changes will be rough. Up until a couple years ago I was used to eating sweets every day, so much so that it was nothing for me to eat half of a cookie cake in one day. I had potato chips with almost every lunch. It took about 60 days before the cravings went away and after about 90 days a lot of what I used to eat didn’t even sound good anymore. Again, there was nothing really wrong with my diet before. Despite the occasional cookie cake and the chips, I mostly ate healthy. But I had to do everything I could to go faster, and if that meant sacrificing some foods, so be it. You can eat crap any time in your life. You only have so many years to swim the times you want to swim. Decide which is more important.
RECOVERY & TAPER
Taper might be the most loved and hated part of swimming. One day you’ll start feeling really good, then the next day the sky is falling, your times are slow, and doing a test set three days out sounds like a good idea. Our bodies are machines and we program them every day. For months we program our bodies to swim hard for long periods of time. Then suddenly we start programming the body to rest. It just needs time to adapt, and if you can override all those mixed feelings with the confidence that you’ve done the work and can trust in the process, you’ll be ready.
For me, the time to adapt takes about 2-3 tapers. I had a terrible US Open last year, despite tapering hard for four weeks. Two weeks later I raced at the KMSC Pro Am and got a new best time. That’s six weeks of tapering! Then after a small spike in training for three weeks, I rested another three weeks and cut more time off. So, when I had another bad swim at this year’s US Open two weeks ago I was still confident going into the next meet one week later, because I now understand how my body works. Conventional wisdom says two to three weeks of taper is all that is necessary, but you have to remember it is very easy to over-train and very hard to over-rest. Months and years of hard work don’t get erased in four, five, or even six weeks of easier swimming. Don’t be afraid to rest more.
Another factor in successfully tapering is building in recovery during the season. Listening to my body throughout the season and throwing in a week of easy swimming after two to three weeks of intense training is crucial for setting up a good taper.
Lastly, stretching and foam rolling are possibly the most mundane aspects of training and the most under-valued by swimmers. Dynamic stretching, foam rolling, and activation exercises like push-ups and yoga movements before practice get you ready for good swimming from the first stroke. And stretching and foam rolling after practice help your body wind down and recover for the next practice. I want my body ready to perform at its peak for every hard practice and it simply needs more help recovering at 39 than it did at 19. Recovery was probably the hardest change to make, because of that swimmer drive to always work harder.
I used to say going :53 in the 100 breast and making one more Olympic Trials were two pipedreams in the way back of my mind- fun to think about once in a while but mostly impossible. Now, they’re front and center. If you’re stuck, don’t be afraid to SWIM DIFFERENT!
And if you like this article and want to see more stuff like it, I’ve got it in our Fike Swim:
About Fike Swim
“We design products exclusively for the toughest sport in the world. We unapologetically place swimmers on a pedestal. The rigors they embrace on a daily basis can only be understood by another swimmer and they deserve a company focused 100% on helping them succeed. Whether you’re just starting out or training for Tokyo, we stand behind you.”
-James Fike, Founder
Fike Swim Products was born when founder James Fike put a brick on top of a kickboard and transformed just another legs-only kick set into a total body workout felt into the next day. Since then it’s been our mission to create unique swim equipment with the single-minded goal of making you faster. We don’t sell toys. We create tools to help you reach your potential.
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