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Ask the Experts

I’m a 46 year old female who took up swimming again about three years ago.  I’ve done a few Great Swims now and am currently working very hard to do the two mile at Windermere next year for the first time. Lots of articles I read indicate that once you get older you really can’t improve your times in sport because you are losing muscle mass. However, I’ve also recently read it is possible to improve with swimming. I’d dearly love to think that I can continue to improve as I was a late starter and am absolutely passionate about swimming now. I’d love to know what your experts think. 

Pam Young

You are only too old to stop improving when you stop breathing; it is almost as simple as that. If you allow yourself to think otherwise you’re doing yourself a disservice. Loss of strength with age does occur gradually, however most physical aging is due to our culture and lifestyle. A large proportion of reduction in age related performance is a result of ‘use it or lose it’. 

If you had been an elite level athlete in your younger years it would be tough to improve on those youthful performances simply because life influences later on (family, work, social, motivation) limit the amount of training you can do. For the majority, who have never explored their maximum potential in swimming, this means that with the right training we can continue to improve physical performances well into our later years.

It’s a good idea to monitor your swim speed so you can track your progress. However, I would recommend against measuring improvement by looking at your various open water swim times. There are too many variables such as current, wind, waves and water temperature to be able to accurately compare results between events. Instead, time yourself in the controlled environment of the pool and set yourself targets for fixed distances. For example, you might aim to reduce your 1000m time from 30 minutes to 28 minutes (or whatever your current time is).

The first step to improving swim performance at any age is technique. Improving swim technique can require more concentration as an adult as we need to overcome a lifetime of posture and movement patterns influenced by lifestyle, occupational influences (sitting at a desk all day) and injuries. For all of us, even people who have swum a lot in their younger years, technical improvements are very much achievable. Fitness is the next foundation principle you will need to build upon. Swim as far or as fast as you can while maintaining good technique. This is where your patience and discipline will be tested. Keep challenging yourself physiologically by changing the variables in your swim training by covering different distances, with different rest intervals and intensities.

Then focus on your open water skills; swimming a straight line in open water is one of the hardest things to achieve.  Finally, land training can be beneficial. A Pilates or yoga class a couple of times a week will give you strength gains that will benefit your swimming.  

Hopefully the above will encourage you. I’d recommend doing some structured work with a coach and joining some group swim sessions and with that, yes, it is very much possible to have the swim of your life later in life.

Dan Abel, swim coach, Fit and Abel

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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.