Back to the open water: how to approach your return to swimming outdoors

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Last week the government lifted its lockdown restrictions on outdoor activities in England, meaning that after a long break we are now allowed to return to swimming. Whether you have decided to return to the water again or not, or are still waiting for restrictions to be eased in the rest of the UK, now is a good time to give some thought about how you might approach your return to swimming.

Although I’ve always been a swimmer, I’ve had several periods in my life where I’ve had to take a break because of injury, work and family commitments. These breaks have ranged from a few days to several years. The two things I’ve learned are: (1) you can’t pick up where you left off, and (2) you will get your swimming fitness back. Take heed of the former and be encouraged by the latter.

Hopefully, during this unprecedented universal break from swimming, you will have kept fit, flexible and mobile – or at least, not let it all go completely – so you should be able to make a relatively swift return to form. But you still need a plan to ensure your return to swimming is problem free. The last thing you’ll want when we’re finally allowed in the water is to pick up a swimming related injury that takes you away for even longer.

There’s a rule of thumb that says it takes two weeks of training to regain each week of fitness lost through not swimming. I can’t find the original source, but even if I could I suspect there to be to be a lot of individual variation. Nevertheless, I can’t dispute the general point that you lose swim fitness quickly and it takes longer to recover it. But recover it you will. Be patient, follow the plan and enjoy the process. You may even end up faster than before.

Here’s my plan. Please feel free adapt and modify as appropriate for your own circumstances.

Return to swimming plan​

During lockdown

Do a regular swim-specific exercise and mobility routine – e.g. spend 10 to 15 minutes each day doing a land-based warm up, as if you were going to swim or check out:

Swimming visualisation – try to spend a few quiet moments each day imagining yourself swimming.

First week back

Keep your swims short. Take frequent breaks. Ignore the clock. Enjoy the sensation of being back in the water. Notice how it feels on your skin and which underused muscles are working, listen to the sound of your breath bubbling. Be gentle. Think about slipping through the water rather than applying power. Make it a mindful and celebratory experience.

Continue with your land-based exercises!

Weeks two to four

You can start adding some structure to your training now. Try a longer swim (this will depend on the distances you used to swim before coronavirus), a second swim with some simple interval training and a third where you focus on technique. Keep the intensity light and the distances shorter than you used to do, but push a little harder each week. Note how fast you swim but don’t make comparisons with what you were doing before the break.

Time trial

After about four weeks, give yourself a test. Either do a time trial over a distance you’re familiar with or do a Critical Swim Speed (CSS) test (see previous articles on this subject or search for CSS test).

Weeks five and beyond

Try to return to your regular pre-break training. However, if we have a long break, it’s likely you will still be slower than before. Base your training intervals on your current speed as measured by your time trial, not what you could swim BC or think you should be able to swim.

If you now train consistently, you should experience a steady recovery in speed and endurance. Test yourself with further time trials every 6 to 8 weeks or so. Keep focused on what you can do now, not what you could do before.

What if I’ve been ill?

Please be extra cautious with your return to training if you’ve been ill. Take medical advice and listen to your body.

Dos and Don'ts


  1. Take your time to regain fitness.
  2. Enjoy the process of regaining your swimming fitness.
  3. Track and celebrate your improvements.
  4. Ensure you get sufficient rest and sleep, and eat well.
  5. Maintain a land-based flexibility and mobility programme.


  1. Risk burn-out by doing too much too soon.
  2. Risk injury by returning immediately to your pre-break programme.
  3. Compare your times to those you were going pre-break.
  4. Compare your progress with your training buddies. Everyone is different.
01 Cover March Copy

Issue 47 March 2021

  • Swimming with MND - How Alex Francis is redefining adventure with a regime of cold water swimming
  • New Horizons - Meet lockdown's army of new swimmers
  • On the Dry Side - How other sports can support your swimming.
  • UK Travel - Wild swim walks in Cornwall
  • The Native Origins of Freestyle - how white people named a style of swimming indigenous people had mastered millennia before

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