Keeping Masters Swimmers Healthy: 5 Things to Consider

By Sean Kao

With age comes a decline in major health and fitness variables. Masters swimming is an encouraging outlet, allowing swimmers to continue to participate in the sport long after a competitive career. Below are my top five factors to consider when coaching masters swimmers to prolongate their athleticism and speed while improving their health.

1. Fitness (VO2 max)

a. Besides age, fitness has been correlated to be one of the greatest predictors of all-cause mortality (Blair et al. 1989). VO2 max tends to decline with age (Babcock et al. 1992) but can be off-set with exercise.

  • Easy way to incorporate: Make your heart work in all intensities - In a given week or month, make sure to hit all sides of the energy system spectrum. All distances including 12.5 to 1000 yards should be included.

2. Mobility

  • Mobility doesn’t mean being able to touch your toes. Mobility is the ability to have thorough control in ranges of motion through the given joints. The easiest way to maintain mobility in the water is simple: incorporate frequent IM sets and encourage athletes to participate in all four strokes. If an athlete can’t do a particular stroke due to pain or mobility/strength restrictions, find a way to accommodate the athlete to keep the stroke as original as possible (i.e. breaststroke with a dolphin kick, single arm butterfly, throwing fins on, etc.). Swimming only freestyle and being sedentary for the rest of the day is a sure-fire way to lose mobility with age. Coaches can get creative here too. Find a way to get the athletes to move in a way that isn’t strictly freestyle or walking. Below are some great ways you can also encourage mobility on land.

i. Hip CARS

ii. Shoulder CARS

iii. Cat-camel

iv. Shin-box

3. Power

  • The ability to produce high amounts of force also quickly declines with age (Frontera et al. 2000). Age-associated loss of power is one of the reasons elderly people are unable to catch themselves before they fall, and masters swimmers getting slower.

How to incorporate:

  1. Because power output decreases with short rest, large intervals should be given to allow maximum power output per repetition. An example set I have given my master swimmers is 8x15 yards fast on 1:00.
  2. Include resistance training. Different modalities of resistance training including light, medium, and heavy weight has been seen to increase power output in older populations (Vos et al. 2004)
  3. Simply performing a couple maximum effort jumps off the bottom of the pool or on land can help maintain power.

4. Weight-bearing

Osteoporosis and sarcopenia are serious conditions that affect older adults every year. Unfortunately, swimming alone may be unsubstantial to increase bone mineral density (Gómez-Bruton et al. 2014) Frequent resistance training under guidance should be encouraged to help offset detrimental effects of these conditions.

5. Fun

Swimmers are more likely to come back and stay healthy to a program that is engaging, challenging, stimulating, and new. My goal as a masters coach was to include at least one new concept, training modality, or equipment to every practice. This could be as simple as swimming 125 yards for the first time and doing flip turns off the bottom of the pool or as sophisticated as running a five-station circuit with five different training modalities.

References

Babcock, M. A., Paterson, D. H., & Cunningham, D. A. (1992). Influence of ageing on aerobic parameters
determined from a ramp test. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 65(2), 138-143. doi:10.1007/bf00705071

Blair, S. N., Kohl, H., Paffenbarger, R., Clark, D., Cooper, K., & Gibbons, L. (1989). Physical Fitness and All
Cause Mortality. Jama, 262(17), 2395. doi:10.1001/jama.1989.03430170057028

Frontera WR, Hughes VA, Fielding RA, Fiatarone MA, Evans WJ, Roubenoff R (2000). Aging of skeletal
muscle: a 12-yr longitudinal study. J Appl Physiol. 88:1321–1326

Gómez-Bruton, A., González-Agüero, A., Gómez-Cabello, A., Matute-Llorente, A., Casajús, J., & Vicente
Rodríguez, G. (2014). The effects of swimming training on bone tissue in
adolescence. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 25(6). doi:10.1111/sms.12378

Vos, N. J., Singh, N. A., Ross, D. A., Stavrinos, T. M., Orr, R., & Singh, M. A. (2004). Optimal Load for
Increasing Muscle Power during Explosive Resistance Training in Older Adults. Medicine &
Science in Sports & Exercise, 36(Supplement). doi:10.1097/00005768-200405001-00140