How Long Does It Take to Get Back into Swimming Shape?

By Elaine K. Howley

No matter how dedicated a swimmer you are, sometimes it just happens: the dreaded layoff. Whether because of an injury, work commitments, family matters, travel, or any other reasons why your swimming routine might get disrupted, a period away from the pool happens to all of us at some point.

When things finally shift and you find your way back to the pool, you might find that you’ve lost a lot of ground. A workout that once felt effortless might now be too much for you to handle. It’s not a fun feeling, and it can be really discouraging. If you’re struggling with that, know you’ve got good company among those battling to get back in shape.

While you’re there in the trenches, feeling winded on 50s, you might be wondering how long it will take to get back in shape and back to your previous form. Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to that question. Figuring out how long it’ll take you to come back after having lost fitness depends on a variety of factors including:

  • The level of fitness you had before the period you took off.
  • How long you were away.
  • Whether you engaged in other kinds of activity aside from swimming during that period.
  • Your age and general health.
  • Your genetics.
  • Whether your strength or mobility changed during the time away.
  • How frequently and intensely you’re swimming now.

How We De-Fitness

When you stop going to practice regularly, your body changes. Without the regular input of a training stimulus, your body slides into a less active state and no longer needs to maintain the adaptations that facilitate a high exercise capacity. These detraining changes tend to be more pronounced in older adults, who typically lose fitness faster than younger adults. And elite athletes have farther to fall when detraining than a casual swimmer who wasn’t as fit to begin with.

Cardiovascular endurance is one of the first places you’ll notice a change. For example, you may get winded easily during swim sets that didn’t used to feel difficult. This is because after less than two weeks of total rest, the volume of blood in your body decreases. That’s according to a 2020 study that looked at the effects of detraining that resulted during the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. This drop in blood volume is important to endurance and stamina, because it’s the blood that moves oxygen to all the hardworking cells and muscles that power your swimming.

Another key aspect of the decline in fitness that accompanies total rest is a change in the number of mitochondria your body maintains. These tiny organelles inside each muscle cell provide the energy your body needs to move. In response to training, your body makes more mitochondria to facilitate greater exercise capacity. But after just a few days of total rest, the number of mighty mitochondria begins declining.

If your layoff has been less than two weeks, you may not notice much difference in your performance. But as the weeks drag on, you’ll continue losing fitness. After a few months, the changes will be noticeable – you’ll breathe harder and fatigue faster when you first return to exercise.

Although strength is slower to abate than cardio capacity, if you’re returning after years away, it might feel like you must start from scratch in rebuilding your swimming capacity in both the strength and endurance arenas. You might find that muscles you didn’t even know you had are suddenly sore after a workout in ways they never were before, and you’ll likely be tired and need more rest once you return to the pool. But that’s to be expected as your body rebuilds its fitness capacity.

So, How Long Already?

Getting to a point where you feel like you’re back in shape can take weeks or months for most people, and again, it depends on myriad factors including age, genetics, diet, and much more.

But, with regular input of exercise stimulus, you can ramp up to your old self relatively quickly, especially if you were well trained before the layoff. That’s because it turns out muscles really do have a sense of memory, according to a 2021 study in Function, a journal of the American Physiological Society. This is good news for anyone who’s trying to get back into the swim of things. You might never get back quite to the same pinnacle, but you could get pretty darn close if you apply yourself.

Although it’s difficult to say for sure how long it will take for you specifically to get back into what you deem to be your top shape, it’s best to give yourself a solid month or two of regular training before expecting to see noticeable results. But that’s only if you’re training consistently, getting good sleep, and making sure your nutrition is on point to provide your muscles with all the calories and nutrients they need to rebuild, generate more mitochondria, and grow stronger.

There are so many variables that contribute to how your body responds to each training session, it’s best to stay patient and keep plugging away. In time, you’ll get stronger, faster, and tap back into that love of swimming you once had. And even if you don’t reach the heights you once achieved, isn’t it nice to be back in the water?

For more information, visit www.usms.org