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Workout of the Week: Swimming for Active Recovery
By: Sheila Kealey (2006/07/25)
Workout Type: Recovery
Exertion Level: Easy
Skier Level: Any
Technique: N/A
Season: Dryland
Terrain: Flats

Suggested Trails:

Equipment: bathing suit, swim cap, goggles


Swimming can be a great active recovery option for cross-country skiers, especially during dryland training season, when most skiers dramatically increase their time doing activities that put more stress on joints and muscles than cross-country skiing.


One of the greatest benefits of swimming is that your body is supported by water, so it’s a way to get moving while being gentle on muscles and joints. Swimming can also help tight muscles loosen up, since you need to extend your muscles out of free joints, and your range of movement is greater since you’re supported by water. Some have likened the rhythmic breathing and need to focus on your breath to yoga or tai chi. And on those blistering hot summer days, a swim will leave you cool and refreshed, unlike an easy “recovery” run!

During the summer, swimming among XC Ottawa skiers ranges from an occasional dip in Meech Lake after a roller ski session, to several structured pool and open water workouts for the few of us who compete in triathlons. I usually swim about 3 times a week during the summer, but cut back to once a week when I am ski racing. I’m not motivated enough to swim alone, and usually train with the Carleton University Master's Team.


Strength and fitness are only helpful in the water if you figure out how to best overcome water’s resistance with good technique. And you’ll enjoy swimming more if you can glide through the water at a decent speed. I asked Lynn Marshall, head coach of Carleton University’s varsity swim team and Carleton Masters team for some tips on freestyle technique. Lynn is also a seriously fast swimmer (she’s held - and still holds - many masters WORLD records in four age groups!).

Horizontal Body Position
- look at the bottom (not ahead) to keep hips high
- when breathing keep the corner of your goggles in the water

Arm Recovery
- relax the arms in the air – lead with the elbow
- slide the hand into the water before you reach full extension

Long Strokes
- stretch forward with the top arm and roll at the top of each stroke
- stretch back with the bottom arm at the back of each stroke

Underwater Stroke
- keep the fingers pointed towards the bottom of the pool throughout arm pull
- bend your elbow so that less overall power is required
- accelerate through stroke

Avoid Shoulder/Neck Injury
- breathe on both sides
- keep wrists under or slightly inside (not outside) elbows

For those who want tips, videos, etc., the Total Immersion site is pretty good: www.totalimmersion.net.


Swimming laps may seem boring to cross-country skiers, who like the challenge of adapting technique to terrain, fun downhills, dealing with weather, snow conditions, wax, and many other variables. You’ll find that having a structured workout makes things more interesting.

Here is a simple workout to keep you motivated. Adapt the effort and number of repeats to your training goals. You can do it all freestyle, or mix in some other strokes for variety.

300m swim relaxed and easy
4 x 50m done as 25 kick, 25 swim (about 10 seconds rest after each 50m)
4 x 25m count strokes (try to decrease the # of strokes you take per length)
4 x 50m descending 1-4 (each 50 is faster than previous one - about 10 seconds rest after each 50m)

100m swim building speed throughout (rest 10 seconds).
50m kick building speed throughout
50m easy
3 x 100M descending 1-3 (each 100 is faster than previous one - about 20 seconds rest after each 100m).
1 x 50m easy
2 x 100m at the same pace as #3 of first set (15 seconds rest in between).
200m kick at a steady effort

200m swim relaxed and easy

For more ideas for swim workouts, check out Swimming World Magazine


Swimming is also a good workout option if you have an injury that doesn't allow weight bearing exercise. If you're monitoring your heart rate, expect lower heart rates since the horizontal body position and cooling effect of the water reduces max heart rate.

Gavin swimming intensely during his cottage triathlon.

Sheila getting ready for an open water swim around the Meech Lake island.

Jump in!

More Workout Suggestions . . .
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