The long months of the pandemic lockdown have been difficult for everyone, and especially hard on athletes. After all, they could not train, play their sport or keep up their usual levels of training. Within the athlete community, one section felt the blow harder than the rest—the swimmers.
Since March this year, most swimmers have been at home since states have not allowed public swimming pools to open yet. Few have announced that they will allow national and international-level swimmers to come and practice only recently. But it has been over seven months of inactivity, and for athletes used to training for hours daily, this can be quite challenging.
“I used to train thrice a day before the lockdown. So from that going to stay indoors was tough. Initially when it happened, I didn’t take it too seriously. I did not think this would continue for so long. At that time, my focus was to not put on too much weight so that once things started I could pick up from where I had left off,” admits Aditi Dhumatkar, a national-level swimming champion who trains in Bengaluru.
No one was prepared for the lockdown though. For Arjuna award-winning swimmer Virdhawal Khade from Mumbai, not being able to use a pool meant a bigger mental struggle than physical. “As swimmers, we are used to training say 70% in the pool, and 30% in a gym. And suddenly, we were left with no choice but to train completely at home with no equipments. Doing body-weight exercises was getting quite monotonous and keeping the motivation going became impossible after a few months,’ he says.
Khade was training for the 2020 Olympics when the lockdown was announced. After a few months, he decided that training at home was not going to be enough to allow him to be physically prepared for an Olympic event. “It wasn’t possible for me to start from zero and go back to Olympic level fitness. I decided to not train for the Olympics any more,” admits Khade, who ordered dumbbells and kettlebells to train at home once the lockdowns eased a bit. Now, with gyms open again, he has been training more in gyms to take a break from home workouts.
“Normally we train with a competition goal in mind. That makes it easy to focus—we go there, we want to perform well, win a medal. But during the lockdown, we didn’t have that. We didn’t know when competitions would happen again, when the pools would open up even. With that question mark in mind it was impossible to keep pushing ourselves,” he says.
It’s not just the training which had to change, but the nutrition as well. Dhumatkar started off with simple home workouts with resistance bands. Over time, her worries about weight gain made her cut down on her meals and change her nutrition plan. “I wasn’t training as much, so my body wouldn’t need as much fuel. If I continued to eat at my earlier level, it would get stored as fat. And going by my own previous experience, it is very difficult for me to lose weight, gain muscles that I lost and be in form,” she says.
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Dhumatkar soon reached a point where she did not want to train without a plan and decided to completely detach herself from her sport for a few weeks. After a few weeks she started small by taking regular short walks. This is not the first time she had taken a break. In 2019, following a brain surgery, Dhumatkar was off training for two months. But she recovered and took part in nationals. “Last year, I was in control. I could decide when I wanted to go and when I wanted to relax. This time I had no control over the situation,’ she explains. What helped, though, was knowing that all swimmers were in the same situation.
In Gurugram, Rachana Sharma, a swim-coach at TriClub—a training group for triathletes—found it discouraging that a whole season had passed her by. Instead she decided to focus on techniques and strength training which tends to get neglected. “We often think ‘oh, I am a fast swimmer, I don’t need to focus on techniques’. We, at the TriClub, started working on dry-land swimming techniques. As a triathlete, we could also focus on other areas and build strength for each of our activities during this time. But yes, (the need for) mental strength was the biggest learning from the lockdown,” says Sharma.
Sharma also got certified as a swimming coach from the American Swimming Coaches Association during the lockdown. This gave her the chance to expand her knowledge and train others. As a club, they have also started booking entire pools to practice where permitted. And if they travel to any city with access to a lake or the sea—they take full advantage of it.
“It is a different ball game when you swim in open water. You cannot use a wall to push off, there are waves and currents you have to be aware of and you have to be comfortable with salt water going into your mouth. But right now is a good time to learn that, since most pools across the country are still not open,” adds Sharma.