Competitive swimming is tough. You need to possess full body strength, flexibility, explosive power, technical prowess and incredible lung capacity. Most pro-swimmers will train twice a day in combinations of pool and gym workouts which will give them a body trained to cut through water as fast as possible. They have to eat a ridiculous amount of calories as well. At his peak, Michael Phelps reportedly ate 12,000 calories a day before burning most of it to train for the Olympics. India’s triple national record holder Srihari Nataraj eats around 5,500 calories a day. He is India’s fastest in the 50m (25.50s), 100m (54.69s) and 200m (2:01.71s) backstroke.
The 19-year-old had already achieved a B qualification time in his quest to make the Tokyo 2020 Games, now postponed to 2021. He is 0.7 seconds off in his quest to achieve an A qualification time in 100m backstroke, which would guarantee him a spot at the next Olympics. Before the pandemic-enforced lockdown, he would train 26 hours a week doing various workouts, out of which 20 hours were spent in the pool. As the world of sport slowly started opening up with eased lockdown rules, most athletes have been able to get out of their homes and get into a routine again. Not swimmers though. Access to pools had been heavily restricted, and the Ministry of Home Affairs only recently allowed pools to be opened for sportspersons as part of Unlock 5.
“I’ve been swimming since I can remember. I’ve been told I was taught swimming starting at the age of two-and-a-half. The lockdown was the longest I have been away from a pool, ever,” says Nataraj, who is good enough to be part of the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), and was sent to Dubai in late August to resume training with a few other athletes.
Nataraj’s time spent in training had gone down dramatically until August—his mammoth schedule was reduced to just 90 minutes of working out in his makeshift gym at home. While he gained a lot of strength (and an additional 2kg in body-weight), there is no way a swimmer can replicate a pool workout without a pool. “The physics are entirely different. There is no chance you get the same amount of resistance that you get in water by using alternatives like resistance bands or weights. I was eating less than half of my daily calorie intake, and was sleeping a lot more,” he says.
Nataraj is young, in-form, and has the deserved support from the government. But there are other athletes, like Ahmedabad’s Tejas Shahu, for whom swimming has turned from a way of life to an unlikely chase to represent India. The 24-year-old Shahu won the national level gold medal in triathle and bronze medal in biathle in 2019. A biathle event consists of a 1.6km run, a 200m swim, followed by another 1.6km run. One loop of a triathle event consists of rushing towards a range to shoot sensitive targets using laser guns, followed by a 50m swim and an 800m run. Four such loops have to be completed to finish the race. The races are held by the Modern Pentathlon Federation of India, which is recognized by the Indian Olympic Association (IOA).
“I haven’t been in a pool since mid-March,” says Shahu, who also represented India at the biathle and triathle world championships in the USA in 2019. “I kept myself fit by running on my terrace and stairs. I have worked on my core because that is imperative for swimming. That means a lot of body-weight training, kicking using therabands, planks, shoulder workouts, pullups, and breathing techniques.”
Shahu also speaks of the mental frustration of being away from the fitness routine which he had so carefully blended with his job as a software developer. “I would wake up at 4am, go for a two-hour pool session (which would include 4-6km of total swimming), come back home, have breakfast, work on the job from 10am to 7pm, then go for another workout session either at the gym or the pool. I added running to this routine as well when I seriously started competing.”
For Srihari Nataraj, tackling this sudden amount of free time with a positive approach did the trick. “I was racing at least once a month for an entire year before the pandemic. For me, this is possibly the only rest I have ever had in a long long time. I read books, watched movies, and slept a lot. My aim was just to get stronger with the eventual goal of meeting my best times.”
Reports suggest that the Swimming Worlds and the Tokyo Olympics could be held back-to-back due to the congestion in the sporting calendar. Getting strong is not enough for swimmers though. The work will start again as they need to be lean enough to not feel heavier in water. Fast-twitch muscles have to be worked on. Appetite has to return. As Nataraj says, “when I first entered a pool after all those months, I didn’t know what I was doing,” Competitive swimming is tough.
Srihari Nataraj’s full body workout routine
Nataraj's full body workout day includes squats, wall chairs, hip-thrust isometrics and single-leg deadlifts. He follows this up with theraband work, which are more pool specific, since it includes scapula rotations and abductions. His workouts also include more conventional gym routines: bench presses, shoulder presses, and dumbbell curls. He follows most workouts up with 90 reps of superman stretches.
Note: Nataraj's routines are set up in consultation with his strength and conditioning coach Deckline Leitao.
Squats: 3 sets of 20 reps
Wall Chair: 3 sets of 2 minutes each
Isometric hip thrust: 3 sets of 1 minute each
Single leg deadlift: 3 sets of 20 reps each leg
Bent over dumbbell rows: 3 sets of 10 reps
Thera band scapula downward rotation: 3 sets of 20 reps
Horizontal scapula abduction: 3 sets of 15 reps
Bench press: 3 sets of 20 reps
Pushups: 3 sets of 10 reps
Dumbbell shoulder press: 3 sets of 10 reps
Bicep curls: 1 set of 10 reps
Tricep bench dips: 3 sets of 15 reps
He finishes off with core work (planks and side planks) and Superman stretches.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writes on football and fitness.