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Dive into the unknown: Swimmers worry about toll of being out of training pools

Written by Shivani Naik
| Mumbai |

Updated: July 18, 2020 10:37:46 pm





Backstroker Srihari Nataraj has a nagging thought of ‘losing his feel’ for the water.
This rust gathers from lack of water: it’s the rustiness of the deconditioned swimmer, when away from training pools. The Covid-19 pandemic has left India’s top swimmers out of the pool for four months now, and they are worried about the toll this is taking on their competitiveness.

Srihari Nataraj, India’s best backstroker, is considered to have what is swimming’s best ‘catch’ in this part of the world. In the catch-and-pull technique, the elbows and forearms move at fine-tuned specific angles and the swimmer forces his wrist and palm outward and downward to scoop off water for maximising power output. His catch is Srihari’s innate competitive edge, something he hopes has stayed sharp through this bone-dry lull.

When the 19-year-old returns to the pool with the nagging thought of ‘losing his feel’ for the water, it is this ‘catch’ that he dreads not being able to summon. “Think of water as a solid surface and the hand striking this solid surface. When we swim, we catch water with our palms. That’s the natural feel of water. I wonder when I return to the water, if the wrist/palm will catch enough water,” Srihari says.

There’s a clamour to return to the pool at least for those aiming for the Tokyo Olympics. But being restricted to dry training leads to a bunch of niggling thoughts that have no remedy on land. “I’d thought of buying a big tub to swim in when I went to pick some fitness gear,” Srihari says, not joking at all. “But it won’t be deep enough and I have long arms. No, (it) wouldn’t work,” he adds with a resigned cluck.

The Bengaluru lad — India’s best bet internationally right now — started swimming when he turned two. “I’ve been swimming all my life. So the biggest thing I miss in lockdown is the smell of chlorine on me!” he adds. He must’ve been 15-16 when he first realised his gift. “A senior of mine, a backstroker, told me I had a very good catch. I would struggle at my start, but could make up speed because of the catch,” Srihari recalls.

Influential coach Nihar Amin, who trains a bunch of top swimmers at the Dravid Padukone centre in Bengaluru, is worried about the loss of practice for this long. “Your bones need to have that porous quality to swim well. Heavy land work can make bones dense and they lose buoyancy on water,” he says.

At best, swimmers can be put through some abdominal work on the athletics track. Amin roars his disapproval at swimmers being leashed to land and not allowed a splash.

“The transition of training from land to water is minimal in swimming. Eighty per cent of agility work in badminton will be identical to what you’d do on the court. Swimming, it’s not even 15-20 per cent.”

Deconditioning in a swimmer’s body when away from water is very glaring. Dr Nikhil Latey, who works on motion analysis with international athletes, says, “It’s like when someone working on laptops suddenly returns to pen and paper. The fingers will be rusty, handwriting will be shaky. (Similarly) the coordination of arms will suddenly be lacking in pathways for the swimmer,” Latey explains.

He talks of other aspects of deconditioning – the lulling of the stimulus. “Muscle memory tends to reduce so the movement of the body in the water is not the same as it used to be. Muscles start working inefficiently causing early fatigue. The normal adrenaline rush that accompanies competitive swimming is dulled,” Latey says.

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Also, when elite swimmers are in top shape, the aerobic breathing system (used when running at a steady pace) aids the anaerobic breathing (explosive, high-intensity swimming). But in the first few days, after training resumes, swimmers will be breathing entirely anaerobically, with more lactic acid formed. “The aerobic/anaerobic capacity split, adaptations and skills, the load and stimulus are totally different in land training. You just can’t swim on land!” Amin adds.

Trying to move the body in a fluid can’t be replicated by jumping off land where gravity comes into play. “Being suspended and moving the body in a dense medium is a skillset entirely different from lifting weights,” the coach says.

Indians typically train for 40-60 km in the water a week and 2-3 hours of physical conditioning daily is no match.

Advait Page, the 800 & 1500 m freestyle swimmer, returned from the US in March and has stuck to his dry land drills. “I replicate a normal swim day, two workouts at same time slots. Running, stationary bike for endurance, yoga, meditation,” he says. The swim bench (a contraption that simulates the arm work lying flat on the bench with resistance bands strapped up) is the closest one can get to swim drills on dry land.

“But I know I’ll lose that touch of water at the start – something that swimmers hate to lose: that feel of water. It’ll be weird when we resume as moving in water won’t feel so effortless,” Page says, stranded in Indore.

Though the top swimmers aren’t sweating about gaining weight, Page says the swimmer’s angular body can lose its sharpness. “The muscles might lose shape,” he says.

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Srihari struggled first up before realising he just needed to focus on muscle elasticity to stay pool-ready whenever the waters opened up. “First two weeks, I ended up eating a lot of calories so I had to control that,” he says. Swimmers are in the habit of gorging on immense calories – all of which they burn out easily in the pool. “When you train, you eat huge amounts of food. So the body requirement and adjusting took time. I’m lucky to have a fast metabolism. But I’m down from my 6-7 meals a day,” he says, having stepped out just once in three months. Land training for swimmers is essentially maintaining strength. “It’s keeping endurance so I know I can run 10-15 kms. I just have to make sure my muscles have the speed for high endurance workouts.”

Latey stresses it can take up to two months for the body to respond to training, to ease out of the stiffened muscles and shirk off the degraded movement pattern of the torso and limbs. With 60 per cent fewer calories, Srihari has leaned down quite a bit. More repetitions rather than any heavy-duty muscle bulking were called for. “I’m not worried for my water speed. Two weeks to a month will make up for that. The big challenge is that emptiness because I’ve been in the water for four hours daily every day since I was 12,” he rues.

On his 50m backstroke, where he bests at 25.50 seconds, Srihari reckons he’ll be alright if he starts at 29 seconds on resumption. “It’s just that I hope I don’t lose that feel for the water,” he stresses. In the catch, lies the catch: the swimmer’s underwater propellor he hopes hasn’t gone too rusty to restart.

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