In this guest blog, MySwimPro Ambassador Siphiwe Baleka shares how he is continuing to train for the 2021 Olympics using a swim spa. He walks us through how he builds his workouts and tracks his progress in the MySwimPro app to ensure he continues making progress toward his goals!

Siphiwe Baleka

Boy, what a difference a year can make. In January 2019, I wrote a blog entitled My Best Year Yet With MySwimPro. After reviewing my 2018 masters swimming season, I talked about my future goals, stating, “After Spring Nationals, I was done. I had no desire to compete, so I took a break. For the rest of May and June, I continued to get in the pool, but training was pretty easy.” At that point, I had no goals other than swimming just enough to stay fit.

Rediscovering My Love for Competition

However, later in the year, I learned about the first International Masters Swimming Championships, which was being held October 4-5, 2019 in Cairo, Egypt and my competitive desire was rekindled. I was going to use that meet to launch my “Fastest 50 at 50” campaign to break the world record in the men’s 50 meter freestyle when I turn 50 in 2021. I dominated that meet and became a sports hero in Guinea Bissau, making the cover of both the Sapo Desporto and O Democrata newspapers.

As part of that campaign, in mid-January of 2020, I returned to my ancestral homelands in Nhacra, Guinea Bissau. While there I met with the Guinea Bissau Secretary of Sport, Mr. Dionisio Pereira, who said that he would like to grant me citizenship so I could represent Guinea Bissau at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo! All of a sudden, my boyhood dream to compete in the Olympics was resurrected. I returned home with a burning passion to get ready.

A Change of Plans

Just as I began to make arrangements, the coronavirus situation in Wuhan, China turned into a full-blown pandemic, leading to a complete lockdown in most places including Drury’s Breech Pool, where I was training every morning. 

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and not wanting to let my Olympic dream slip away, a moment of inspiration hit: what if I could use my friend’s outdoor swim spa? After checking it out, I grew confident that, at the very least, I could maintain some level of swimming fitness. Now I had to figure out how to best use the pool and design a suitable “stationary” swim training program.

Related: Why You Should Consider Getting an Endless Pool

Stationary Swim Training with MySwimPro

Siphiwe Baleka

My main goal is to simulate my pool workouts to maintain swimming fitness and feel for the water. In this setup, I am wearing a padded swim belt with two resistance bands attached to opposite sides of the pool, and jets create a current. The pool was not designed for elite level swim training like an Endless Pool or Michael Phelps brand pool, but this arrangement is functional. 

Swimming while tethered is a little different. First, there’s less “glide” since you don’t have any forward progress through the water. The harder one pulls, the more resistance there is from the bands, and this is the most noticeable difference. Swimming faster requires pulling harder, which in turn requires more power and results in greater fatigue. 

Finally, there’s a lot less hip rotation and the stroke finish is shortened. However, after a few consecutive days of swimming, I was able to adjust. I concluded that it is much harder, physically and mentally, to do longer distance sets and that the most effective use of this pool was to do a modified form of ultra-short race pace training (USRPT)

Here is how I trained, using the Swim Viking RPT 100 Free workout that I created in MySwimPro and have been doing for more than a year now.

I did a test to see how many strokes I need to take to swim for 11 to 12 seconds at maximum effort. It turned out to be 9 stroke cycles, or 18 strokes, and that became my “base count” for a 25. 

The first set in my workout is 12×75 freestyle. The first 50 is easy and the final 25 is 90% effort. I would count 9 cycles in my head three times. When doing this set in a pool my repeat times would normally be between :49 and :53 seconds. Here are the results from my swim spa workout on March 30, 2020. After 56 strokes, my repeat times were around 51 seconds.

Now it was time for the main set of 30×25 on :30. In this set, my goal is to hold my best 25 time plus :0.5. If I fail on one rep, I sit out for one rep. If I fail 3 times, or 2 times in a row, I am done with the set.

I made the first 7, then sat out a rep. Made 6 more and sat out another rep. Made 8 more and rested a rep. And then finished with 5 more. My average heart rate was 153 bpm and my max heart rate reached 170 bpm.

Comparing Swim Spa and Pool Performance

How does this compare to my previous pool performances on the same set? Let’s look at the set from my pool workout on October 22, 2019, and in the swim spa on March 23, 2020 and March 30, 2020. 

In order to measure fitness, let’s look at the average heart rate for the entire workout: 

  • October 22: 142 bpm
  • March 23: 145 bpm
  • March 30: 146 bpm 

In terms of cardiovascular output, there was little difference overall. In the pool, the minimum heart beat was lower than in the spa pool. Overall, I actually worked a little harder in the spa pool! 

  • October 22: 81 bpm minimum heart rate, 169 bpm max heart rate 
  • March 23: 91 bpm minimum heart rate, 184 bpm max heart rate
  • March 30: 104 bpm minimum heart rate, 170 bpm max heart rate

Building More Swim Spa Workouts

Now, anyone who has ever tried this workout knows that it is brutal. I can’t train this way every day, so I only do this set two or three times a week, alternating freestyle and breaststroke. Thus, I had to design some other workouts more focused on aerobic endurance. 

Here’s an example of such a workout: 12×100 freestyle: odds easy on 1:30 and evens descend on 1:40. 

Again, using my base stroke count of 9 stroke cycles per 25, counting 4 rounds, I was able to mimic a 100 freestyle and swim for the approximate duration. My descending splits were 1:06, 1:01, :59, :55, :51, :45. That’s obviously faster than I can go in a pool, but the progression was real and it was good for my mental game to feel like I was swimming those times.

After the set, I finished off with 4 rounds of the following set: 

  • 50 kick moderate
  • 12.5 butterfly/12.5 freestyle sprint
  • 50 kick moderate
  • 12.5 freestyle/12.5 breastroke sprint

The idea here was to do some IM training focusing on fatiguing the legs, then quickly switching strokes and muscle groups at a fast pace.

Incorporating Dryland Training

Finally, I have supplemented my swim training with three strength training sessions a week and 30 to 90 minutes of indoor cycling. As a result, I have actually improved my fitness! I have lost 4 pounds and my body fat is down to 9%. I am more confident that I am making progress and will swim faster after the lockdown.

Thanks to MySwimPro and the help of some friends, I have been able to face this COVID-19 lockdown with a creative training alternative that seems to be working very well. I am incredibly grateful! Ultimately, my motto is always, “do the best that you can do based on what’s available now.” 

6 thoughts on “COVID-19 Lockdown Training with MySwimPro & a Swim Spa

  1. I’ve been trying to figure out how to structure swim spa sets and workouts and had been playing with using stroke count as the basis as well. This is the most helpful thing I’ve found online so far.
    Thanks!

  2. This is a great way to manage with what you got! I’m loving the swim cords and am certain I will continue using them post quarantine. I love how easy it is to max our heart rate and build strength. I’ve been using MySwimPro on the open water mode but wonder if setting it to a 25 meter pool and counting the equivalent strokes would be a Better approach. That way I can go back to following workouts on my watch. Will give it a try tomorrow. Thanks for this!

    1. Glad Siphiwe’s journey was inspiring and helpful! Open water mode seems to be what most people use, but we’re working on solutions for tethered swimming in the app right now!

    1. Hi Kevin! We have seen a lot of people either counting strokes or going for specific intervals to structure their workouts. We’re working on an update that will allow you to swim for a certain amount of time, without entering a distance (since you aren’t moving forward with the tether!).

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