Olympic swimmers such as Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin seem to glide through the pool as smoothly as dolphins. But you don't get to stand on the podium with a medal around your neck without spending thousands of hours in the pool -- and on dry land -- honing your body through grueling workouts. On the Team USA website, Coughlin says, "I love having an excuse to train four, five, six hours a day. I just love the feeling of being fit." If you share the love, you can aim for Olympic-style heights when it comes to swimming, but be prepared -- brutal workouts are a must.
An elite swimmer often covers 10,000 yards in a single day. You might swim for a couple of hours in the morning and come back in the afternoon for a similar workout. But not every top swimmer puts in enough pool time to seemingly grow gills. Franklin, for example, swims "only" about 4,000 to 5,000 yards per session, in part because her coach, Todd Schmitz, believes young swimming prodigies are highly susceptible to burnout.
That's not to say Franklin is dogging it. When NBCOlympics.com asked about the toughest element in her workouts, she cited interval training. The regimen consists of 10 to 15 base-pace sprints of 100 yards, one after another, at close to full-out speed. Franklin said the times to complete the intervals add a significant degree of difficulty. And, in regard to swimming 15 to 20 minutes straight at a high heart rate, she admits it's "pretty tough."
The monotony of looking at the black line in the pool all day carries a risk of boredom, Schmitz said. Olympic superstar Michael Phelps changes things up with vertical kicking, underwater kicking and sculling drills. The latter consists of an arm stroke done in small figure eights. "It really helps me maintain my feel for the water," Phelps told Men's Fitness. Phelps also uses kickboards, training paddles, snorkels and waterproof headphones to listen to music during distance swims.
You might spend as much time training on land as in the water if you have Olympic aspirations. Coughlin does Pilates and yoga, lifts weight and runs. At the STACK website, former Olympic swimmer Mark Ganglots advocates weight training for specific muscles and "a ton of plyometrics" --such as front, back and sumo squats -- for explosiveness. You'll grind through a ton of ab work as well, since core strength is essential for elite performance.
Jim Thomas has been a freelance writer since 1978. He wrote a book about professional golfers and has written magazine articles about sports, politics, legal issues, travel and business for national and Northwest publications. He received a Juris Doctor from Duke Law School and a Bachelor of Science in political science from Whitman College.