Canadian swimmers look to maintain training intensity amid COVID-19 closures

On the heels of Swimming Canada aligning with USA Swimming's Tokyo postponement plea to the USOPC, quarantined Canadian swimmers are scrambling to salvage their decimated training schedules.

Athletes forced to supplement lost pool hours with increased dryland sessions

Canada's Brent Hayden stresses the importance of athletes staying on top of fitness levels as the COVID-19 pandemic has hampered Olympic training. (Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images)

On the heels of Swimming Canada aligning with USA Swimming's Tokyo postponement plea, quarantined Canadian swimmers are scrambling to salvage their decimated training schedules.

"I was training six days a week, swimming every single day," 2012 bronze medallist Brent Hayden told CBC Sports. "I was probably putting in close to 20 hours a week."

Now, he's at seven or eight.

Because the Olympics haven't officially been postponed or cancelled, Hayden and other Canadian swimmers like world champion Kylie Masse are finding ways to stay on target for a peak performance in July.

And even though their training and event calendars have disappeared until further notice, performing close to peak form in Tokyo is still physically possible. But only for so long.

Calendar and training cut in half

For Hayden, 36, Tokyo 2020 is supposed to be his comeback story. Born in Mission, B.C., he swam at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Olympics. London was where he took bronze in the 100-metre freestyle. He retired afterward.

But in September 2019 he officially began his push for a fourth Games. Hayden was already on a tight schedule for July 2020, but now with the coronavirus leaving much of the world in quarantine, preparations have become increasingly challenging.

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"What works for a lot of swimmers is they'll basically do two or three doubles a week," said Masse's swim coach Byron MacDonald. "In other words they'll put in two [swims] a day three times a week, and then one [swim] a day the other three times a week. That's 18 hours a week of swimming.

"And then we'll supplement that with three or four dryland sessions which are an hour to an hour-and-a-half each."

On top of training, athletes also have physio and sometimes chiro. But right now, they're stuck supplementing their six-day schedule with whatever they can do in their apartments or outside.

For example, MacDonald's in the process of moving an exercise bench with pulleys into Masse's apartment so she can simulate her stroke. He's also getting her a stationary bike, medicine ball, kettlebells and cords so she can do as much strength and resistance training as possible. Masse has also stayed on top of her cardio with Toronto's Bike Share system, recently cycling 10 kilometres. With all that, MacDonald estimates she's at about six hours of training a week.

Hayden's working on similar goals. He's starting with park workouts using resistance bands and a medicine ball.

And of course, both athletes are on the hunt for pools. MacDonald had a lead on a five-metre long endless pool someone was willing to make available to Masse. Hayden thinks he's found a 15-metre personal pool to use. He plans to put a stretch cord around his place and swim against the resistance.

And even if these exercises are a far-cry from their usual training, they're still very effective.

An athlete's fitness doesn't just vanish

"If there's one thing being retired for seven years taught me, [it] was time off isn't necessarily a bad thing," Hayden said. "You're not going to fall out of shape as quickly as people think."

His experience is supported by science.

Despite the fact very few studies have been done on elite athletes and de-training, Trent Stellingwerff, Director of Performance Solutions for the Canadian Sport Institute, refers to one on world-class kayakers.

For five weeks, they were split into two groups. The first group didn't train at all. The other dropped its training by 80-90 per cent, doing light resistance training once a week and two, 40-minute paddles twice a week.


The group that didn't train saw a 10 per cent drop in their ability to send oxygen to their muscles — a common way to measure aerobic fitness. The group that did light training saw only a five per cent drop which Stellingwerff​​​​​​​ says isn't very much at all.

"We see this every single year with injured athletes." Stellingwerff​​​​​​​ said. "With pregnancies too."

"I've seen absolutely unbelievable and wonderful things [achieved] in terms of fitness in short periods of time if athletes can do the cross-training."

MacDonald's seen it too and, if the quarantine ends in time and the Games go on as scheduled, he still expects the top five ranked athletes to be the ones vying for medals … for the most part.

"There will be a lot more surprises and we may not see the same number of world records, but we'll still see great racing and a lot of the people who've done well [in the past] will probably still do well," he said. "They have 20 years of hard training behind them so they should be able to get at least close to form pretty quickly."

How long can band-aid training last?

Both Hayden and MacDonald acknowledge these quick fixes can't last up until the scheduled start of the Games. Swimmers need to swim. They'll really start to worry if pools are still closed in mid-April — which looks very possible.

Canadian Olympic trials were supposed to happen at the end of March into early April. Now, MacDonald guesses they'll likely be pushed back to mid-June. That already poses a schedule conflict, pushing into prime racing season when meets like the Mel Zajac in Vancouver or the Mare Norstrum tour in Europe are scheduled to happen.

When asked how he felt about missing all of these opportunities to compete, Hayden said he's still trying to wrap his head around it and awaits further information. He's also balancing disappointment, since just a few weeks ago he posted an Olympic A qualification standard time. He was ready to qualify for Tokyo this week.

"You just have to figure out what you can control, focus on that, and just sort of learn to adapt to the things that you can't," Hayden said. "That's all you can do."

So until the Games are postponed, cancelled or the quarantine lifts, fitness is all that's left for athletes to control.


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