Just Keep Swimming: 5 Ways to Overcome a Plateau

Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

By Madeline Ladd, Swimming World College Intern (Archive)

Maybe you have had a rough season. Maybe you missed that cut time you were hoping for all year by .10 of a second. Maybe you didn’t improve a much as you had hoped. Maybe you got injured or sick and were unable to swim. Maybe, just maybe, you feel like you’re stuck in a swimming rut.

Does this sound like you? If so, you’re not alone. All swimmers, even the most accomplished and elite of athletes, have gone through times where they feel like they have hit a plateau and can never improve.

“It’s what you do with the rough patches that will define the athlete that you’ll become,” once said Olympic gold medalist Dana Volmer.

Even though everyone goes through these rough patches, only those who are truly invested and have the desire to fight will be able to break through. Here are just a few suggestions of how you can help train yourself mentally and harness the strength to overcome that plateau.

Focus on the Little “Wins”

Whenever it seems like everything is going horribly wrong during your meet or season, look at the bigger picture. Sure, maybe you didn’t swim your best time in your 200 freestyle, but your third 50 split was the fastest you have ever gone in that event. Maybe you felt like you just swam the worst 500 freestyle in your life, but your coach comments on how great your technique and underwaters looked. Maybe you swam a race and nothing positive at all can come to your mind. In that case, a “win” could be not letting it affect the rest of your meet. Remember that the time isn’t the end all be all of your swimming, and every race/meet/practice should be put into a broader perspective— there is a silver lining to everything.

Be Real with Yourself

missy franklin

This one may be hard for some swimmers to come to terms with. In order to have true success, you have to know that you are living up to your full potential and doing all you can to the best of your ability. Are you practicing as hard as you can, or are you just coming to practice to show up and mindlessly swim? Are you working on the technique and underwater that your coach tells you is vital? Are you putting other priorities before swimming that you did not in the past? Are you getting enough sleep, eating properly, and drinking enough water? Maybe a combination of these caused you to plateau. Don’t make excuses for yourself – you’ll only stay on that plateau. Reflect on the decisions you have made and what you did or did not do. Come to terms with what you should have done better, and think about what positive changes you can make.

Talk to a Trusted Coach/Adult/Friend

Jun 18, 2015; Santa Clara, CA, USA; Michael Phelps (USA) on left, and Bob Bowman head swimming coach of the Arizona State Sun Devils, answer questions during the morning press conference on day one of the Arena Pro Series at Santa Clara, at the George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara, Calif. Mandatory Credit: Bob Stanton-USA TODAY Sports

Photo Courtesy: Robert Stanton/USA Today Sports Images

Tell someone you respect and trust about how you are feeling. The main person to talk to would be your coach: he or she sees you at practice everyday and knows how you have been performing at your meets. By talking to them, they may have some insight as to why you are not improving and may offer suggestions on how to combat this. They are there to help you, have your best interest at heart, and want to see you succeed. For whatever reason, you might not feel as if you can talk to your coach. In this case, a teammate, adult, or other trusted friend would be willing to help the best that they can. Together you can make a game plan on how to move forward. Voicing your concerns to someone – though sometimes scary and vulnerable – can help. It is better to let it all out and welcome the opportunity for advice rather than keeping your feelings bottled up to yourself.

Set Realistic Goals

Setting goals that are thoughtful and realistic can create a stronger sense of determination and desire in any swimmer. Sit down with just yourself or add in a coach or a parent. Plan out the goals you have for the upcoming season, meet, or even just the next practice. Setting these tangible goals can give you something to work toward and add more meaning to your swimming.

What do you hope to accomplish this season? Is there a certain time you are hoping to get? Do you want to improve your technique? Or do you want to have an overall more positive attitude? What are your goals? Write them down somewhere and keep them in a place where you will frequently be reminded. This might be on your phone, on the bulletin board in your room, or on a piece of paper in your swim bag. Your goals should reflect who you want to be as a person and a swimmer – make sure they have meaning to you.

Remember WHY You Started.


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Did you start swimming as a little kid because you loved the water? Did your parents sign you up one day after swim lessons on a whim and you fell in love with the sport? Does the competition and desire to win make you energized, satisfied, and wanting more? Remember why you started swimming. Whatever reason that may be, remember why it is “fun” to you. You may have found that this “fun” has been lost somewhere along the way. Search again for the passion, and when you are in the middle of a grueling set or feeling down about a race, remember why you are there and why you started.

Moving Forward in a Rut    

These five pieces of advice are just some of the steps you can take to overcome your swimming plateau. Implement these ideas, incorporated with the advice from those around you, into your everyday life. Track your progress. Most importantly though, try to keep a positive attitude. While it may seem impossible to not get discouraged or frustrated with yourself, always remember that you are stronger than you think. Plateaus are possible to overcome.

Just keep swimming!

-All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Denise Gutierrez Cheatham

Carli Cheatham

Molly Griswold
5 years ago

I went through a major plateau in my swimming career and I wish I had this article to read! Great insights!!

5 years ago

We always get our son to look on the positive side, he trains and he has fun times we always make it even.

Kate Walter
5 years ago

Thank you for discussing this topic! Great piece.

2 years ago


Jeff Findley
Jeff Findley
1 year ago

Claim you’re a woman and swim against them .

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