A Swimmer’s Transition from Adolescence to Adulthood


Maturing Athletes: A Swimmer’s Transition from Adolescence to Adulthood

By Vanessa Steigauf, Swimming World College Intern

As we get older and mature, our bodies go through several changes. And because we are athletes, we are trained to know our own body extremely well. We sense every change, even if it is small. Especially for swimmers who transition from high-school level to college sports, these changes can have a big impact on their performance in the water. Oftentimes, this leads to performance plateaus and thus frustration. All that adds up to an already crowded schedule for a student-athlete. The high stress level doesn’t help to keep your cool and it feels like any ability to swim fast is simply lost.

But it doesn’t have to be so frustrating. Actually, all the changes your adult-athlete body is going through are completely normal “side-effects” of your transition to adulthood. You can learn to deal with them, and to get to know your body once again. Gaining new experiences from experimenting and finding out what the new, grown-up version of yourself needs to thrive can be an interesting process and will definitely lead to success.

The Stressful Life of a Student-Athlete

As a college student, especially as a sophomore, when the excitement of the first year has worn off, a routine begins to find its way into the busy schedule. There are several disappointments that wait around the next corner. They are ready to remind you that adulthood isn’t always as fun as you pictured it back when you were 15. Deadlines are always approaching, late-night study sessions can sap your energy, but morning practices get you out of bed while all other students are still asleep. The everyday life of a college swimmer holds many obstacles and it is hard to maintain an unburdened mindset. During the much-needed study break in the pool, you want to push yourself to the limit every day. But the point where your body can’t keep going any more will come sooner or later.

Your Body in Adult-Mode

Now it is time for the dreaded truth you probably don’t want to hear: You are not 15 anymore. (If you are one of the young swimmers who just laughed at that sentence because you actually are 15, listen to me if I say that you should enjoy this time swimming-wise. Racing will never again feel as easy as it does right now. Trust me). So, even if some college students might not appear to be very mature, their bodies definitely are. You have completed puberty (or at least are about to do so) and your body now works in adult-mode. So, pay close attention to the user manual. Because all these changes you have gone through have several effects on your performance as an athlete.

Your New (Old) Body


One aspect that drastically changes in most athletes as they progress to adulthood is their ability to recover. Many swimmers experience a longer recovery time after hard workouts and races. The same is true for injuries. Your adult-athlete body simply isn’t able to heal as fast as it did when you were a child. Waking up with a sore back isn’t just a matter of a few minutes or hours anymore. It can actually leave you hampered for days…

Some important factors that play into healing and recovery are connected to your lifestyle. Enough sleep and a healthy diet are key elements that support a faster recovery. I know, that is easier said than done for student athletes. But at least eight hours of sleep and a good range of nutrients to fuel the conquering of the high demands you have for your adult-athlete body should be a priority if you want to be successful. Keep in mind that your metabolism probably changed over the past years and is still changing. Closely observing how much energy you need and what meals help you to get enough fuel can help to adapt.

Exhaustion and Pain

Another part that has changed is your perception of exhaustion and pain. Lactate levels (the stuff that makes your muscles feel like they are burning during a hard workout) are significantly higher in adults than in adolescent athletes. This is mainly due to a change in the way your body generates energy. Adults have a higher glycolytic capacity, which means they are able to produce more energy in a short time. Unfortunately, that also means there are higher amounts of waste products that end up in your blood stream and make you feel exhausted.

But don’t be too disappointed. The days where a 500 free feels super easy might be over, but there are positive aspects about this change. As adolescents, we rely more on aerobic metabolism to fuel our workouts and races (hence, less waste products and no heavy arms). But the capability of reaching and maintaining high intensities is just developing when we are young. As adults, we can physically push ourselves to whole new levels.

Training Stimuli

These principles are important when it comes to training stimuli and planning your season. Luckily, there are skilled and experienced coaches that have gone through this process of change with many athletes before us. We can trust them with how they structure our practices to get the most out of our adult bodies. One important aspect about practices in college that make them so different from the practices you might have had in high-school, is that they are lower in quantity but higher in quality.

Basically, that means you do less distance and higher intensities. Even if this might feel counterintuitive at first, trust your coaches and trust your adult-athlete body that new techniques in your training routine can actually make you stronger than ever. Closely linked to the aspect of training stimuli is taper. There is probably no coach that can actually say they have completely figured out how the perfect taper works. But one thing is true for adult athletes. Because our bodies take longer to recover, periods of taper get longer to ensure swimmers are at the best they can be on race day.

A New Way to Swim Fast

Generally, there are a lot of changes you experience as you transition to adulthood and get older. But don’t get too frustrated over them. Just because the way you handled things before doesn’t work anymore, that doesn’t mean there is no new way to be successful. And all these changes actually hold a great opportunity for you. Once you patiently figured out the very individual way your adult-athlete body works, you have unlocked a whole lot of new chances to push yourself to levels you never thought you could reach before. Trust the process, communicate with your coaches, gather experiences, and believe in your body.

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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