BY SHELBY JORDAN Off-season.  We dream of it during all the doubles, dry-land workouts, and weekend-long swim meets, but once it’s here, we’re lost.  Free time is a completely unfamiliar concept to us.  We’ve spent the past five months planning around practice times, scrambling to get homework done, and functioning on minimal amounts of sleep. And come March, no practice means so much spare time and freedom to sleep for days.

As tempting as it is to go crazy with that new freedom, keep in mind that you are still part of a team with requirements and expectations that don’t go away, even in the off-season.  You have to stay in shape, stay healthy, and come back the next year ready to perform better than ever. Oh yes, and there’s school too.

Many of us swimmers get a little too excited about the flexibility of our off-season schedules and soon slip into bad habits like getting out of shape, sick, or a few bad grades.  Once you start down this risky road, it’s hard to get back on track.

With college swim season ending, here are some tips to having a healthy and productive off-season.

  1. Take a SMALL break

You deserve a week off.  You spent the last six months physically and mentally pushing your body to the limit.  So treat yourself to a fancy dinner with your friends or spend a whole day in a comfy pair of sweats binge watching Netflix. Reward yourself for the past season and relax, but only for a limited time.  Soon you’ll have to start thinking about the real stuff, like…

  1. Change your diet

This is the hardest one.  As swimmers we down carbs and fats without thought because we burn thousands of calories a day and need all that food to perform. But what happens when you aren’t working out four hours a day? “You’ve got to cut the carbs,” says Ryan Turner, a nutritionist who works with NYU Athletics. He explains that carbs are great for energy, but turn right into fat when left unused. In major meals, substitute some carbs for more veggies. For snacks Turner recommends a combination of protein and fiber like a cheese stick and some whole wheat pretzels, not cookies and chips.  Your body will thank you when it’s time to get back in the pool.

  1. Go to the gym

Notice the distinction: gym and not pool. The last thing you want to do is get back in the water. That being said, you need something with a similar level of cardio and endurance training. I mix running or biking, abs, and a modified version of my usual weight program.  It works well and targets the necessary body parts.  Do this until you miss getting in the water, because at some point you will.

  1. Organize your life

Swimmers are forced to live a very structured lifestyle, with classes scheduled around practice, social lives around classes, and schoolwork around it all.  When you don’t have all those guidelines, prioritizing gets hard.  So before your grades start slipping and you lose complete control, make a list, set a schedule, and plan ahead.  Don’t let off-season get the best of you.

  1. Mentally prepare

It may seem like you’re finally done and can relax, but just remember that next season comes quickly.  Don’t let the freedom make you dread the next season.  It will only make it that much harder to get back into training.  Focus on the positives: you can eat as much as you want, you don’t have to work out alone, and you get to see all your friends again. While off-season is a well-deserved and satisfying break, it’s just a break.  Your swimming career isn’t over, so get excited, you chose to swim in college for a reason and you chose your team for a reason.  Be ready to get back in the pool in September with determination and a fresh attitude