9 Reasons Swimmers Should Train Differently During COVID-19

The coronavirus has resulted in sports teams and leagues being cancelled until safe to resume. With athletes not practicing or competing with their teams, not to mention schooling from home, this has resulted in a lot of free time for athletes. Many are looking to use this downtime to fill their schedules and establish a routine. A great way to do this is with strength and conditioning sessions.

There’s only one problem…

Swimming is not like any other sports. And they need to train differently during this pandemic than soccer, basketball, hockey or football players.

Below are 9 Reasons Swimmers Should Training Differently During COVID-19.

#1 – All Volume Is Not Created Equal – Do you know any swimmers? I don’t mean recreational swimmers or even triathletes for that matter. I mean school-age kids that swim year-round with a club. If not, would you believe they can spend between 15-20 hours per week training in the pool? This includes five evenings per week for 2 hours each plus anywhere from 3-6 days week in the morning as well. Basically this is a ton of volume.

To put this in perspective consider that the 200 m in track & field and the 50 m free in swimming will both take about 20 s. Usain Bolt holds the men’s world record at 19.30 and it’s 20.91 for the 50 m free held by Cesar Cielo.

So swimming the same amount of time as sprinting covers 1/4 of the distance i.e. 50 m versus 200 m. There is no way a runner would ever expect to train the same volume with running that a swimmer does in the pool. For example, if a swimmer put in 75 km of volume in a week (very high) the equivalent volume would 300 km for a runner which is basically running a marathon everyday.

As swimmers look to add more s&c work to their training schedule they should do so slowly as the volume they are used to in the pool does not translate to land.

#2 – Water Is Not the Same As Air – When swimmers move from the pool to dryland for training there needs to be some consideration and awareness of the different medium they are training. Swimmers are used to moving through and overcoming the pressure of water as a resistance. This can be beneficial as it provides resistance and support. As we overcome the resistance we adapt and get stronger. And since our bodies are supported in water there is minimal stress on joints making it a great activity for those with orthopedic issues i.e. swimming is great for those with low back pain.

As swimmers move from the pool to land there should be some consideration of the difference of overcoming water as a resistance compared to air and how this influences exercise selection, tempo of movement and overcoming resistance.

#3 – Horizontal Versus Vertical – When we were kids growing up we trained at a pool in Rutland called the Athans Aquatic Centre. This was a short course (25 m) pool that was shallow enough you could touch at any point along the bottom. When we would finish practice our coach would ask us to swim a cool down and we would walk to the end of the pool and back. Besides standing at the end of the pool between sets waiting for instruction, this would be the only time we would be vertical during practice.

One thing all four strokes have in common is that the body is horizontally positioned. This is the opposite of almost all other sports unless you compete in powerlifting and only do the bench press.

Why does this matter?

Well, with all other sports we are upright and with many this involves movements such as a running, jumping, cutting, stopping and potentially contact or even collisions with an opponent. In swimming if you ever find yourself in a collision with another swimmer someone has really gone wrong.

In terms of training this means swimmers are not exposed to the same axial loading demands as other athletes. Picture a gymnast twirling through the air off the high bar and getting ready to stick her landing for a perfect 10. The gymnast’s load-bearing joints i.e. the feet, ankles, knees, hips and low back have been trained to safely and effectively reduce the forces upon landing. This would most certainly lead to injury if attempted by a swimmer.

As swimmers look to initiate or increase their dryland training in a weight room they should be aware that their joints have not been exposed to the same forces, especially with plyometrics, and should proceed cautiously.

#4 Solo Versus Group Training – In the pool a swimmer can really get in their own head. Once you are face down you don’t hear your coach. You aren’t talking to your teammates. There is no conversation with others at all. In fact, we had one swimmer that trained with us that I believe used her s&c sessions to get out everything she had to say but couldn’t during practice.

Anyways, a weight-room environment will be unique for swimmers. They may not be used to a coach’s feedback and cueing. They not be expecting someone to be talking to them as they perform a lift. And they may not be used to the banter and chatter that can be common place among athletes of other sports. This is important to know as it dictates how a coach may approach and lead a s&c session with a team of swimmers versus athletes of another sport.

One great thing however about training swimmers is that they are used to doing the work themselves. Their sport is all on them. They show up for practice or they don’t. They put in the training or they don’t. Whether they slack off or train hard is up to them and the results that accompany their efforts. When swimmers come in the gym they tend to get to work and take the training seriously. They are self-motivated and hold themselves accountable.

#5 – Plantar Versus Dorsiflexed – When it comes to the ankle joint, swimmers are unique from other sports. With land-based athletes, team or track, we typically coach a dorsiflexed ankle position. This simply means the toes are towards the shin as opposed to the toes pointed away. The reason for this is that it sets the joint to take advantage of the stretch-shortening-cycle (ssc) of a plyometric action.

With swimming we don’t typically coach dorsiflexion too much. Part of this has to do with the sport being water based and horizontally positioned and doesn’t involve much running or jumping. Starts and turns do factor into this and we program accordingly based on which events the swimmers competes in as well as their unique needs.

But for the most part a dorsiflexed ankle is not advantageous for swimming. For one it doesn’t allow for a natural finish to the flutter or dolphin kick. And secondly a dorsiflexed ankle creates more drag in the water than a plantar flexed foot.

#6 – A Variety of Energy Systems – Going back to the track and field example used above, have you ever known a runner? If so, what was their best event? Were they a sprinter competing in the 100 m and relays? Did they compete in the middle distance events of the 1500 m and 3000 m? Or were they in distance racing in 10 k and marathons?

Whichever event(s) they competed in, they most likely stuck to those events. In other words you wouldn’t hear the track athlete tell you their meet schedule as racing the 100 m on Friday, the 1500 m on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday. But this is what swimmers do. In a variety of strokes.

Typically when we work with swimmers at our gym we don’t put much emphasis on their aerobic energy system development. They get enough of this in the pool and the sport itself would be the best way to improve fitness in that sport.

Instead what you should strive to do is focus on the energy systems that are under-developed in the pool and consider the age of the athlete. Following LTAD guidelines, the Fundamental Stage can be a great time to introduce speed training. As the athlete ages and matures we look at developing the aerobic battery or stamina as it is referred to in the guidelines. Just be aware that if you include sprints and plyometrics in your programs you ease these in slowly and allow time for tissues to adapt and mechanics to be learned.

#7 – Swimming Is All Concentric – Can you remember back to the time when you first worked out? Do you remember the soreness you felt after that first intense bench press session? Or have you ever done enough biceps curls that it was hard to extend the elbows the following day?

If so, you’re familiar with DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness. Now I’m not saying you can’t feel it after an intense swim practice but it’s not the same as resistance training in the gym. And part of this has to do with the muscle actions involved.

With muscular contractions we can distinguish them based on whether the muscle shortens, lengthens or stays the same length. These are also referred to as concentric, eccentric and isometric contractions. When we have to reduce an external force the contraction will be eccentric as the tissue lengthens to absorb the force i.e. lowering a weight during the bench press or coming down from a jump in volleyball. In swimming we don’t have to account for eccentric loading. All of the force generated is concentric. Don’t get me wrong in that there is still the resistance of the water but it passive until we actively push, pull or kick against it.

What this means is the swimmers need to ease into lifting. The eccentric strength that is naturally developed through sports that involve absorbing collisions, landings, stoppings and cuttings is underdeveloped with swimmers. And this is where injuries typically happen. So in order to be safe and effective focus on learning movements and developing eccentric strength.

#8 – Swimming Is Mostly Upper Body – Aside from the start, turns and breaststroke, swimming is an upper body propulsive sport. And you’ll only do one start in a race and may not swim breaststroke lessening the contribution of the lower body to speed in the pool.

Compare this to many of the exercises included in thoughtful strength & conditioning programs. The list includes squats, lunges, step ups, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, Nordic hamstrings, hip thrusts and more. Does this mean these lifts are bad for swimmers? Should they be avoided?

Definitely not. Lower body training is a great way to increase speed and power in the pool. In the case of a 50 m sprint the dive can be worth up to 30% of the race. And with properly developed elastic power a swimmer can come off the wall on turns further and faster than a competitor. As well, as most of the volume in the pool comes from upper body propulsion, lower body training can be a great way to stimulate the system to grow and get stronger without adding stress to the upper body.

#9 – The Breathing Is Different – You could say breathing is the most important part of swimming. Without it it’s game over.

But how many swimmers consider how they breath? Sure they may be able to tell you which side they breath on but can they describe how they breath? The way I remember it was a quick puff out to clear water from around the mouth before a quick inhale. Now you’ve got to remember I was an 80’s swimmer and so maybe swimmers today are coached differently as to how they should breath. Because in the gym there are specific times and ways to breath.

Our goal with breathing in the gym is to maintain intra-abdominal pressure (IAP), to exchange gas, (carbon dioxide out, oxygen in), to maintain pace and to provide an assist through sticking points. The first point, IAP, is key to ensure we perform a lift safely.

Imagine taking in a big belly breath and setting your abs. This helps us lock down and brace to protect the various structures such as the low back. Another way to think about this to imagine tensing your stomach before some one punches you in the gut.

As you perform a rep you will want to slowly release your air. Think of squeaking air out of a balloon rather than letting the balloon just fly off around the round. When you slowly release the air from the balloon the pressure in the balloon is maintained. If the balloon is let go the air rushes out all at once and loses pressure quickly.

It might seem counter-intuitive to spend time teaching swimmers how to breath in the gym but it is different from how it happens in the pool. A little coaching here at the start makes lifts safer and leads to better results.

Could You Benefit From Swimming Specific Strength & Conditioning?

Swimmers can benefit hugely from strength & conditioning. However as you can see from above there are a number of factors to keep in mind that make training swimmers different from other athletes.

If you would like some help with s&c for swimming reach and I will offer you two weeks of programming and coaching on me. Send an email to athletetraining (at) shaw (dot) ca and we’ll be in touch to see if working together would be a good fit.

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