Strength & Conditioning
Outside of a handful of technological advances in competition suits and some isolated factions of coaches and athletes, the sport of swimming is largely stuck in a late 90’s – early 2000’s mentality; which is a generous approximation on my part, as the sport of swimming in the 90’s-00’s wasn’t all that much better from the handful of decades preceding it. This old school training mindset included a great emphasis on high yardage in the pool, followed by a big taper leading up to important and championship swim meets.
The high yardage/ big taper approach certainly has its applications, but much like how swimmers took the alleged 10,000+ kCal ‘Phelps Diet’ leading up to the 2008 Olympics as an excuse to overconsume and under-nourish with empty-nutrient and calorie-rich foods, braggadocios swim coaches have hijacked the good intent of high-yardage programs, and now misinformed coaches are globally vying for title of who can put their athletes through the most pain.
Since the semi-archaic idea of mega-yardage programs still have some merit, I’d like to focus dryland training, the dated and frequently perpetuated fallacies surrounding this, as well as what Ruthless Performance does with our swimmers and what other high-level programs are engaged in from a strength training perspective.
This well-known Ruthless Performance philosophy regarding dryland training for swimmers leads many concerned parents and swim coaches to ask the Ruthless Performance staff about our programs. Since swimming requires so much cardio, shouldn’t that be a main part of dryland training?
Simply put, no. But here’s the longer answer…
In the past, dryland training has mirrored pool-based training very closely. This would include ideas like distance running and other high intensity-based conditioning routines (and if you’re lucky, some lackadaisically performed, poorly designed rotator cuff band complexes). Not only is this additional energy system training unnecessary (during the in-season), but it can also be burdensome, ineffective, and at worst, harmful to performance.
One of the main reasons we don’t program a large amount of energy system training in our swimmers’ training programs is because of the sheer volume of energy system work that swimmers get while in the pool. Most swimmers can get through a large part of the warm-up without realizing that they are engaging in conditioning already. Add the various work sets done through a workout, and then repeated on a nearly daily basis, and you have a recipe for fantastic cardiopulmonary function and sport-specific energy-system development.
The problem is that coaches too frequently confuse the cardiovascular demands of the sport of swimming with the cardiovascular demands of swim practice.
Running is one such frequently assigned dryland activity for swimmers, used as a means of developing cardiovascular function. This is in part, due to the perception that swimming is a sport which requires a lot of cardio—which it does. The problem is that coaches too frequently confuse the cardiovascular demands of the sport of swimming with the cardiovascular demands of swim practice.
Adding more conditioning work on top of what is done in practice is simply providing an athletes cardiovascular system with diminishing marginal returns on ability to practice; this is largely ineffective because of how quickly the cardiovascular system responds and adapts to training stimuli. A few weeks of pre-season practice and a base level of cardiovascular function is restored to the point where an athlete can successfully compete at meets and return to more rigorous in-season training. Since most events are over in less than two minutes, this style of dryland training can become redundant and inefficient.
Adding running or various other conditioning modalities on top of traditional in-pool training can yield greater performance; just not as great as swimming performance could be if we focused on some other modalities and training tools. This is a conversation for another day entirely, but all of the strength-based training that we have our swimmers perform help in a variety of ways. Our strength training does, in fact, enhance energy system capacities, specifically the phosphocreatine (quick anaerobic energy system pathway). This is the system which leads to faster starts, quick turns, breakouts, and even negative splits in distance events.
All this to say that strength training with minimal traditional cardiovascular input is the primary way we train our athletes and for good reason. Rather than simply packing on additional volume of similar work, we are building up muscles which help prevent overuse injuries, minimizing the impact of training stressors, improve reaction time, coordination, catch in the water and so on. This allows athletes the opportunity to train more optimally in the pool, which is the primary vessel for developing skill-specific capacities in swimmers.
Strength Training is an emerging field in the sport of swimming. As more and more coaches, parents, and athletes begin to understand the extent to which a strength training program can help drop swim times and reduce injury, the more I’m approached by a growing and widening audience about, not only the Ruthless Athletic‘s Dryland Training for Swimmers Program, but also, general tips for using land-based techniques to get better in the pool.
As this audience widens, the frequency of parents approaching me to develop programs for their age-group swimmers increases as well. There’s a great deal of misinformation in the mainstream media about various forms of strength training for swimmers in general, but even moreso for youth athletes and youth or age-group swimmers.
The information herein are some quick tips and answers to some very frequently asked questions which I receive from both parents, coaches, athletic administrators, and even these young athletes themselves.
Strength Training is NOT Detrimental to Youth Athletes
The idea that strength training is detrimental to prepubescent and pubescent athletes transcends the sport of swimming. Parents, coaches, and entire athletic staffs may fall prey to this line of thinking.
As mentioned in this fantastic piece by Mike Robertson: “the stresses in sport far exceed what happens in the weight room!” Mike goes on to say “For example, in strength training a good measure of strength would be if you could squat or deadlift 2x your body weight. In other words if you weighed 175, if you could squat and/or deadlift 350, you’d be considered strong…”
…And then follows with some information that most people intuitively understand, but seem to ignore with regards to strength training…
“However, the forces that you see in everyday events like running (4-6x body weight) and jumping (6-10x body weight) far exceed anything done in the weight room.”
Speed and Agility Drills are Overlooked for Swimmers
Injuries in the pool are actually rather rare. Swimmers may develop chronic, or overuse injuries from their time in the pool, but the likelihood of sports injuries increases as an under-prepared swimmer finds themselves in a precarious position on land.
Often times, swimmers may find themselves in a pick-up game of football, volleyball, or some other higher-impact land sport where an injury could occur. Because these swimmers are so unprepared for this medium (court, field, track, etc.) they run a higher risk of injury than their friends who may participate in some of the various land-based sports.
While preparing for these kind of extenuating circumstances may seem like overkill, the number of coaches who’ve showed up to practice to then be faced with an injured star swimmer from similar circumstances to the aforementioned example is astronomical.
The Goal of Strength Training is Not the Goal of Swimming Practice
Swimming coaches tend to have misconceptions about the goals of strength training; a problem propagated extensively within the field. Coaches tend to want land-based exercise to replicate what is done in the pool, however, while the goals of both are the betterment of the athlete, the applications are entirely different.
Because pool workouts develop skill work and energy system development, coaches mistakenly believe strength training should be done in a similar way, usually with little rest, high heart rates, and in a manner which replicates the actions of sport; this view is plainly wrong.
Land work should help restore optimal function to the various joints and postures which the swimming strokes can hinder. By spending hours in the pool completing high yardage training, then coupling this with ‘sport specific work’ (such as swim cable trainers), you are effectively exacerbating shoulder and hip ailments common to overuse injuries.
To have the most effective ‘sport specific’ strength training, a program should consist of various counter measures. This ensures a neutral posture onto which the swimming coaches can pack on yardage and intensity. Doing so in addition to more of the same exercises on land will definitively lead to pain, burnout, and injury.
Consider the above when trying to formulate a program for your youth athletes. Remember, Ruthless Athletics does offer coaching services to individual athletes, as well as, entire sports teams. For more information on these services, swim team consulting, details on any of the various other services provided, or to simply ask a general question, feel free to reach out at RuthlessAthletics@gmail.com.