These are the 5 “rules” we consider when we’ve designed training programs for swimmers. No matter whether we are talking about the developing swimmers, Collegians, or Olympic Gold Medalists we’ve trained at Velocity Sports Performance, these rules always apply.
Swimming Is Unique
An elite competitive swimmer is like any other athlete in many ways. They need a good foundation of coordination and basic strength throughout the entire body. This base of athleticism is useful for coordinating general motion and basic physical health.
However, swimming is unique among athletic movements. No other sport is performed in another substance and without contact with the ground.
Yes, there are sports like rowing or kayak which propel a vessel through water. There are also sports like skiing or snowboard where athletes ride over snow. Or speed skating, hockey, and skeleton which slide over ice.
First, in all those other sports you get to breathe. You have to get your face out of the water to breathe in swimming.
Second, there is the fact that almost everything else has movement produced or controlled by producing force and directing it through the feet into the ground.
A swimmer propels themselves through water primarily with the upper body instead of through the legs into the ground. They have to manage the laws of not just physics, but specifically hydrodynamics to swim.
1. The Pool Rules
Since humans are not native to the water, swimmers need to spend a lot of hours in the pool. They need to be in the water developing and maintaining their feel for the for it and efficiency moving through it.
For all training, that becomes the priority. They need to be in the pool.
While an athlete’s sport is always the priority, it’s even more true for a swimmer. It is more important than any dryland, core, conditioning, or strength program. They don’t get the same “cross-training” benefits from doing something on land.
Other ground-based athletes have the advantage that daily locomotion and lifelong development give them.
It’s an added foundation for most athletes’ sporting movements. They are used to being on the ground, with-in gravity, and producing forces, and getting kinesthetic feedback.
Swimmers aren’t that fortunate. To get those benefits, they have to be in the water.
Hours upon hours in the pool are required for developing the movement skill and specific conditioning need to excel in the sport. When designing and delivering performance training for swimmers, this always has to be kept in mind.
One of the strongest Key Performance Indicators (KPI) for swimmers can be as simple as healthy hours in the pool swimming.
That brings us to the 2nd priority. Keeping them healthy.
2. Stay Healthy
If a swimmer is injured and can’t swim, they have broken rule number one. Keeping them in the pool is the priority but keeping them injury and pain-free goes beyond just being in the pool.
Shoulder Pain In Swimmers
Shoulder pain, injury, and dysfunction are prevalent in swimmers.
From a study; Epidemiology of Injuries and Prevention Strategies in Competitive Swimmers :
“Shoulder pain is the most frequent orthopedic injury in swimmers, with a reported prevalence between 40% and 91%… Swimmers at the elite level may swim up to 9 miles per day (more than 2,500 shoulder revolutions). Muscle fatigue of the rotator cuff, upper back, and pectoral muscles caused by repetitive movement may result in microtrauma due to the decrease of dynamic stabilization of the humeral head.”Epidemiology of Injuries and Prevention Strategies in Competitive Swimmers
Sports Health, May 2012
These microtraumas, in turn, can lead to a swimmer’s shoulder symptoms.
LEARN MORE: FUNCTIONAL ANATOMY OF THE SHOULDER
Upper Body Propulsion In Swimming
That’s because the majority of propulsion in swimming strokes is from the upper body. Only the breaststroke or the underwater dolphin kick (the fifth stroke) have significant contributions to propulsion from the lower body.
A ground-based athlete produces a ground reaction force with the lower body. It is directed through the center of mass to take sports actions.
A swimmer instead will generate forces against the water that must propel them. In most strokes, the majority (80-90%) of propulsion is generated by the upper limbs.
The shoulder is unique. It has a huge degree of mobility. In fact, the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the body.
This allows for an extensive range of motion through multiple planes of motion. Unfortunately, the shoulder is also inherently unstable due to this mobility.
Conversely, since it’s highly mobile, this joint also needs lots of stability. The shoulder complex has to transfer all the force generated in the upper extremity into the torso. That means all of the small muscles that stabilize the glenohumeral and scapula-thoracic joints need to function well.
For a swimmer’s shoulder to function well those muscles need to fire in a coordinated manner, have enough strength to stabilize and transfer force, and the endurance to do it for thousands upon thousands of repetitions.
That’s a big ask and part of why there are so many painful shoulders in swimmers.
Athletes and coaches need to understand that technique trumps strength. The amount of drag in the water is a bigger factor in swimming velocity than propulsion.
Think about that for a moment. Minimizing drag, which requires maintaining the body’s streamlined position, is more important than propulsion.
Hydrodynamics tells us why.
The faster a swimmer goes, the more drag there is. It goes up exponentially. So anything that breaks the streamline and creates drag has an exponential impact to slow the swimmer.
On the other side of this problem, is the fact that propulsion gets harder as you swim faster.
The faster a swimmer’s hand moves through the water, the more resistance the water creates. It’s also exponential.
So the faster you go, the more drag slows you down and the harder it is to push the water.
Training for A Swimming Streamline
To minimize drag in the water, athletes should strive to maintain an elongated spine and streamline position, as well as display advanced lumbopelvic control.
Staying streamlined and minimizing drag in the water is primarily the realm of the pool and the swim coach.
However, on dryland, we can create the prerequisites the swimmer needs for this.
For the prone strokes of freestyle, butterfly, and breast, this requires the entire posterior chain to help the lower half of the body from dropping. The posterior chain includes all the muscles along the back of the body from toes to the head.
Exercises that link the entire posterior are key for swimmers.
Swimmers also need a foundation of strength and stability in their pelvis and torso.
The “core” of the body can be defined in many ways. For the purposes of the swimmer, we are defining it 360 degrees from the pelvis through the scapula.
During each swimming stroke, they have to manage rotational forces from the upper body and into the torso. They have to keep their streamline from the head, through the torso, and down into the pelvis and lower body. Any break in this chain will lead to increased drag.
This is why comprehensive core training is key. There is a place for isolated exercises of the core and pelvis, but it’s the multi-muscle/joint exercises that build connectedness need for swimmers.
Whether it’s swimming, sprinting in track & field, or a BMX event, everyone wants a great start.
In swimming, the opportunity to push off the blocks, overcome inertia, and generate horizontal momentum can be incredibly important. So we need to consider this when designing training programs for swimming.
Turns are the same.
Each turn is an opportunity to use the large muscles of the lower body to generate propulsion and build speed. Unlike sprint distances that have few turns, long-distance races have many, each an opportunity to gain speed.
Entering the water off the start, and coming off the turns are the fastest velocities during any event.
Starts are the fastest, and turns are second. To maximize the benefit, swimmers need power in their lower bodies to be explosive in both.
For sprints, the start (to 15m) makes up a large portion of the entire race and drops as the distance increases. In shorter sprints, this can be over 25% of the race so you better get it right.
Turns on the other hand (5m in, 5 m out), take up a larger portion the longer the race is. This makes sense because the longer the race, the more total turns there are. In a 1500m race, the turn time can be 30-40% of the race.
So making the most of these is critical in a sport where hundredths of a second make a difference.
Explosive Training For Swimmers
The swim start, and a good turn, require the athlete to explode from a static or relatively static position. In this position, the ankle, knee, and hip are all bent and ready to explode off the wall.
Although the swimmer is horizontal in the water, their alignment and force vector is like a vertical jump.
We need to highlight the static position here because there are differences in the strength qualities required when exploding from static positions.
The static muscle contraction
In many athletic movements, the athlete will perform a counter-movement first. This is the bending of the knees and hips while they dip down before a vertical jump. This occurs before they begin pushing back up explosively, and it gives them added force into the ground.
For a start, the swimmer is in their start position, knee and hips bent, and muscles tensed ready to fire. They need to immediately explode forward on the gun so they don’t waste valuable time.
It’s a static position.
They cant take advantage of that added force from the countermovement.
A turn is essentially the same. If they execute the flip turn well, their feet are near/touching the wall, with the knees and hips already bent. They don’t perform a countermovement sinking closer into the wall.
When they have contact with the wall they need to instantly generate high levels of force to explode off the wall. All of this has an impact on their training needs.
This lack of countermovement means when training for explosiveness in the lower body means they will need to have a high rate of force development.
Rate of force development is the ability to turn on the muscle quickly to achieve high forces in a small time. It can be developed with explosive exercises including plyometric jumps, medicine ball throws, and explosive weight training.
Ground-based athletes develop forces from the ground up, in a coordinated extension of the hips, knees, and ankle. The summation of these forces propels them forward.
Similarly, swimmers must develop a coordinated, multi-segment flexion from the upper body through the hips to summate the highest propulsive forces.
The dryland training of swimmers needs to include elements that emphasize the coordinated application of strength from the fingertips through the core and to the toes.
This is the “tip to toes” connected concept.
A key feature of “connected” exercises for swimmers is that the core and hips are controlled for stability at the same time while the upper extremity generates power in pulling and pushing moments. This goes back to the earlier rule that streamline is more important than propulsion.
So in dryland training, we shouldn’t sacrifice core control and body position for more power. We also strive to develop the forces and power with full-body control.
For an exercise to develop “connectedness” the following qualities need to be developed;
- Athlete exhibits pelvis and spinal control during movement
- Athlete demonstrates scapular control during strength application
- Athlete develops pulling tension across multi-segmental, muscle/fascial lines
To achieve this swimmers should emphasize multi muscle/joint exercises. Gymnastic type fundamentals on rings and parallettes are a great way to build a solid foundation and always connect the core and shoulder complex.
Kettlebell exercises also are a great tool to emphasize the connection and develop stability in the shoulder girdle.
Training Smart for Swimmers
To design an effective training program for swimmers, you have to first understand the demands of the sport. Many of the same training methods used for other athletes will pay dividends for swimmers as well.
However, there are unique aspects to swimming we have to consider as swimmers reach higher levels.
Hydrodynamics are the driving factor and only when we understand their impact on the swimmer can a program be “swimming specific”.
The key concepts are;
- The time in the pool rules all else
- Healthy swimmers are in the pool and capable of efficient technique
- Maintaining a streamline is more important than greater propulsion
- The starts and turns are the faster parts of the race and make up large portions of it
- Propulsion in swimming develops from the fingertips and connects through the core
Building training for a swimmer begins at a young age by developing all-around athletes. On top of that athletic foundation, dryland then continues to become more swimming-specific by following the rules above.
There are many ways to train swimmers, but to be effective, the rules need to be followed.