3 things you should be doing right now to reach your best time ever!
You might think that to be a better competitive swimmer you need to simply swim more sessions, work even harder in the pool and max out on volume and intensity. WRONG!
Sure, we can all agree that a certain level of simply working harder does pay off to an extent, but swimmers who consistently perform at the top of their game are working smarter, not simply harder and what you do in your land training and outside the pool, can provide that secret ingredient which helps you achieve your new PB, smash the pool sessions and stay injury-free.
1 – DON’T BE A NOODLE.
Your core stability is the platform that all your other attributes such as improved stroke strength and power will be built upon. If you think you’re already doing enough ‘core’ let me tell you, you’re not! As gym coach for Ben Proud, we did a very challenging core session – every day. He is a top athlete with phenomenal power and muscle bulk but we started building that by getting super strong core/trunk stability. Ben has some of the strongest core stability muscles I have ever seen and it’s this that enables him to optimise his stroke pulling power. Swim coach Jon Rudd put it like this,
“Imagine you throw a pool noodle into the water. Doesn’t go very far does it? Now imagine you throw a bamboo cane into the water, it goes much, much further”.
You should try to be stiff in your body like a bamboo cane, not soft like a noodle.
2 – GYM LIKE A SWIMMER.
Don’t waste your precious gym time with generic programs for ‘fitness’ or ‘strength’. These are not designed to specifically boost a swimmer’s performance. Swimming is a very specific and odd sport and your gym work needs to be very smart to support the unique demand that swimming places on the human body. Regular gym stuff that’s ‘off the peg’ just won’t cut it!
For a start, it’s a micro-gravity sport and this affects how your body responds to swimming exercise. The normal effects of earth’s gravity on your bone cells and your muscle and tendon reflex units are not the same for swimmers. Water buoyancy negates some of the gravity effect (that’s why astronauts train in pools before space flight) and this can lead to thinning of bones and articular cartilage (again, like an astronaut), which means you need to take extra care when loading up with weights in the gym. Also, except when turning off the wall, the normal ‘Ground Reaction Force’ is absent in swim training. Water is soft, so again, changes in reflex timing, joint surfaces and bone density mean caution with land based running and plyometric exercise.
Second, you’re always lying down on an unstable surface (huge core/trunk stability demands) – see above ‘Don’t be a Noodle’.
And third, as a swimmer of any stroke, you’re trying to produce pulling power in some very specific arm angle positions. Standard gym programs do not focus on teaching the muscles to get stronger and stabilise the shoulder or hip joints in the position that a swimmer needs to be strong in, ie. the ‘catch’ position. Consider the standard Bench Press exercise. Its a pushing exercise for a start, how does that relate to swim strokes which are all about pulling? Also, the Joint Angle Force Production (JAFP) in a Bench Press is right out in front of your chest. Swimmers need that arm to be strong in an overhead position. Even for a breaststroker, the angles are all wrong.
So, should you do bench?
Yes. It’s a great exercise for muscle stimulus growth because the pecs are big muscles, the growth hormones released by training them will also help you develop other muscles too. But, chasing a 120kg bench press is not going to help you swim faster. If you get tight from not stretching enough, it might even slow you down by limiting your movement, and even worse, cause injury to shoulder cuff or long head of biceps.
Sure, progressive loading compound exercises definitely have a role in your gym program to stimulate growth, but as a swimmer, you should focus more on building strength and stability in the actual joint positions that your stroke demands. This requires much smarter thinking outside of standard, generic gym work. Its no good hoping that a kind of magic will happen and your swimming will improve from doing gym circuits, plyometrics, trap deadlift and bench press. You need to gym like a swimmer!
3 – DONT SWIM, DANCE!
Olympic and world class swimmers who are performing on the absolute edge of their limits know the value of exploring innovative training approaches to optimise their power/movement efficiency relationship. It’s not by accident that when we watch the very best swimmers (or any athlete) they seem to move with an easy flow and efficiency. Think Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt. They make it look easy. That’s because they have taken time to really get into releasing unwanted tension, not ‘over trying’ and unlocking that deep efficiency. My former life as a dancer and movement teacher gave me an insight into this and I have spent my career working with elite athletes helping them on their inner journey to unlocking the ‘flow’.
Just like a dancer, a swimmer’s stroke is most efficient when it looks efficient (ok, except maybe men’s splash ‘n’ dash, where raw power is king – but even here, wasted energy can ruin you). Sometimes this means trying less hard, and practicing a mindset of keeping it fluid and smooth, even though the muscles are screaming and you want to win. Eventually it pays off. Your body adapts to physical needs (increased lung capacity, increased mitochondria density etc) and you keep hold of your lovely efficient stroke mechanics. How often have you been reduced to a horrible, inefficient stroke technique by the end of a long or hard swim set? And what’s worse is that if this is happening regularly, you will start to ‘overwrite’ your lovely technique with the horrible inefficient one. So you are training your body to swim worse, not better.
Coaches are always going to be pushing you to your physical limits, its their job. But what you can do to help prevent stroke decay is to really work at developing a mindset that helps you to physically maintain the flow and efficiency. For example: rather than focusing on the fatigue and pain, practice taking your mind outside yourself, hover above yourself: look down and see yourself swimming, tell yourself how smooth, graceful and fantastic you look, focus on how calm and smooth it looks. This might seem a bit nuts, but it’s a common practice used by sports psychologists. Lots of techniques are out there and you should see it as part of your training to explore them and find what works for you. It takes time and practice and elite athletes (like Phelps & Bolt) really do put a lot of time into practicing these techniques.
Try to become as efficient and flowing as a dancer and you too can make it look easy.