Swim Training at Home
Let’s face it, this has not been the best year for swimming: pools shut, events cancelled, restrictions on open water for much of the time. It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, if you were anxious about upcoming events; feeling unmotivated, unprepared, or worried about performance. But this doesn’t have to be the case.
In this article, Rebecca Lodge from Swim Snowdonia helps us all keep up with our swim fitness without the need for water!
There is a lot you can do at home, on dryland, to help prepare yourself. It is likely, just as some events went ahead at the end of last year, that racing will take place this summer and although this may not be the year for swim PBs, it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy the race season any less. The aim of this article is to provide you with some guidance as to how you can do as much as possible to prepare for swim events or triathlons without the use of water. I hope it provides some reassurance that next season is not over because we can’t train our swimming adequately, and give some ideas as to how we might best benefit from our current situation.
First off, a quick word about open water swimming in the winter. And by winter, I mean anytime when the water is very cold (< 10°C, say), which could extend until April/May depending on what sort of winter we have and what body of water you’re looking to swim in. Whilst some of you might be lucky enough to live close to an open water swimming venue (lake, sea, garden pond) during the lockdown, winter is not the season to increase open water training, even if you feel like it’s your only option. The two key dangers of open water swimming - panic and hypothermia - are greatly exacerbated at this time of year and it’s not the time to push your limits. Most (myself included) will struggle to keep their face in the water for any length of time when the temperatures get really low. Winter wild swimming confers many benefits, primarily psychological ones, and is all about enjoying the experience and taking pride in small achievements, like just managing to get into the water or not falling over whilst putting your trousers on. If you are new to winter swimming take great care, don’t feel pressured into trying it if you don’t want to and never feel pressured into not wearing all the neoprene you can feasibly don.
So what can we do in the middle of winter, with no warm water to train in? If we break swimming down we can examine how we might work each of the different aspects on dryland to help us improve when we are back in the water (N.B. for the purposes of this article I’m talking only in relation to frontcrawl as it is the most common open water stroke).
The way in which we get better in swimming, the way in which we can swim faster for longer, comes from our ability not to waste energy. In the water we have two primary forces acting upon us: the drag of the water and the propulsion we create through arm and leg movements. Drag is the far stronger of these two forces. We can can attempt to increase our propulsion through sheer brute strength and fight but we will be wasting vast amounts of energy if we are not first minimising drag. Minimise drag and you will go further and faster with the same amount of energy expenditure. This is why the primary factor to improving at swimming is technique. A horizontal body position, good rotation, and effective arm technique will deliver much bigger improvements than just working strength or endurance. And we can make great strides at improving this technique at home.
When coaching, I’m always looking to develop a sound rotation before improving arm technique. Good rotation requires the shoulders and hips remaining inline and moving together. An issue often seen in frontcrawl is that the shoulders and hips move independently of each other and the body ‘snakes’, this causes a great deal of drag and also impacts propulsion. Core strength is key and can be trained better on dryland than in the water. Core exercises which require keeping the hips and shoulders inline, for example the plank and its many variations, hollow body hold, superman, or dead bugs will transfer to improving your core integrity during rotation. Adding flutter kicks to superman/hollow body hold will also train a good kick and strengthen your hip flexors.
Resistance cords with handles/paddles are excellent for working on arm technique. You can break down the frontcrawl arm movement into its three parts: the catch, the pull and the push. Performing these with a decent amount of resistance but slowly and with precision will help condition your arms (and your brain) into a solid arm technique. Correct movement is key here so if you’re not sure on what that is, get some advice.
In everyday life the shoulder girdle is rarely used in the same way as when we are swimming. We seldom swing our arms behind us or pull something from above our head and push it towards our waist. So we can’t really expect the joints or muscles involved in frontcrawl to perform well if they haven’t been used in a similar way for months on end. Plus, upper back pain and stiffness, tight shoulders and chest muscles can all be consequences of sitting at desks or in unergonomic positions for long periods of time - something I suspect will have become much more prevalent from the increase in people working from home. The hip flexors (vital for a strong kick) are also a victim of this, even more so if you do a lot of running and cycling.
Stretching and mobility exercises are therefore crucial for maintaining good shoulder health, upper body mobility and hip flexor looseness, ensuring your muscles and joints are ready to take the load when you get back in the water. Mobility exercises should not be strenuous and can be completed for a few minutes multiple times a day. There are plenty of swim-specific yoga/ mobility/movement Youtube videos and social media accounts out there, and Swim Wales has a great series on dryland mobility on their website.
Strengthening the muscles specific to swimming confers a number of benefits, from reducing the risk of injury to helping to maintain form for longer (delaying that awful feeling you get when you’re so tired you can’t control your arms any longer). This is the ideal time to be working on this base strength. Concentrate on shoulder, chest, bicep/tricep and latissimus dorsi strength and you should see this translate to an increase in power when you get back in the water. For example, tricep dips will help the often neglected ‘push’ part of the frontcrawl stroke. If trained consistently and correctly, you should really feel a difference when you get back to swimming. Again, Swim Wales and British Triathlon both have ideas for dryland strength and conditioning and there are plenty of social media tips and tricks out there, but if you are wanting more tailored training seek the help of a strength & conditioning coach.
Speed & Endurance
This is where we get a little restricted with dryland training. Neither swim-specific endurance nor speed can be trained without a bit of water to slosh around in. However, any cardiovascular fitness is transferrable and speed can be refined in the 6-8 weeks prior to a race. If you’re entered into a late season race then there is plenty of opportunity to refine your swimming in the open water when the temperature is appropriate (or pool if they open in time). For now, keep up the running, cycling or other cardio. And keep in mind that base mileage is king: this means the pace of the majority of runs/rides/other you do should be easy enough that you could hold a conversation throughout. It is slow! But the better that base endurance is, the more speed you can build on top of it. Plus, if you have done your dryland technique and strength training this should transfer to better speed and endurance by nature of a reduction in drag.
A key difference between the pool and open water and never to be neglected, confidence is forged from experience. The best advice I can give for improving this is, when we can get back in the water, to find yourself a coach or a coached group with whom you can build it. Some good news, however, is that it is likely that most of the races this year will be conducted in a rolling start, time-trial fashion, rather than the sometimes off-putting mass start. Which means it could be the perfect opportunity for anyone nervous about racing to give it a go in a less pressured environment.
Getting Back in the Water
Once lockdown begins to ease it is likely that we will be able to get into the open water sooner than we are allowed into pools. Once you do get back in the water remember that you cannot make up for lost time, so don’t overload your training. Work on confidence and on race technique, refine what you have for the event you’ve got, rather than trying to force rapid improvement and risk injury or burnout. Transfer the technique you’ve refined on dryland into the water. This will give you the best improvement.
If you want to work on your threshold and speed in the open water but are not sure how here are some suggestions:
- Between two fixed points in the water (i.e. buoys):
- Efforts - maintain 70%, 80% or 90% effort over the distance
- Builds - start slow and build to fastest speed
- Distance per Stroke - count the number of strokes it takes to cover that distance and try to reduce it as much as possible
- Sprints - swim as hard as you can over that distance
If you have no fixed points then you can incorporate the efforts, builds or sprints into a continuous swim by using a fixed number of strokes i.e. 30 strokes at pace/ 30 strokes easy and repeat.
Hopefully this article has provided you with some good ideas for swim training at home during the winter and reassured you that all is not lost without water. I look forward to seeing you at some races the summer. And don’t forget the most important bit: enjoy!