Strength and Conditioning for Swimmers

I got the following message from Diarmaid last Sunday about the performance of his son, Ross, in the Irish Long Course Nationals in swimming;

"Hi Ainle, fantastic news. Ross won his first senior medal in 50m Backcrawl final tonight in Dublin at the Irish Long Course Nationals. Amazing result. He Swam really well in his heat and made it to the semi final this afternoon and got a big PB that which got him to final. He is absolutely thrilled. Over the moon. Massive thanks to all in ACLAÍ he is in amazing condition thanks to everyone in ACLAÍ."

As I was only about halfway back to Cork from Belfast, this message certainly shortened the road home! Here are a few things of note when it comes to strength and conditioning for swimmers:

1. The importance of ACTUALLY swimming

If you want to achieve something big in your sport, you have to love participating in that sport, and spend the time required practicing (aka training) that specific sport. Going through the motions is not enough. I have seen it on countless occasions that the difference between someone who likes their sports compared to someone who loves it. The extra % of effort that goes into each session, and the extra reading, studying, and learning that goes on with those that love the sport is the difference between progress, and dropping out. The drive to improve boarders on obsessions, but note that obsession in NOT a flurry of intense training after getting some spark of motivation, but rather a steady and sustained move towards your stated objective peppered with peaks and troughs of intensity.

2. Is a 'swimming specific' program required?

The term sports specific is just as common as ever, with many text-book pounding academic coaches professing the need to have every minute of gym time dedicated to some form of 'sports specific' activity. What I like more that sports specificity is human specificity. The main fundamental movement patterns are the main movements for a reason. As an athlete or coach, you can go and try to replicate a tumble turn or a push off in the gym if you like, but our approach centres first and foremost on gaining strength as human beings in movements such as in the squat, deadlift, horizontal press and push, vertical press and push, single leg strength exercises, and crawl patterns, before moving on to more complex moves (if ever). Like it or not, the vast majority of us are tight and weak beyond recognition, so much so that undoing this and maintaining the body is a major long-term project for just about every athlete! Shoring up areas of previous injury, the most vulnerable areas, and games, and different considerations are also in the mix, but don’t forget the basics!

3. Long term perspective

Considering point #1, that for a swimmer, swimming is the main pursuit, that leaves that ANY time spent on ancillary strength and conditioning work needs to be to the point, effective, and most of all NOT a waste of time. A few press ups at the pool side, high intensity circuit training, and many more forms of 'strength training' are mostly an abject waste of precious pool time. Further, a 6 week block of gym training at the start of the year may as well be spent on something more enjoyable. What is required is a sustained program of strength and mobility development that spans months and years, not weeks. This requires goals to be set, time to be set aside, and an effective and to-the-point program to be put in place by a coach who knows the game .

4. Train the individual (as opposed to implementing the program)

Having performance standards to meet in the gym, normative data of what an athlete should be able to do, and a pre-set program is useful to some degree, but to really do the business, training the individual is much more important that implementing the program. Individuals get sick, have prolonged periods of competition, feel great some days and poor on others, have peaks and troughs when it comes to the pressure from life outside of sport, recover from training and performance at different rates that their peers, and overall are individual people with their own perspectives and thoughts. As coaches, its up to us to add in the right amount of intensity and volume at the right time to move the athlete a little further down the road.

5. What does progress look like?

Making progress, or 'moving down the road' might not always come from lifting more, or increasing volume in the gym. It can mean working on mobility so the athlete gets more out of their next swimming session, or it might mean over-reaching so that a super compensation effect kicks in just before the next race. Progress can come from acquiring the mobility or skill to perform a more complex or demanding version or a movement. From starting to perform power cleans after getting strong in the front squat and Romanian deadlift for example. Overall, progress for a swimmers comes from a trend of marginal improvement in the pool. It doesn’t need to mean a new PB in every race, but over the course of a season and beyond, that the marginal gains are coming.

6. Consistency is key

Consistency in outcomes, i.e. a new personal best every time you take to a competition, would be great, but it doesn't work like that in the real world. Pinning all your confidence on a new PB in each race, or in medalling in each race is a dangerous game. Consistency in participating in the process is, on the other hand, an absolute essential element to success. Consistently pursuing your overall objective, implementing technical work, conditioning, strength training, nutrition, and recovery are what really bring success. In a lot of sports these days, consistent training in the actual sport is usually well organised in clubs, and in Ross's case Sunday's Well Swimming club are right up there with the best. Where extra seconds can be shaved off is in the implementation of a consistent process of strength training. It is like an untapped reservoir of potential for most athletes, and the accumulated effects over time are what will allow you to keep on improving at your sport when your peers have reached a ceiling for improving further.

To Finish

I want to give a massive public congratulations to Ross, his family, his swim coaches, club mates, and Sunday's Well swimming club for all the hard work, effort, and consistent striving for the marginal improvements! As strength and conditioning coaches, these are the moments that we love to savour for a moment, and are delighted to have played a part in bringing about! Maith thú Ross!

This article is by Ainle Ó Cairealláin MSc CSCS.

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