Deliberate practice makes perfect. It’s more than a cliché. And it’s true for artists, musicians, business people, teachers, and naturally, for swimmers, triathletes, and surfers.
We asked two experienced coaches for their advice on the subject and both agree that the best training for swimming is swim-specific. They also know firsthand that swim training will benefit any athlete. Tim Crowley–Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Montverde Academy and former U.S. Elite Coach of the Year, and Stew Smith–fitness author, former Navy Seal, and trainer for the U.S. Naval Academy and Special Ops Teams, had plenty of real-life examples to tell us about.
Swimming as a life skill
“Swimming is a survival skill every human should have, ” says Smith. “It’s a fitness training tool, but it can keep you alive and effective in our world that is 75% covered with water. And as far as the military goes, you don’t need to be a world-class swimmer to join special ops programs. You just need to be a proficient swimmer. Knowing how to swim can save the life of someone you know.”
For Coach Crowley, swim-specific training isn’t just learning to tread water, easy side stroking to unwind or even mindlessly swimming endless laps in the pool. Crowley, who focuses on training athletes from aspiring amateurs to the elite level, says there are various ways to approach swim-specific training. Those include pool workouts, weight room sessions and using dryland swim training equipment, all of which can help athletes improve and manage their overall training.
Swim training for injury prevention
Crowley’s definition of swim-specific training includes strength and conditioning with specific workouts, as well as training that is focused on proactively preventing injuries and building durability. A typical swimmer takes 5,000-8,000 strokes with each arm each day, according to Crowley. About 80%-85% of competitive swimmers have or will eventually experience shoulder issues, often injuries primarily the rotator cuff, due to over use.
“Staving off injury is as important to me as building strength and speed,” says Crowley. In the weight room, he trains his swimmers and triathletes to strengthen tendons, build the opposing muscles and create muscle balance. He often has his athletes use the Vasa Swim Ergometers and Vasa Trainers located at his facility to develop muscles which support or oppose the dominant muscles swimmers’ frequently overtrain.
“The Vasa SwimErg lets you generate very specific power,” says Crowley. “You can see and gather data. And 20-30 minutes on a Vasa is like an hour pool. We can do some very focused work.”
Swim training for non-swimmers
As a coach, Crowley uses both the Vasa trainer and Ergometer for athletes training in all sports at Montverde Academy, not just swimmers and triathletes. Throughout the year, we get several athletes who end up in a boot, cast or immobilizer. We use the Vasa ergometers to maintain aerobic fitness when they can’t ride a bike, run or get in the pool.
“It’s a nice crossover for athletes doing strength and conditioning and it’s a great way to help injured athletes maintain conditioning while they heal. When an athlete is coned to wearing a walking cast or boot and can’t run or bike, he or she can still swim on a Vasa.”
Similarly, Smith uses the pool or SwimErg when he wants to minimize the impact for his athletes or to help an athlete train when injured. If one of Smith’s runners has an ankle sprain, he uses the pool for recovery. If a pool isn’t available, he uses a swim erg. For athletes who aren’t injured, pool time is an opportunity for additional aerobic development without the impact. Smith says he often schedules a pool workout after a lifting session for maximum benefit.
Teaching new swimmers
“I can get anybody in the pool, and after 30-40 minutes of teaching, can get them to swim 25-50 yards and look good,” says Crowley. “But ask that same person to swim 1000 yards and their stroke falls apart. On a Vasa SwimErg, I know when neuromuscular fatigue sets in and when the athlete’s stroke is going to fall apart. And we can work on improving that outside of the pool.”
Beginner swimmers are often stressed out by swimming in the water, and Crowley says that for those athletes, in particular, it’s hugely beneficial to make progress by doing dryland swim ergometer training. “Athletes new to swimming are often too concerned about getting the next breath,” he says. “Building strength by using a Vasa can help develop the swim muscles so that when the swimmer gets in the pool they swim well because they’re both strong and confident. The motion is familiar even if the medium is not.”
For triathletes with a weak swim leg, Crowley uses swimming dryland training 2-4 day per week for 5-15 minutes in addition to pool sessions to help his athletes get better fast. “A small dosage over time is very effective,” says Crowley, “particularly when it’s focused on an athlete’s weaknesses. It also prevents ingraining inefficient stroke patterns.”
Swim training for active recovery
During the winter months when athletes in colder climates spend several hours on indoor trainers per week, he directs them to break up long rides or intervals with 5 min on the vasa to break things up. “Instead of spinning for 5 min, a quick Vasa set will help swimming, give the athletes butt a break, and work on swim-to-bike transitions,” says Crowley.
Another effective way to integrate swim sets is to incorporate it into strength sessions. “We do strength work and then at the end of each paired upper body /lower body exercise, we do 20-30 seconds hard effort on the Vasa. It’s a session that blends general and specific strength and that lets athletes build power in a fatigued state.”
Swim training for balance
“Most sports are lower body dominant,” says Smith. “Swimming is great for balancing upper-body & lower-body conditioning. In a perfect world, swimming should be a part of every athlete’s training program. I enjoy it, especially as I age because there is no impact. I leave a swim workout and there’s no pain like there is after running, high rep calisthenics or weight lifting–everything feels great.”
Swimming for fluid movement
Smith puts his athletes and himself in chest-deep water in the pool to work on mobility. “It’s heavenly,” says Smith. “I started in my 40s. Now that I am in my 50s, it’s a staple of my workout.”
He also makes it a staple of for the military athletes who comprise most of his clients. “I like to use swim training, in or out of the water, as a recovery tool. If I get an army guy who just got through a long run, I put him in the pool to recover from that trauma.”
And when there’s no pool at hand, he uses dryland swim training the same way. “I love the weightlessness and natural compression of water,” says Smith. “But you can get many of the same muscular and skeletal benefits of being in the water using a Vasa SwimErg.”
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