In mid-March when the Coronavirus pandemic hit, pools around the country shuttered, leaving swimmers and triathletes at all levels with few options for maintaining their swim-specific training. But just because swimming got more challenging doesn’t mean it stopped altogether. For some creative and determined athletes, the transition to dryland swim training has been a good thing.
Take for example Jef Mallett, an avid Masters and open water swimmer based in Huntington Woods, Michigan. Within days of his pool closing, he purchased a swim bench and stretch cord set-up and built a 3 or 4 times weekly workout routine that included 20 minutes on the cords followed by a rowing workout on an ergometer, usually staying just below his aerobic threshold for a half hour to 45 minutes.
On the swim bench, he says, “I’d set the metronome and a clock under my nose and fake-swim for anywhere from a minute interval to 9 minutes, depending on the tempo and arm motion. Tempo would be anywhere from 60 per minute to focus on form to 90 per minute to tax the system.”
When he finally returned to the water in late June after four months on land, he says “I felt surprisingly fit thanks to my swim alternatives, but surprisingly slow for the first couple weeks once I could get back into the water.”
In addition to those regular workouts, Mallett has also “adopted a routine of body-weight core work, push-ups, and pull-ups. Honestly, I’m in better general shape than I was when I was just swimming,” and “now that I’m back to devoting a big chunk of each day to swimming, the challenge will be to try to maintain that fitness.”
Martha Wood, a speedy open water and ice swimmer based in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts, similarly rigged up an at-home cord system to preserve as much strength and swim stamina as she could while dry-sided by the pandemic for several weeks in March and April.
As part of her transition to dryland swim training, Wood said she used “a stretch cords sequence and a bunch of stretches,” designed by Sue Croft, lecturer and module leader in osteopathy at Swansea University in the UK. That series of exercises features lots of stretching, stretch cords work, gentle movement, and foam roller work to restore range of motion to locked hips, back, and shoulders while also providing strength training and cardio options.
Wood says she found working out with stretch cords to be less engaging than swimming in a pool or open water. And, when swimming with cords on a bench, “the rotation is a real challenge.” However, when she was able to get back to a more normal swimming routine in the ocean, she discovered that she hadn’t lost nearly as much fitness and speed as she thought she would have. It was a welcome relief that underscored that any work on land can translate into the maintenance of in-water stamina and speed. In short, her transition to dryland swim training methods proved crucial to maintaining fitness while out of the water.
Overcome Pandemic Obstacles Without Water
The point with these two anecdotes is to show that just because you may not be able to swim as much (or at all) right now because of COVID-19-related restrictions, that doesn’t mean you can’t still be making progress towards your swimming goals. A transition to dryland swim training is an effective alternative to time in the water.
While some pools have begun reopening, many are operating on a limited or restricted basis that can make getting consistent pool time difficult. (Plus, as COVID-19 cases continue climbing around the country, it seems likely that we could be facing additional lockdown situations in the future.)
If you’re struggling to get in the water time you need to fulfill your swimming, open water swimming or triathlon goals, keep in mind that alternative, on-land training options exist. In many cases, a transition to dryland swim training can provide a needed change-up in the routine that could actually set you up for improved performance when you can get back into the water.
Building Your Own Dryland Swim Training Workout Plan
Dan Daly, CSCS and co-creator of the Equinox Group Swim Program EQXH2O, offers some suggestions for how to build a great dryland and stretch cord routine that can keep you swim-fit and ready for action as soon as pools open and competitions resume. In some cases, you may even end up being faster and stronger than you were before COVID-19 became the watchword of the world.
Take stock of your equipment and get creative
Daly (@dandaly) says that when lockdowns were initially instituted for his clients, one of the first things he did was a check-in with them to see what equipment they had on hand or could easily acquire to help build tailored programs that suited the situation and goals of each individual.
“One of the challenges of at-home workouts is that you don’t have access to a full-fledged gym and all the equipment typically found there. But there’s a lot of other variables that you can manipulate,” he says.
If you don’t have access to the rack of free weights you’re used to, can you use items already in your home to pinch-hit? For example, a standard brick weighs about 4.5 pounds and can make an excellent substitute for a lightweight set of dumbbells.
Change your focus
“Because we didn’t have as many options for the kettlebell rack and things like that, we focused more on volume and building muscular endurance,” rather than focusing on load and weight specifically, Daly says.
More reps and more sets of lighter weights can build strength and endurance, whereas heavier weights lifted fewer times tend to build bulk. For many swimmers, a focus on a higher volume of reps with a lighter weight is often the preferred method anyway, as this tends to produce muscles that are more able to meet the repetitive challenges of swimming while remaining long, sleek, and hydrodynamic.
Prioritize strength training
To swim fast and far, you need to build a mix of cardiovascular endurance, strength, and technique. For most of us, this mix is most efficiently trained by simply swimming. But when the water isn’t available, Daly recommends prioritizing strength training.
“Strength training on land will translate to in-water performance,” he says. “Endurance athletes tend to neglect their strength work, putting a bigger focus on getting all their hours in the water swimming.”
But, this forced break from swimming may provide the opportunity to build that strength without the pressure of logging hours swimming long. Jef Mallett is a great example of how an endurance athlete, forced to focus more on strength training, has seen improvements come from that shift.
Seize this opportunity for prehab
Swimming creates repetitive stress, particularly on the shoulders. As such, shoulder injuries are incredibly common among swimmers and triathletes.
But, you can take action to make it less likely that you’ll suffer such injuries by focusing on “counterbalancing some of those stresses by strengthening the posterior chain,” Daly says. In other words, strengthening the network of small muscles that feed into and stabilize the shoulder joint can greatly reduce the risk of injury.
Focusing on strength training movements that stabilize the shoulder joint and reduce internal rotation, such as working with dumbbells to strengthen the rotator cuff, can go a long way towards keeping you healthy when you get back in the water. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Learn to love the kettlebell
Daly uses kettlebells a lot when training his clients and says they’re an excellent way of building strength and the explosive power needed to swim fast. “We all tend to gravitate towards our strengths,” Daly says when trying to prioritize training. But getting out of your comfort zone and adding a new approach can really shake up your training and provide new horizons and avenues for improvement.
Use a swim bench and cords
Daly says swim cords are a great way to simulate swimming while on dry land and “they’re just so convenient.” You can easily set them up virtually anywhere, and they pack away small and tidy, requiring very little space. They travel well, too, which is great for once we get back to traveling more after the pandemic ends.
Depending on how you structure your workout, cords can provide an intense cardiovascular training session that also works your strength and endurance systems.
“With bands and cords, you’re working more than just the muscular system. They can be a cardio replacement,” Daly says, but they can also point out where you need to make specific strength gains as well. “There’s a great opportunity to work muscle endurance and fill in some of those gaps in strength,” he says.
Daly says that it’s tough to know right now how all this disruption to our normal workout routines is going to shake out when we eventually get back to competitions in the future. “I’m looking at some data from FitBit and how much people have been exercising. Some people are not doing anything, and other people have had more time,” to devote to their fitness goals because of the changes wrought by the pandemic.
Depending on your specific situation, your results may vary. In any case, Daly says that if you plan to come back from this break stronger, your best bet is to “maintain focus on weak areas,” and stay consistent in your training.
About The Author: Elaine K. Howley is an award-winning freelance writer and editor specializing in sports, health, and history topics. She’s also a lifelong swimmer who specializes in cold water marathon swimming and calls greater Boston home. (Note: This is the first of a three-part series exploring how Vasa athletes are maintaining fitness during the COVID-19 pandemic.)