More Than Marginal Gains: Swim Fitness

  • By Dan Bullock
  • Published February 14, 2013
  • Updated February 14, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Yesterday Dan Bullock from Swim For Tri began the first of a two part look at the marginal gains in the pool that can help make you a better, faster swimmer (you can read that here). Today, Dan explores swim fitness, and some concepts that will help make you a fitter athlete:

Some of these ideas will deliver more than marginal gains in terms of your overall fitness, but are going to need more than a subtle adjustment or minor revision. To learn to perform a tumble turn is going to take a large chunk of time, but you could just break this up into two minutes of practice at the end of a session three to four times per week over a few months. Come the first training camp in February then you could quite realistically be amazing your teammates with this added skill.

During our fitness sessions I remind my swimmers continually of these points so that they get the most from their time spent in the water. I prefer my swimmers to aim to use the full 90 minutes of our key fitness sessions. It is hard to warm up fully in less then 20 minutes of swimming and this would only leave 30 minutes for a main set if you add a cool down to this. If you can swim for 90 minutes then a 50-minute main set is possible which bodes well for progress, especially for Ironman athletes. For most athletes getting to and from the pool consumes the most time, so I think it’s worth adding that extra 30 minutes to get the most from the session.

I ask our swimmers not to bike or run earlier in the day ahead of a key swim session. Resting the legs a little is critical to keep cramping at bay and helps to avoid using tired legs as an excuse to do lots of pull sets. I appreciate packing three sports into a busy schedule isn’t easy, but the quality and length of your session will improve if you can approach it slightly rested. Along with this it’s important to arrive hydrated and bring nutrition to see you through the 90 minutes. You will sweat in the water and need to be fuelled and hydrated to get the best from your session. Keeping topped up during the workout is key since we are asking quite a lot from the body. The mechanics of the leg kick alone are quite aggressive and will stress the calf and arch of the foot.

Most sessions demand lots of swim kit. I know it’s a pain to bring all of it to the pool, but your swim progress will accelerate if you make use of fins, paddles and a central snorkel. If you only have room for just two items then I would choose fins and the snorkel. There’s really no need for a kick board. Instead I would choose the extension drill and perform it legs only for a useful enhanced body position.

Time spent learning to breathe bilaterally will help no end. It will even out your pull, promote symmetry in your body position, stop any one side/arm recovery becoming too dominant and encourage you to take fewer breaths per length. These are all fine attributes to build into your winter programme and will make you a better swimmer come the spring.

It’s important to swim the full length of the pool too. Try not to glide in over the last few metres just because it makes things easier. Over the winter period if you add up all these missed strokes because of gliding it’s a considerable amount of work you’ll have missed out on. Similarly take your five seconds (or more if possible) when pushing off behind the swimmer in front. Don’t draft in training. If you do, you lower your heart rate, give yourself a false sense of faster swimming and open yourself up to disappointment come race day. Lead a slower lane once in a while to get a true workout rather than be a top lane drag queen.

It’s also worth trying out drag shorts to increase your workload. Keep that fancy new swim skin and other aids that make you quicker for race day or specific sessions.

If your shoulders are healthy then some further resistance can be added by using one of those large baggy suits. Some of these can add up to five seconds per 100metres.That’s a lot of work to try to overcome and if you try to get back to your normal repeat times. It’s a bit like dragging a tyre when running.

Probably the single overriding factor that will help your swim improve this winter will be adding a session to your routine each week. The fewer days spent without being in the water each week will massively help. This means you will overcome bad habits and repeat good ones. Aim to count your sessions per month rather than per week. This way you get a better idea of the amount of water work you are performing.

Helpful Tools
While not strictly water based these ideas will keep you healthy, fit and help your swimming indirectly. An improved range of motion will allow you to perform a more technically efficient stroke with less effort and less chance of accident. Waking up early in the dark for swim sessions before work is never easy. Try using a Lumie light alarm that wakes you up with a natural light. These bring you round slowly and are said to leave you more alert and put in you in a better state of mind over a screaming alarm clock.

A Powerbreathe unit can also help to strengthen your breathing. Using stretch cords or traditional arm swings as part of a dry land warm-up can help you prepare for your swim sessions if you are waiting poolside while the previous session clears. Maybe you could make your water based warm-up shorter and try to perform a longer main set, if you’re pushed for time.

Just working on a few of the things I have mentioned will provide a little added efficiency and provide marginal gains. Work on a few more and suddenly you have something a little more substantial. Marginal gains add up. If you work on many of these enough they will become ingrained in your swim stroke to the point where you barely have to think about them. This will make your stroke more relaxed, which in turn can help in other areas such as holding the head still for longer, which will make you more efficient in the water. Building good habits helps with other parts of the stroke and will help to bring your stroke count down. Come the spring you will a better swimmer and be ready to transfer those gains to open water swims and quicker race times.

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