Swimming Strength Training

How do you get “stronger” in the swim leg? Fundamentally the answer lies in overloading your muscles in training. So does this mean hours spent in a sweaty gym, pumping iron until your eyes bulge? In this article Bruce Thomas, level 2 Triathlon coach explores ways to build your strength during the first leg.

Even if you lift relatively light weights you will find that you are quite sore for the next couple of days. More interestingly, if you visit the gym a few times a week for a couple of weeks, you will be surprised at how much more you can lift compared to you first attempt. Does that mean that you have had a dramatic increase in strength over a short period? Effectively the answer would be no. Despite making some very minor strength gains, the reason that you can lift more weight initially is due to your body adapting to the task of lifting the weights. Your body is an amazing thing and adapts very quickly to the stresses under which it is placed. The initial adaptation that it makes is to recruit muscles at a more appropriate time. When you first lift weights your body, under new stress doesn’t use its muscles in the most efficient manner. This results in small muscle tears and, more importantly as far as the reason for your post-exercise discomfort, strains on your ligaments and tendons. As you continue to exercise at the gym, your brain learns to recruit more muscles in concert and to recruit them at the right time, putting less strain on individual muscles and enabling you to lift greater weights with less effort. This Neuro-muscular training (teaching your brain and muscles to work together more efficiently) is where the initial advance in strength occurs. Beyond this, an athlete also gains strength at a slower rate from the small muscular tears that stressing the muscles results in. These tears heal stronger giving an overall improvement in strength.


So, how do we approach resistance training for triathlon? The basic idea is to perform the tasks of swimming, cycling and running slowly so that we learn to use our muscles to propel ourselves forward and we eliminate momentum as the main factor in our progress. Firstly, this teaches our body the muscles that need to be used and when they need to be activated for the best result. Secondly, it overloads our muscles so that they develop micro-tears that heal over time giving a stronger muscle. These two factors generally mean that the time spent doing resistance training provides adaptations that are invaluable for improving overall performance in an athlete.

Swimming: Talk to a swim coach and they will tell you that good swimmers can swim at different paces and, more interestingly, good swimmers know how to swim slowly. This means that they know how to hold their body position and know how to work with the water rather than fight against it. Less talented swimmers are more concerned with staying afloat and consequently try to stroke as fast as they can aerobically maintain. If you can increase the resistance on a swimmer then the swimmer will either slow to almost a standstill or start to think about the swimming process so as to be able to get the most out of each stroke. The resistance can take various forms.

  • Hand paddles. These can be useful if used correctly. Some triathletes, however, are tempted to use their strength on the larger area of the paddle to pull themselves through the water rather than think about feeling the water on their forearm. None-the-less, as far as increasing resistance is concerned, the paddles do help and make the body work harder to get the arm through the water.
  • Bands are often used on a swimmers legs to stop them form kicking. Many coaches use cut-up car inner tubes to make cheap and effective bands. For weaker swimmers a pull buoy can be placed between the legs to give some buoyancy. Not kicking obviously means that the arms have to do more work getting the swimmer through the water. To propel the body in this state the swimmer must think about getting a good catch on the water and holding the water throughout the stroke by using the lats to rotate the arm back through the stroke. The lats are much bigger muscles than those in the arm and will fatigue more slowly, so, if they can be utilised the swimming process becomes far easier. Wearing bands on the legs also forces the swimmer to think about getting good body position, as you cannot kick as much to keep the legs afloat. This helps you to think about pushing down on your chest (which is buoyant as it contains two lungs full of air) and using your abdominal muscles to help hold the legs up.
  • Another cheap means of resistance training is to don a pair of baggy shorts or tracksuit pants. This increases resistance and consequently causes you to think about stroke efficiency to get through a session.
  • Stretch cords are also another useful device for working on the swimming stroke. These are dry-land training devices that provide resistance for the underwater portion of the swim stroke. Stretch cords are basically large “rubber bands” that have paddles attached to one end and the other end is secured to a wall. The swimmer then performs the swimming action against the resistance of the bands. The greatest benefit of this is that the swimmer can see exactly what they are doing in the stroke and can be given immediate feedback (by a coach or a mirror) so they can more quickly master the correct technique.


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