How to apply S&C to high-performance swimming
Today’s article is by Paul Talty from Swim Ireland and discusses the What, Why, and How of applying S&C to high-performance swimming. This includes a unique insight into how Paul sets up the S&C programme for some of Ireland’s top swimming talent.
Swimming is one of the ‘Big Three’ sports on the Olympic programme alongside Gymnastics and Athletics and has been a cornerstone of every edition of the modern Olympic games since its inception in 1896. At Olympic level, there are 17 events across 5 disciplines (Freestyle, Backcrawl, Butterfly, Breaststroke, Medley) which take place in the pool with a marathon event (10km) which takes place in open water. These races could be as short as approximately 21sec for the Men’s 50m Freestyle or as long as approximately 2 hours for the women’s 10k.
The significant and varying physiological demands which these various events place on the body requires swimmers to train to improve both aerobic endurance and muscular strength to enhance competitive performance.
It is typical to see competitive swimmers engage in long hours of training in the pool with some Irish international competitors doing as much as 18-20 hours of pool training a week at certain stages of the season. Although an S&C programme is aimed at improving the capacity of the swimmer to produce more force during their stroke. It is ultimately swimming technique which will determine the athlete’s ability to turn this increased force into increased swimming speed.
With that in mind, the first thing that any S&C or swimming coach must recognise is that a good S&C programme will complement, not replace sport-specific-in-water training and should enhance not hinder the overall quality of training. In this way communication between the swimming and S&C coaches is critical.
Why? / The Benefits of Strength and Power for High-Performance Swimming
There are 3 main areas where an S&C programme will support a swimmer’s performance:
- Swimming velocity
- Starts & turns
- Injury profile
Swimming velocity is a product of stroke length and stroke rate. The relative importance of stroke length and stroke rate appears to be dependent on factors including the length of the race, the level of fatigue of the athlete, and the preferred technical strategy of the swimmer.
An independent increase in either factor will result in an increase in swimming velocity. While the direct impact of strength training on stroke length/rate has not been researched, swimmers achieving the fastest times in the world tend to have the longest strokes1. However, research has shown that the inclusion of strength training alongside regular training has a significant positive impact on the energy cost of swimming. Meaning that for every stroke taken, the athlete has to do less work2.
This improvement in energy cost comes from an improvement in the athlete’s ability to coordinate the muscular actions required to produce force. This improvement in energy efficiency may contribute indirectly to the swimmer’s ability to manipulate their stroke length and stroke rate to find the optimal combination which will result in improved swimming velocity.
Starts and Turns
The impact of strength and power on start and turn performance has been more clearly demonstrated with clear relationships reported in a number of research studies3,4. In essence, athletes who can produce more force more quickly execute these two components of a swimming race more effectively. This clear relationship makes sense as both the start and the turn of a swimming race are effectively jumps off of solid ground, and the relationship between strength/power and jump performance has been long since established.
We at Swim Ireland ran our own internal research on the relationship between a number of strength/power related variables and start performance (measured as time from the start signal to the athlete getting to the 15m mark). We found similarly strong relationships between start performance and, in particular, jump height and peak power outputs (Table 1).
As mentioned earlier, competitive swimmers could find themselves engaged in sport specific training for 18+ hours a week. This can equate to anything up to 8 miles of swimming a day which is equivalent to roughly 2,500 revolutions of the shoulder a day.
Swimmers will also look to achieve a streamlined position when they are moving through the water which will typically leave them in a slightly hyperextended position at their lower back. The combination of high workloads and extreme positions means that the athletes are at an increased risk of picking up a multitude of different injuries. One study indicated a rate of 4 injuries per 1,000 hours of participation in men and 3.78 injuries per 1,000 hours of participation in women5.
However, research across a range of different sports and a multitude of injury types indicates that strength is a key factor in reducing susceptibility to injuries. It is also clear that the development of quality movement patterns and neuromuscular control will improve how an athlete executes their sporting movement and have a positive impact on the risk of overuse injuries.
What? / Key Considerations When Designing an S&C Programme for High-Performance Swimmers
There are 3 key components to take into account when developing an S&C, or ‘dryland’, programme for high-performance swimmers:
- The swim-athlete profile
- Individual needs of the athlete
- The swim coach’s philosophy
- The overall workload and training schedule of the athlete
The Swim-Athlete Profile
“Athleticism” is a quality that most observers of sport can readily recognise and appreciate. However, accurately describing what constitutes “athleticism” can be a little trickier.
Paul Gamble described the 10 pillars that he felt encapsulated the concept of athleticism6 illustrated in Figure 1. In my experience, many (but not all) swimmers are lacking in a number of these traits when asked to execute movement on dry land. They do not tend to have high levels of ‘Body Awareness’ or ‘Mastery of Fundamental Athletic Movements’.
As I see it, this can be explained in part by two key factors. Firstly, these athletes spend the majority of the active parts of their week in a suspended environment which does not lend itself to developing good movement capacity and awareness on dry land. Secondly, although swimmers body shape and proportions can vary depending on preferred stroke and/or distance, swimmers who achieve sustained success (either on the national or international stage) have unusual limb lengths and body proportions.
These two factors can combine to make it trickier for them to develop what most S&C coaches would regard as high-quality bio-motor skills. As such, it is critical that a relentless effort to develop and optimise the fundamentals of good movement underpin any ‘dryland’ programme that a swimmer is asked to complete at all stages of their career.
Identifying and catering to the other individual needs of the athlete’s physicality must also be a cornerstone consideration for each athlete. This should take into consideration individual differences in injury profile and identified strengths and weaknesses. The event the athlete focuses on will also dictate the detail of the S&C programme as the strength and power requirements of a 50m sprint will differ from a 1500m race.
The Swim Coach’s Philosophy
The S&C, or “dryland”, programme for high-performance swimmers cannot operate in isolation from the swimming programme. One of the biggest drivers of what the swim coaches and S&C staff at Swim Ireland do is to create synergy between the swim and gym components of the training programme.
This does not mean that the gym programme needs to exactly replicate the movement patterns of swimming on dryland. Nor does it require significant amounts of additional energy systems development in the gym programme (though this may be required occasionally). Rather, it means we work to ensure that each component complements the aims of the other at each stage of the training cycle. In practice, this may mean that the swimming coach will sacrifice some volume or intensity in the pool to allow the athlete’s the space to put more effort into the gym programme where the volume or intensity may be higher for a period in order to force a certain adaptation.
Subsequent blocks of training may see a flipping of this principle where the S&C programme may curtail some of the volume or intensity to ensure that the athlete’s pool training is being supported and not hindered. Critical to this success is clear and transparent communication between the S&C practitioner and the swimming coach.
However, synergy between swim and gym is not always that readily achieved. In this instance, the S&C practitioner should work to develop an understanding with the swim coach around how both components can better compliment each other.
In the meantime, the athlete’s progress in the pool must remain front and centre in the S&C coaches mind, and therefore some choices may be required which may appear sub-optimal in terms of the development of strength and power but which, when applied consistently, will allow for the athlete to continue to train at a sufficient level in both the pool and the gym to create positive adaptations. For example, although the S&C coach may ideally seek 5 work sets to improve strength in the bench press or may look for 3 accessory exercises at the end of the session to improve robustness. A bigger ‘win’ may be achieved by just doing 3 sets of bench press or 1 accessory exercise if they are done to a sufficiently high standard.
Workload and Training Schedule
The workload and training schedule of the athlete is the final key consideration for the S&C coach when planning a dryland programme. This is closely linked to the above discussions regarding the needs of the individual athlete and the coach’s training philosophy. The workload, or mileage, that the athlete is subject to will be heavily dependent on the event they are training for. A sprint swimmer may only complete 15-20 kilometres in a week while a 1,500m swimmer may complete 100+ kilometres in a week. It goes without saying that this will have a significant impact on the quantity and quality of work that can be completed on deckside or in the gym.
The ideal placement of the gym sessions in the overall weekly schedule will vary to some extent depending on the placement of certain training units in the pool. Quite often gym and pool sessions will immediately follow one another. During a speed/power development phase in the gym, it would not be sensible to place a gym session immediately after a high-volume aerobic power session in the pool. Better (if possible) to complete this session alongside the key speed session of the week in the pool.
How? / How I Do It at National Centre for High-Performance (Dublin)
Any programme I write is underpinned by the philosophy of – Move Better, Be Stronger. My number one aim with the athletes in NCD is to ensure that they are executing the fundamental movements of squat, press, pull, hinge and jump to a very high standard. These fundamentals are layered with varying forms of load in order to develop general and specific strength qualities as required for the sport.
In terms of exercise selection our focus is on the big three of Squat, Bench Press and Chin Ups. These exercises are the best stimulators for the most relevant musculature involved in swimming performance. Once a high quality of execution under low to moderate load has been established, the aim is to build relative maximal strength and power (total output divided by bodyweight).
In addition to these three key exercises, I will also use the Olympic weightlifting lifts and their derivatives throughout the programme along with loaded and unloaded jump variations. Assistance exercises that support the development of our primary lifts and the promotion of muscular balance will also be included in the form of single-leg exercises, horizontal and vertical pushing and pulling exercises and posterior chain focused exercises.
Loads and rep ranges used will vary depending on the adaptation being sought and the stage of the season. I commonly follow a vertically integrated programme of development where multiple biomotor qualities are touched on within a block (e.g. max strength, power, strength endurance).
In this system, the key emphasis of the block receives the greatest attention and most prominent placing within the sessions. While other qualities are retained in order to limit the decay of any previously developed strength qualities. Ultimately, low volume, high force strength training programmes which are geared towards building relative maximal strength and power have demonstrated the best transfer to swimming performance7, so we tend to steer away from very high-volume sessions unless there is an identified issue around an athletes’ energy systems development which cannot be addressed in the pool alone.
In the vast majority of cases that I have seen over the years, the focus should remain on being exceptional around the basics of building robust movement, layered with increased force outputs in the key exercises.
The below is a sample training cycle from the 2020-2021 season for a 200m athlete with 8 years’ experience as a senior international competitor seeking to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. The graph clearly shows how an increase in volume in the pool is matched with a reduced volume and intensity in the gym. The ‘Weeks Out’ row is indicative of proximity to the key winter swimming meet of the season. The ‘Loading Scheme’ row indicates the rep ranges used for the key strength exercise of that week.
Swimming is a physiologically driven and technique limited sport. The cornerstone of any swimming athletes’ development is what takes place in the water. However, to ensure the athlete is fully prepared for the rigours of training and competition, a well-integrated and planned out strength and power programme is critical. I have sought here to give a brief snapshot of the reasons for doing this. As well as some key considerations for how this should be applied. It is my hope that you have found this to be a useful insight into the application of S&C to high-performance swimming.
- Mujika, I., & Crowley, E. (2019). Strength Training for Swimmers. In M. Schumann & B. R. Rønnestad (Eds.), Concurrent Aerobic and Strength Training: Scientific Basics and Practical Applications (pp. 369–386). https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-75547-2
- Berryman, N., Mujika, I., Arvisais, D., Roubeix, M., Binet, C., & Bosquet, L. (2018). Strength training for middle- and long-distance performance: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.2017-0032
- West, D. J., Owen, N. J., Cunningham, D. J., Cook, C. J., & Kilduff, L. P. (2011). Strength and power predictors of swimming starts in international sprint swimmers. J Strength Cond Res, 25(4), 950–955. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c8656f
- Jones, J. V, Pyne, D. B., Haff, G. G., & Newton, R. U. (2018). Comparison Between Elite and Subelite Swimmers on Dry Land and Tumble Turn Leg Extensor Force-Time Characteristics. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(6), 1762–1769. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002041
- Wanivenhaus, F., Fox, A. J. S., Chaudhury, S., & Rodeo, S. A. (n.d.). Epidemiology of Injuries and Prevention Strategies in Competitive Swimmers. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738112442132
- Gamble, P. (2016). What Do We Mean By “Athletic”? The 10 Pillars Of Athleticism. Retrieved February 11, 2021, from Informed Practitioner in Sport website: https://informedinsport.com/new-blog/2016/9/30/the-pillars-of-athleticism
- Crowley, E., Harrison, A. J., & Lyons, M. (2017). The Impact of Resistance Training on Swimming Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0730-2
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About the author
Paul Talty is the Associate Head of Performance Services (Physical) for Swim Ireland where he leads the S&C support for the National Centre (Dublin), the National Squads, and the National Teams. In addition to this, he assists in the management of other performance service support to athletes in the National Centres (Dublin and Limerick) and through the Sport Northern Ireland Sports Institute (SNISI). Over the last 10 years, Paul has delivered S&C support to a wide variety of sports and athletes including competitors at European, World, and Olympic levels while working at Coventry University and SNISI. Alongside his role at Swim Ireland, he is currently pursuing a Ph.D. investigating the mechanical determinants of change of direction performance in Gaelic football through the University of Salford.
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