Swimming is a sport which is late to the strength and conditioning party. By that I mean, many coaches and athletes within the swimming world have for too long neglected the importance that strength and conditioning training can have on a swimmer’s performance in the pool.
There is, understandably, scepticism as to how training within the gym environment can benefit an athlete who is pool-based; however, just as standing on one leg on a bosu ball swinging a golf club does little to improve golf performance (William Wayland has written extensively on this subject ), the typical land-based training a swimmer is exposed to (performing endless medicine ball circuits and static stretching) does little to improve race performance in the pool. This article will highlight the importance of strength and conditioning training in making a swimmer resilient to injury in addition to improving their performance at the moments in the race when the swimmer has access to ground reaction forces – the race start and turns. It will then go into a case study with one of the swimmers I work with (Charlotte Rigg) who has seen a significant improvement in her race times since beginning formal strength and conditioning training.
‘The biggest ability is availability’
This phrase is often used in the strength and conditioning world as a justification for much of the work we do. After all, who cares how much an athlete can lift, or even how high they jump, if they are not available when it matters most. As such, a significant portion of our training time each week needs to be dedicated to making athletes resilient against injuries they will likely encounter given the repetitive nature of their chosen sport.
Within swimming, the extant literature draws our attention to the fact that breaststroke swimmers are particularly susceptible to adductor injuries (the adductors are a group of muscles located on the inner thigh primarily responsible for hip adduction – bringing the legs together.
This should come as no surprise with Grote et. al. finding that breaststroke swimmers put extensive stress on the adductor muscles due to repeated adduction with peak adduction velocity of the thigh in breaststroke swimmers averaging 245° per second. In their study, 42.7% of respondents had been unable to complete all breaststroke training during their practices in the prior 12 months due to a hip adductor injury . With this in mind, enabling the adductor muscles to work dynamically through a full range of motion is paramount in a strength and conditioning programme for a breaststroke swimmer.
Shoulder pain has been reported as the most common injury in competitive swimming . For a swimmer who’s competitive stroke is not breaststroke, they are unlikely to swim significant volumes of breaststroke each week and so the risk of developing an adductor injury can be mitigated by simply not performing this high risk stroke (obviously if your competitive stroke is breaststroke this doesn’t hold true). However, every swimmer completes significant volumes of freestyle metres each week and so mitigating against potential injury risks becomes significantly more challenging. It is thought that training the adductors and internal rotators of the shoulder assists in preventing a swimmer ‘dropping’ their elbows when fatigued, through providing more shoulder strength and stability .
Ground Reaction Forces
During the dive and turn, a swimmer has access to ground reaction forces. It is thought that it is these two moments where the S&C coach can have most impact in a swimmer’s performance. In a 50m race, the dive start can account for up to 30% of total race time. For a 200m race, the dive start can account for up to 7.5% of total race time . Studies have shown that time spent on the blocks to produce that level of force was 0.79 seconds  . This emphasises the need for both strength and power training, including training to develop rate of force development, to optimise this key component of the race.
Strength and power training, incorporating plyometric training, has been widely shown to improve start performance with significant correlations found between 1RM squat, peak power and jump height (3 factors all specific to producing high ground reaction forces) to start performance. A study conducted by Bishop et. al. on the influence of a plyometric training intervention on start performance found that over an 8 week period such training resulted in a mean reduction of 0.59 seconds in start time . In addition to a reduction in start time, these swimmers also managed to increase the distance covered from when the head contacted the water.
The other occasion during a swim race when the swimmer has access to ground reaction forces is during the turns. More turns = more ground reaction forces. This is why short course races are quicker than long course races. During a short course 50m race, it has been found that swimmers spend between 0.3 to 0.5 seconds on the wall, representing 1.5% of the total race time . Additionally, biomechanical analysis has shown that the positions swimmers find themselves in during the turn, that is, as they are applying ground reaction forces, are very similar to those found in a Countermovement Jump . It would therefore stand to reason that improving a swimmer’s countermovement jump would transfer into improved performance during race turns.
Case Study – Charlotte Rigg
Following a physio referral from Rickie Lovell, I started working with Charlotte at the end of September 2018 with the goal of providing her with strength and conditioning support to aid her swim performance.
The initial goal was to provide strength and conditioning support in the build up to short course Winter Nationals. Following a successful first cycle with PB’s across the board we continued working together in the build-up to the British Championships in April and, following yet another successful meet, Charlotte has been selected to represent Great Britain at the World Junior Championships at the end of August. Preparation is well underway for this.
From day one, Charlotte has bought into the strength and conditioning programme I have put in place for her and has been a pleasure to coach. She comes to the gym eager to train, fully appreciating the important role strength and conditioning can have on improving her performance whilst keeping her injury free.
In her own words:
‘After a year of basic land training at my home swimming club, this season I wanted to try something different outside the pool which would be a new experience and help improve my overall strength and movement.
I feel so much stronger which has resulted in improved performances and personal bests in my key events.’
Please don’t misinterpret the intention of this case study. By no means am I trying to take sole credit for Charlotte’s improvements since she has started working with me. She spends 20+ hours with her swim coach per week training and 2 with me. Nevertheless, I do believe there is a correlation between improved performances in the pool since she has undertaken formal strength and conditioning with personal bests in key events, but also in events she hardly trains. I think her results speak for themselves:
|Event||Personal Best Time Before S&C||Current Personal Best Time|
|200 Individual Medley||2.22.64||2.19.74|
|400 Individual Medley||5.03.07||4.54.76|
|Event||Personal Best Time Before S&C||Current Personal Best Time|
|200 Individual Medley||2.22.82||2.21.42|
|400 Individual Medley||5.02.00||4.57.98|
The purpose of this article was to highlight the importance of strength and conditioning training for swimmers. Through a three-pronged approach to strength and conditioning for swimmers, addressing injury resilience, the dive start and turns (through strength and power training), I believe strength and conditioning can play a key role in improved swim performance. Using the case study of Charlotte Rigg, I hope to have provided real life context as to how one swimmer’s personal best times have improved across the board since undertaking formal strength and conditioning. Whilst ostensibly it may seem that the S&C coach is not able to play as large a role as in some sports, there is still significant scope for the S&C coach to influence a swimmer’s performance in the pool and their ability to train year round injury free.