Swimming in the Sport of Fitness
“Competitive swimming is a unique sport. Athletes compete while suspended in a fluid medium and they must propel their bodies by pushing against liquid rather than solid substances. This creates two major disadvantages compared to land sports. The first is that water offers less resistance to swimmers’ propulsive efforts than, for example than the ground that runners push against. Another is that water, because of its greater density, offers considerably more resistance to the forward progress of swimmers than air offers to the progress of land athletes”. - Dr. Earnest Maglischo - Swimming Fastest
Swimming in the Fitness Competitions
Swimming as a component of fitness testing seems to be a recurring theme over the course of the last two years. Swimming events have shown up at Wodapalooza twice, the OCT in 2014, three consecutive years at the CrossFit Games, and is now starting to appear at smaller local competitions. As a coach in the sport of fitness and a former Division-1 and National-level swimmer, I felt the time was right to address swimming for fitness athletes. It is important to keep in mind that swimming as a sport and swimming as a test in fitness competitions differs from both an execution and training standpoint. The time investment required for someone to go from beginner to advanced is not worth the reward for most athletes. However there are a number of fitness-athletes who can benefit from swim training including elite CrossFit athletes and masters athletes.
Skill-based Conditioning Sport
Swimming, while often lumped in with running, cycling, and rowing as an endurance-sport is unique when compared to these endurance modalities. While each of the aforementioned sports have a requisite skill component they are primarily conditioning-based sports (the greater your fitness levels the greater your performance, generally). Swimming fast and efficiently on the other hand requires high degrees of both skill and conditioning. In this case of swimming skill will often trump conditioning at all but the highest levels of the sport.
This disparity between skill and conditioning results from the fact that water provides far more resistance to athletes than air AND resistance increases exponentially as speed increases (think Airdyne...as you go faster it also gets harder to go faster). "Skill" in this sense is really about decreasing drag, or in simple terms: decreasing the space you take up in the water. Elite athletes in the sport spend years searching for ways to make minor adjustments to their body-line and positioning in order to shave tenths of a second off of their race times. This skill has carryover to the elite levels of the Sport of Fitness. You need only to look at the swimming events from the 2013 and 2014 CrossFit Games to see that skill can trump conditioning in the water, as Jordan Troyan, former Division II swimmer has won both events handily.
Barriers to Entry
There are a number of factors that act as barriers of entry to utilizing swimming as a training modality for fitness. The most obvious is comfortability in the water. For athletes who weren’t exposed to the water or swimming at an early age, this can be an extremely frightening, panic-inducing experience. Swimming efficiently requires athletes to put their face in the water and breathe on a cadence, which for most people feels extremely unnatural. It can take months for rational adults to overcome the irrational fear of putting their face in the water without prior exposure.
For athletes who are already comfortable in the water, finding access to quality technical instruction can be very difficult. For most athletes this means seeking out a coach who specializes in working with adult athletes and scheduling 1-on-1 time with them in order to get the attention they need. Generally USA Triathlon or US Masters Swimming coaches are the best resource for finding technical instruction, however knowledge and proficiency vary widely. Developing efficient swimming technique requires time and patience just like learning advanced gymnastics skills or the Olympic lifts, the major difference is that none of the attributes that make you a good land-based athlete will transfer to “feel for the water”.
Once efficient swimming technique has been developed it can then be implemented in an athletes’ program as an effective conditioning tool. Swim training can be a potent stimulator of cardiovascular development, upper-body pulling muscular endurance, lactate tolerance, and breath control. Eliciting these training responses however is difficult in athletes with lower-skill levels as they are unable to swim fast enough to stimulate anything other than aerobic adaptations.
Who Should Swim?
The skill of swimming has very little carryover to other sports. The time required to develop technique for most athletes would detract from the development of other movements and skills required by the sport. There are however a subset of athletes who absolutely should be implementing swimming in their program either as technical development or a training modality.
Athletes who are CrossFit Games hopefuls and are proficient swimmers should include weekly swim-training sessions in their programs during their competition preparation phases. Games hopefuls who are not swimming-proficient should seek out individual on-site coaching to develop their technique during the off-season, with the goal using swimming as a training modality by their comp-prep phase. I expect that we will continue to see swimming tested at the Games-level for the foreseeable future. With proper training we may even begin to see the gap between former competitive swimmers and non-swimmers close.
Another sub-group of athletes who should consider using swimming as a training modality are older athletes looking to reduce joint impact, particularly of the lower-body. In a previous TTT blog Max discussed strategies for decreasing training stress for older-athletes and suggested higher volumes of cyclical work. With the exception of the Ski-erg the majority of cyclical-modalities are lower-body dependent. Even though training with fan-bikes is zero-impact it still creates training stress in the legs. Swimming is an excellent alternative for athletes looking to continue developing cardiovascular and cardiorespiratory fitness without adding further training stress to the lower-body.
Former competitive swimmers can effectively utilize swimming as part of their training program for both active recovery as well as low-impact energy-system development. For these athletes there is very little skill work that needs to be done in order to have them ready to utilize swimming in their training program, and for many of them (us) it can actually be therapeutic (speaking strictly from experience here).
Pool vs Open-water
Before I dig into some example technique or training sessions, I think it is important to address the difference between pool and open-water swimming. For most people, it is probably easiest to learn to swim in a pool. The water is clear, you can see the bottom, in most places you can touch the bottom or grab onto a wall or lane-line, all of these factors make it very beginner friendly. Open-water swimming for most people is much more intimidating for a variety of reasons. Many former competitive pool swimmers struggle with open-water swimming because it requires different techniques (sighting buoys), continuous swimming without the breaks provided by walls/turns in pools, and the unpredictable currents or chop. For athletes who will potentially be tested in open-water during, having some experience in this environment is critical to prevent panic and anxiety on game-day.
Example Training Sessions:
Beginner Technique Session - 1000m
10 x 25m; rest 20sec - “Rotating Balance Drill” kicking with arms at sides, rotating side-to-side to breathe (focus on turning head to breathe & finding your buoyancy)
10 x 25m; rest 20sec - Balance Drill w/ 1arm lead (alternate arms every 25m), rotating head to breathe away from leading arm
10 x 25m; rest 20sec - “12 kick switch” kicking with 1 arm lead, take a stroke to switch arm lead every 12 kicks, breathe with the stroke
10 x 25m rest 20sec - swim freestyle @ moderate effort, focusing on timing of breathing & connecting stroke with kick
*1000m of total swimming which for a beginner can be overwhelming, adjust the volume and rest periods as needed
*recommended equipment for beginner swimmers: center mount snorkel and short fins
Intermediate Technique/Training Hybrid Session - 1600m
4 x 25m; rest 20sec - “Rotating Balance Drill” kicking with arms at sides, rotating side-to-side to breathe (focus on turning head to breathe & finding your buoyancy)
4 x 25m; rest 20sec - Balance Drill w/ 1arm lead (alternate arms every 25m), rotating head to breathe away from leading arm
4 x 25m; rest 20sec - “12 kick switch” kicking with 1 arm lead, take a stroke to switch arm lead every 12 kicks, breathe with the stroke
4 x 25m rest 20sec - swim freestyle @ moderate effort, focusing on timing of breathing & connecting stroke with kick
2 Rounds through; rest 2min b/t rounds
3 x 50m; rest 30sec - Flutter kick w/ board, increasing effort from 75-85% effort by round
2 x 100m; rest 30sec - Freestyle @ 85% effort
4 x 25m; rest 20sec - Freestyle @ recovery pace w/ perfect technique
1 x 300m - Freestyle building from 80-100% throughout
*recommended equipment for intermediate swimmers: kick board and short fins
Advanced Training Session - 3000m
1 x 300m; rest 45sec - rotating Freestyle/Backstroke/Breaststroke by 25 @ 60-70% effort
1 x 200m rest 45sec - Flutter kick w/ board @ 70-75% effort
3 Rounds; rest 2min b/t rounds
4 x 25m; rest 60sec - Freestyle, 15m sprint @ 100%, 10m easy recovery
1 x 100m - Backstroke @ 60-70% effort
1 x 75m; rest 30sec - Freestyle @ 95-100% effort
1 x 175m; rest 3min - Choice Stroke @ easy recovery pace
2 x 200m; rest 30sec - Freestyle Pull @ 80-85% effort (use paddles & buoy if available)
*this is a speed and speed endurance session for an advanced swimmer that couples high-effort sprinting with forced aerobic recovery, this would be a taxing session from a metabolic standpoint but with very little structural damage