This is a summary of the training plan I developed, which got me though lots of racing with minimal swim training time. It’s no magic bullet, but it addresses what I find are some of the main limiters for beginner/intermediate triathletes.
So the challenge I started with was to find:
- How much does functional strength training translate to real swim performance?
- Can you get by with minimal time in the water and still expect a reasonable swim time?
I swam between 1hr and 1hr05 in all my ironman events. This was based on sometimes as little as 3 hours annual swim training. The rest was all in the gym. I know my swim was not super fast, but it’s not that slow either, and all that time saved in training could be put into bigger bike and run gains.
I had to do it this way, no pool within a days travel, no local facilities, I didn’t have a choice. But it was a good test, and shows that there is a translation from gym to swim. So if it helps, here’s what I did.
Swimming in the gym: How it’s done
The things that can be learned on dry land, and transferred to the water include:
- Developing a full range of movement in the shoulder – this is crucial for a good freestyle stroke, and if your shoulders don’t have full mobility, you’ll end up compromising in some other way and destroying your stroke
- Building shoulder strength through the full range of movement, whilst maintaining stability of the joint
- Being able to coordinate a powerful stroke action whilst maintaining core stability and alignment
Those three things I find are often lacking when people take up triathlon, and expecting people to get in the water and be able to put all that together just didn’t make sense to me. In the gym you can check your alignment, correct asymmetries, engage deep core muscles, and learn the muscle memory so it’s already there when you get in the water.
This sets you up with a much better chance of being able to perform an efficient stroke, and means when you are in the water you’re actually working on specific swim fitness, rather than working against weak and inflexible shoulders. So here’s the plan:
- Check your flexibility – the Wall Angel is a good start. Work to correct any limitations
- Get strong in the basic movements – press ups, pull ups, shoulder press, pullovers, rows – all done with strict form
- Watch how good swimmers swim – learn the stroke, know the movements required, see how their bodies perform. A really good tool is Swimsmooth, this has an animated swimmer you can watch from all angles and frame by frame. Mr Smooth is who you want to be in the water
- Learn those key positions and movements in the gym, learn how to coordinate and engage the whole body, think how it’s going to feel when you’re in the water, develop strength and endurance to give you strong movement patterns
When I did this, I found what I was doing was actually nothing particularly new, or different from conventional training. The difference was in the detail; making sure movements were done with correct alignment, going through a full range of movement, and encouraging correct posture and strong, coordinated, dynamic movements.
A good example of this is the press up. Done properly this should open out the chest, and develop good flexibility and strength around the shoulder. But too often we get sloppy with form and this means that we do a press up and it actually limits shoulder mobility, it encourages rounded shoulders and loss of movement. This is going to totally mess up your stroke; if you don’t have full movement of the shoulder you end up over rotating and your stroke’s in all sorts of problems.
The exercises I find most beneficial are:
Single arm shoulder press – with rotation to mimic the reach, but never crossing the centre line, and never allowing any lateral flexion of the spine. This is great for learning body position and length in the water
Single arm pullovers – catch and pull, really good dry land training, and using a range of resistances you can focus on a particular part of the movement
Press up – total shoulder strength and core stability, with extra triceps strength for the last bit of your stroke
Pull ups – another great bodyweight exercise that translates well and develops balanced strength
Plank – single leg and arm combinations, good for learning how to engage the core without compromising alignment
If you can master all these exercises, and get strong in the swim specific positions and movements, you’ll get more benefit from the time you spend in the water. There’s obviously limitations, but in my experience, this ticks a lot of the boxes that limit peoples swim ability.
So if you’re a good swimmer already, chances are you can do all this to a high level. If you’re starting out, or know it’s your weakness, perhaps some quality time in the gym is going to give you that confidence in the water that you can make it out further up the pack. Either way, working on your weaknesses so you can capitalise on your strengths is a good strategy to get your best result.