Why Be Strong?
You certainly want your shape and movement patterns to be streamline and efficient to reduce internal and external resistance to moving forward. But even then, you still need strength, because it defines your body’s ability to do work. Even when facing less drag in the water because of great technique, physics says you still need force to propel your body mass forward and that requires strength. The more strength your body has the more work it can do – you can swim farther or swim faster. If you work on both reducing resistance and increasing strength, then you will have the best of both.
Being strong is not just about being able to perform better on race day. Strength in the neural system, in the tissues and bones and joints not only makes you last longer and swim faster, it makes it much safer to handle more training. You need to be strong not only for some big event, you need to be strong so that you can keep doing this activity you love for month after month, year after year, for decades. Strength protects you.
Coaches like me put so much emphasis upon improving shape and movement patterns in the first stages of training because humans are so poorly equipped to move efficiently in water (and, we forget how to run well on land too). But there comes a point, sooner or later, when that now-efficient swimmer needs to build more strength in order to swim farther or faster. In advanced training, you do well to have a diet composed of both technique work and strength (fitness) work blended together, holding each accountable to the other.
What Kind Of Strength?
In the previous post What Is The Difference Between Strength, Endurance and Power? I defined each of those terms and described how strength is the foundation for endurance and for power.
No matter what event you are training for, really short distances, middle, or really long, you need some of both endurance and power, of kinds suitable for that event.
If you are working on longer events, you need strength expressed more in endurance, at moderate speed, holding best form, lasting for hours. If you are working on short events, you need strength expressed more in power – holding best form at very high speed, lasting for minutes or less. If you are working in the middle, you need a challenging balance of both.
Whether you are competitive or recreational, training for a race podium right now or aiming for the podium of ‘marvelously fit at older age’, it is important to develop strength around your technique, then put that technique to work in going longer at lower intensity (endurance) and in going faster at high intensity for short distances (power). Whatever your specialty or goal is, you do well to have a training diet composed of both.
Some Sample Exercises
The following sets for strength, endurance and power are just samples of what you may do to work on these forms of strength. You start with activities that fit your current skill and fitness level, do a series of practices to build strength, then increase the challenge gradually over months.
A simple way to build strength around technique is to swim a series of longer repeats or one long continuous distance where you require yourself to hold the same stroke count on every single length, with no compromise. You would choose your best or your optimal stroke count ‘N’ (strokes per length or SPL) which would be somewhat difficult to hold on every length, especially toward the end of the repeat or at the end of the total distance, but not impossible. Then you go into that swim putting all your attention on holding form, holding consistent effort in order to maintain consistent SPL N on every length. As you get toward the end of a repeat or toward the end of that long swim, you would have to put in all your attention and effort into maintaining that stroke count. When your count slips to N+2 (in a 25 y/m pool) for more than one length and you can no longer do anything to prevent that, you are done with this set for the day.
Building endurance in swimming may involve picking a moderate pace and then going for a longer continuous swim that would bring you into some level of fatigue about half way through. That distance needs to be longer than 400 so there is time for respiration to settle and your cardio-vascular system to adapt to the task, but what you consider ‘long’ after that is relative to your current fitness and skill. The main endurance training begins when you enter into that fatigue zone where you then practice the skills for reinterpreting discomfort and urging your body to keep going with best form as long as you can. Add a fixed comfortable tempo or consistent stroke count requirement to increase the challenge.
In swimming, in order to increase loading on the muscles, you need to increase water resistance by increasing velocity. In other words, you have to make yourself swim faster.
A simple way to work on power in swimming is to go your hardest – as hard as you can stroke while maintaining your best form – for very short distances. This could be as short as 10-strokes bursts (10 seconds, no more), a length of the pool (25), or a lap (50). You may set up a series of sprints, like 6x 25, and give yourself ample rest between, like 30 seconds, and then practice holding best form while trying to engage as much muscle activation in one particular parts of the propulsive actions of the stroke choreography (resisting unnecessary muscle tension in other parts of the body).
To hold your body accountable to producing the same amount of work on every length in every repeat, use a Tempo Trainer to keep a fixed sprint tempo and then require yourself to maintain a certain stroke count on every one. The ‘stroke count x tempo’ combination that you choose should be ‘just possible’ for you at the beginning, so that you start to encounter failure about 1/2 to 2/3 of the way into that set. When you feel yourself struggling to keep the tempo or struggling to keep the stroke count, double your concentration, forcing your neural system to dig deeper in muscle recruitment and to hold on to the speed of muscle response.
We Must Get Stronger
For older adults, they say we’re losing muscle cells, no longer able to build them as easily. If we don’t use them, we lose them, or lose them more rapidly. We lose both muscle and neural speed together. So the longevity game for us is to do activities that require us to recruit more of the available muscle cells, and use them more intensely, and use them more often, which will urge the body to hold on to them, rather than chuck them overboard. The more rapid the loss of strength, endurance and power there is in our body over the decades, the more rapidly other breakdowns, injuries and illnesses can creep in and shut us down. Losing strength and neural response time is literally deadly… in slow-motion.
So, regardless of whether you want to swim farther or swim faster or not, it is for reasons of health and longevity that I urge you to add strength, endurance and power work to your training diet.
You may enjoy the entire series on strength: