For years, coaches in team sport have tapped into track and field coaches for obvious reasons: Speed and power are easily transferrable to training if properly implemented. Yet, for some reason, strength coaches view elite swimming as an alien sport because they can’t easily copy and paste the information into workouts. True, swimming is very unique and not much from it will make sense for a soccer player looking to get fast and fit, but if you do your homework, you can definitely use the information to model your own program no matter what athlete you train.
In this blog post, I cover an array of lessons I’ve learned from swimming over the years. If you are really interested in getting better results from the training you do with your athletes right now, read the article and know that you will bring the knowledge back to land sports.
Why the Sport of Swimming Is Unique
Watch any child with a sound background of play run in physical education, and they’ll look coordinated and healthy. But toss the same kid, without a background in swimming, into a pool, and they’ll look terrible and could be at risk of drowning. The ugly truth is water is a very humbling medium for the human race, and this is why swim coaches have no choice but to be good instructors. Few athletes will learn the skills with just a little help and exposure to the sport, and overall you have to coach in swimming, as it exposes you.
The medium of water is still a bit of a mystery, and while we have all the latest science and technology, we still don’t know all the secrets to why swimmers differ outside of basic kinematic information that is crude and limited. One of my favorite books for coaches is Gold in the Water, a read that you simply can’t put down if you are a sports fan. In its early chapters, author P.H. Mullen paints an amazing visual to help the casual observer of the sport. What he does is great writing, as it’s hard for a former swimmer to get excited about doing yards in the pool, since it’s hard work and sometimes mind-numbing. Mullen writes:
“More bubbles and turbulence following the hand mean the swimmer is failing to fully ‘catch water.’ A slipping hand is akin to clawing at pebbles while climbing a steep hill. So much better to grasp a solid rock…The biomechanics of swimming is an exhausting jargon, while the secrets of forward propulsion remain elusive. Scientists are captivated by the mystery and devote their lives to studying it.” (p. 69-70)
Obviously, none of this resembles track and field, a close cousin to team sports where running, throwing, and jumping connect better. In fact, some of the patterns of swimming are the opposite of track and field, such as the fastest part of the race coming from the first few seconds, when athletes dive into the pool. In track and land sports you need to accelerate, whereas swimming is about maintaining velocity from the walls and blocks. The motions are beautiful and coordinated, but hardly resemble anything we can use on dry land. At least skiing and skating have more ground reaction forces so we glean something, right?
The key point I am making here is that swimming is a little weird and a difficult puzzle to figure out. Struggling with the mysteries of swimming makes you a better problem-solver. While sprinters are not really made in the weight room, the addition of some basic strength to an athlete does have more of a chance of showing up on the clock. Swimming is a little more complicated and far more nebulous for conventional training ideas, but fundamental training does work in the long run.Swimming is useful for land sports because of the thinking process that helps it improve and innovate every decade, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Swimming is useful for land sports because of the thinking process that helps it improve and innovate every decade. While suit technology and better pools have made progress somewhat inflated, the sport does its homework on the sciences better than others. Great people are helping Team USA continue to dominate the world. If you don’t agree, think about how the rest of the planet had to change the representation rule of the Olympics from three to two because we were cleaning up like a bank heist every Olympics.
From Dryland Training to Modern Swimming Strength and Conditioning
The story behind the story is always fascinating, and some of the best coaches in strength and conditioning supported the men’s gold medal relay. Performance coaches Keenan Robinson, Joel Smith, Nate Brookerson, and Matt Delancey were behind the scenes, helping get America back on top. It still stings what happened in 2000 and 2004, and with the French grabbing gold in 2012, it was time for a little redemption. Those four strength coaches have different styles and philosophies, but boy do they get results. I don’t know if swimming helped them be better coaches or if they were just coaches who helped their swimmers get better, but they are the first people I would call if I wanted results when it counted.
Video 1. The use of IMUs, specifically Trainesense in swimming, allows track and field coaches to raise their capacity of understanding motion. I often tell sprint coaches to watch equine sports and swimming, so running with two legs is easier to manage later.
The purpose of this section is not to brag about the great coaches here in the U.S. but to point out that swimming needs strength and conditioning more than ever. You can’t just do surgical tubing anymore; you need to crush iron and do it safely. What is fascinating is that swimmers are no longer a bunch of aquatic greyhounds—you need a body that resembles a tall tight end in football or a power forward in basketball.
Back to the coaches and what else makes them special:
- The Grind – This may come across as negative or jaded, yet sometimes you need to spend time in the scholastic world and grind. While hard work and time are now out of fashion, gold is timeless. Coaching in the college environment is tough and unforgiving, but it’s also a time to hone skills and get the literal reps in. All four that I mention above have spent years coaching teams and observing their own programs evolve athletes, and you must pay your dues in both coaching and training if you are an athlete.
- Learning Curve – All of the coaches are also well-read, so they learn from others while being excellent educators themselves. Each has spent hours presenting their honest findings, and the information is organic and useful. I would rather be right than sound smart, and that’s why Olympic sport is a very teachable environment for strength coaches—because it’s pure.
- Applied Science – The last point I want to make is that applied science is beyond converting research pro tools to coaching-friendly protocols or technologies. This is why many of the systems with great potential fail, because using them day to day is often disruptive to training. Applied doesn’t mean efficient workflow; it means proven results. Research is often designed to show success by isolating variables and removing potentially confounding factors that wash out results.
In summary, you can make a good case for what all coaches can learn from strength coaches who work in swimming, but it’s really about the underappreciated, hidden work in the sport. With strength training and swimming being difficult beasts to evaluate beyond time and load, I use some of the thinking and methods from those four today. I am far more confident about the Olympic lifts thanks to Matt, and Joel has made me more resourceful with my tools. Keenan has kept me on the right track with what matters and not gone so deep down the rabbit hole, and Nate keeps me honest with the combination of coaching skills and data he collects.
How Swimming Can Make Us Physiologically Wiser
Jan Olbrecht’s book The Science of Winning was one of those texts that kept me going back to the research and practice of conditioning. In the past I was too contemporary, believing that fitness was event-specific, when in fact it’s “recovery limited.” There are countless times that coaches analyze the demands of the event rather than the demands of the preparation for the event on an athlete’s physiology. Instead of looking at a needs analysis from a myopic viewpoint, I changed my beliefs and realized that conditioning is about the entire process, rather than trying to artificially improve speed reserve or thinking about the trials and finals of multiple events. Swimming is one of those enigmas that seems strange to the outside world, but for those who understand it, progress continues mainly because of the understanding of physiology.Conditioning is about the entire process, rather than trying to artificially improve speed reserve or thinking about the trials and finals of multiple events, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
I recommend The Science of Winning, as it’s a wonderful read and timeless. Some coaches may see it as having too much energy systems dogma, but if you read the entire book, you can gain a lot from understanding the need to sensibly challenge the body with conditioning. It seems that team sport is stuck on practice and injury prevention lifts with a dash of sprinting. In reality, fitness is not something you should remove in order to be fast; you should learn to slowly add conditioning so a contemporary program will succeed more.
True, you don’t need to spend hours reading about ATP regeneration biochemistry to be effective in track and field or strength and conditioning, but you do need a framework to use science practically. For example, during USATF level III courses, Dr. Sands warned heavily that the notion of load monitoring being distilled to a single line plot is a foolish idea. Later in a presentation, I shared the same error with loads becoming singular line plots for humans, as that model was so oversimplified it excluded the variance in recovery of specific modalities. I think if performance coaches were to read the old American Swimming Coaches Association world books, they would really understand both the art and science better.
Monitor Progressively – Dr. Flatt and Heart Rate Variability
Andrew Flatt is a resource I tap into every year to help me get the most out of physiological monitoring. The work he has done in heart rate variability (HRV) is simply outstanding. Dr. Flatt specializes in physiological monitoring, but don’t assume he is a weekend warrior endurance cyclist—he is actually a powerlifter. During his time with Alabama Football, his monitoring of the best team in college sports was pioneering.
I give credit to much of the work he did with Jonty Skinner, a former world record holder in swimming who became a coach, for refining his research. Working with the swimming program created some interesting concepts in monitoring that other sports could adopt. In fact, I reviewed his very provocative piece with Rugby 7s for Science for Sport. As some readers may know, I covered technology and monitoring for their Performance Digest. The challenge of picking the best three studies each month isn’t easy, but when Andrew Flatt releases a gem, I have to find a way to make it useful for coaches.
HRV, especially with Whoop and Oura in the market, demands a special article later, but you should know that simple daily data used longitudinally is far more valuable than deciphering it as a tool for strength training monitoring or real-time load management. The autonomic nervous system isn’t a compartmentalized metric; it’s a tool that requires experience and a plan. Monitoring HRV has taken a backseat for years now, as it was overhyped by some and underappreciated by others. A healthy perspective is to treat it like a warning light for a modern engine—it may be a false alarm at times, but when it’s right, it’s a godsend.A healthy perspective is to treat HRV monitoring like a warning light for a modern engine—it may be a false alarm at times, but when it’s right, it’s a godsend, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Currently, I see daily scores that are validated as a check and balance to specific measures, and you can use the information over weeks for tapering and estimating the trend of adaptation. Again, it’s not a magic number on which to base an entire workout program, but the information is useful enough to help give confidence in solid programming.
Medical Mastery – USOC and Swimmer’s Shoulder
While throwing and other injuries occur in other sports, swimming is a sport that requires an athlete to move in a foreign way for propulsive needs. Although it’s important to be able to throw a javelin or baseball, neither throw your body through water resistance. Swimming will never be seen as a ballistic exercise, but the dynamic speed of a butterfly sprint is something of a marvel.
When I watched old videos of the 1984 Olympics, Alex Baumann was someone I admired. He struggled with shoulder injuries over and over, but he came back to win both the 200-meter and 400-meter IMs after losing both his father to diabetes before the Games and his brother to suicide years earlier. Due to the forgiving water, most people think the danger of injuries comes from impact forces from the ground, but swimming is known to be a challenge to the shoulder joint.
As I mentioned perhaps half a dozen times before, Matt Delancey completely changed my point of view for building resilience with his snatch program. While many are afraid to load the shoulder, he is raising the bar—literally—above the head, and years of results are all the evidence I need. Still, athletes will get injured, and this is where medical expertise comes in.
A few years ago, I was in Colorado Springs presenting at the inaugural ISTA conference and finally got to meet Dr. Dustin Nabhan. He is a medical professional for the USOC, and I was eager to see his approach to treating athletes. The depth of knowledge and practice he had regarding the shoulder was eerie, as he fully understood the demands on a world-class swimmer’s shoulder.Swimming doesn’t have the financial clout of baseball, but it does have some of the best minds in elite sport, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
In no way am I judging the standards of sports, but the comprehensive and progressive manner he had, compared to conventional orthopedics, was just fascinating. Swimming doesn’t have the financial clout of baseball, but it does have some of the best minds in elite sport. If you are involved in overhead sports, think about visiting him in the Denver area.
A Final Lap for the Sport of Swimming
Swimming is a sport that can teach you a lot, including the value of hard work and perseverance. When I was in my first decade of coaching, I spent half my time on the pool deck learning from great people and the talented athletes themselves. As a below-average athlete, I learned quickly how poor genetics and great coaching can make a mule into a serviceable swimmer, and I think a frustrated athlete becomes a better coach later.
Hard work from the pool—especially a vanilla but potent dryland program—transformed me from a kid who was never picked first in gym to someone who earned presidential fitness by their senior year. I give all the credit to the sport that taught me how to train intelligently, created a work ethic, and humbled me with objective feedback that was never wrong.
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