Core Essentials to Dryland Training

What if you could find a way to maximize your swimming performance and minimize your injuries? Many swimmers have found a way to do this but it is not in the water like they thought it would be, it is on the dry land. This is what swimmers simply call “dryland”. Athletes from other sports laugh because they call it “conditioning” or “strength work” but since our sport is in the water we call our out of the water training “dryland”. Whether you are a competitive swimmer, a fitness swimmer, or a triathlete, dryland training can transform a swimmer’s training and performance dramatically. Dryland conditioning can help produce or enhance power, strength, core control, flexibility, coordination, and speed for swimmers. If a competitive swimmer found out they could drop time in their events without swimming more frequently or increasing distance, most would be interested to know how they could do this. By incorporating or improving these aspects of fitness, swimmers will reap the benefits of speed, endurance, and decrease risk of injury.

Until recently, dryland did not take much priority in the majority of swimming programs. It has gradually gained more importance, but as I talk to swimmers of all ages from many different teams, dryland is usually sporadic and disorganized at best. When I swam club in high school the regimen was some running, push-ups, sit-ups, and a few medicine ball exercises. Teams infrequently had regular functional dryland. Many believed then and still believe that more swimming is the only way to get better, and by sacrificing water time for workouts on the land, you are robbing the swimmer of opportunity to get better. Slowly, coaches and swimmers are seeing that dryland in conjunction with swimming has produced stronger and faster swimmers with fewer injuries. Most research has been done on youth and college age swimmers, but it is true for adult swimmers as well. Age increases the rate at which an individual loses power, strength, balance and flexibility, thus it is clearly beneficial and necessary for adult athletes to engage in dryland activities. This brief glance at some different benefits of dryland conditioning may help encourage swimmers to seek out dryland exercises to improve their own swimming.

Power: Coaches say it all the time, “one of the easiest ways to get faster is starts, turns, and finishes”. Good starts, turns, and finishes require power from the core, hips, and legs as well as shoulders, back, and arms. By doing drills on the land to increase your body’s power you can quickly and easily improve your speed. Distance swimmers often tell me they don’t need to do any power work, which is false. The more power you have in your core the stronger you can rotate your body, catch the water, finish your stroke, and have the ability to finish your races strong. It’s the same as marathon runner still needing to do speed workouts at the track; power is still a very valuable asset to distance swimmers.

Muscular Strength/Muscular Endurance: the simple truth is, if you are stronger you can train harder and race faster than you could at with less strength. If a swimmer’s muscles can sustain to hold their goal pace for a set of 8 x 200 verses 4 x 200, the swimmer is becoming more conditioned to race better. What about injuries? So often in swimming, the injuries are overuse injuries. Thousands of strokes per workout can begin to make muscles fatigued. When the ideally used muscles fatigue, the body allows weaker muscles and the joint take over. The more strength the muscles have, the more they will be able to handle and the longer they will be able to sustain the workload before they fatigue. On the same note, many muscles are required to stabilize the joint, if they are too weak or fatigued to perform their job, they may become injured or simply not stabilize the joints like they need to, causing other areas to become injured. Lack of strength or endurance also leads to poor technique. A swimmer must train within their threshold of being able to keep proper technique but if they have the ability to hold proper technique for longer, thus training harder for a better end result. Lack of muscular strength and muscular endurance from any area will not only increase risk for injury, but will minimize an individual’s potential for maximum speed. As with everything, there is a point of diminishing returns, simply producing great amounts of strength will not lead to faster swimming if it is in the wrong places. Also, strength must be coupled with flexibility on order for the swimmer to move how they need to in the water.

Coordination and Balance: These are two aspects of athleticism that many people do not correlate with swimming. Swimming is very complex and proper technique is a must. The more coordination a swimmer has, the more easily their body can achieve the correct technique without compromising other parts of the body. Balance is essential in competitive swimming because the more balance a swimmer has; the easier it is for them to maintain proper body position. Training the body to use the core for balance verses struggling to use the arms and legs for balance, allows the swimmer to most effectively use their arms and legs for propulsion through the water.

Core: “Core” has a big emphasis in the fitness world, and it should be no different for swimmers. Many people do not understand the purpose of the core work or how they should work the core. Many people think they just need to do crunches and sit-ups, but it is way more complex than that. A swimmer needs a strong core so they can connect everything from their finger tips to their toes resulting in each part working together instead of fighting against each other. There are many very strong swimmers that have intense dryland programs, yet are lacking in their core control. A swimmer that effectively uses his or her core to swim will reap the benefit of a better body position. A swimmer with a good body position is able to maintain better technique and finish races stronger, leading to faster times. If a swimmer has very strong arms, and powerful legs but they are not in-sync with each other, the swimmer will not reach his or her maximum speed. But with a strong core at the center of the stroke helping the upper and lower body work together, it will improve the swimmer’s technique, efficiency, and reduce early onset of fatigue in the limbs.

Flexibility: Flexibility is a huge asset when it comes to muscle function. Great flexibility allows for greater capability of muscle firing and endurance of the muscles. If a muscle can not fully lengthen, it can not fire to its maximum capability. The flexibility that allows muscles to fire effectively and efficiency to produce speed, is also essential to injury prevention. If muscles become very tight, compensation can occur because the lack of motion or firing from the desired muscles. This can lead to fatigue and overuse issues in other muscles or joints. When muscles don’t work as they should, the result can be a change in technique, which can lead to inefficiency or injury.

There are many dryland activities that athletes and teams use for increasing performance and preventing injuries. Every person says their own way is the best, and everyone is entitled to their own belief. As a Fellow of Applied Functional Science, I believe that the most effective programs are those that are functional. Programs that simulate motions the body is required to do in their desired activity. This does not mean that a swimmer has to do stretch cord exercises working on their freestyle and butterfly catch, and flutter kicks on their back. All four strokes involve different motions and require different levels of strength at each motion. Doing dryland activities that challenge and enhance these movements are the ones that I believe to be the most beneficial to athletes. This also does not mean that every exercise has to be done on the ground or a balanced position, but identifying exercises that will simulate motions that the body will go through in the water will carry over to give the swimmer what they need to train and race better. For instance, take something as simple as a squat and tweak the foot positions to rotate the feet out and in, stagger the feet so the one is in front of the other, taking the feet wide and narrow. These simple tweaks will simulate different aspect of the kick and strengthening in all these directions will allow the body to maximize its potential in all needed areas. This also makes the hips and pelvis stabilized in different positions, which all four strokes demand.

There are many fads in fitness, always a new craze that is taking hold of the athletic and fitness world. There is also research done for everything. One article says stretch, one says don’t stretch, one says do power work; one says do lots of reps. Deciphering the research is difficult because it is tough to know who said the right thing. The main goal is learning what works for the individual. Every swimmer is different and will adapt better to different training based on their physiology, biomechanics, injuries, recovery, nutrition etc. I can have a swimmer do an exercise and they will get more out of it than another swimmer, based on a litany of factors. There is no “best” workout that will meet everyone’s needs, but strengthening the body so it can train harder, last longer and recover more quickly will definitely help a swimmer gain a competitive edge. Whether a swimmer chooses strength work in the weight room, Pilates classes, yoga or functional dryland training, there is a very good chance they will reap benefits in the water. Of all the out of the water training I have done with my clients and myself, I have seen the most benefit from functional dryland conditioning and flexibility. These types of workouts correlate to what swimming requires and conditions preferred responses out of the body. I have worked with swimmers that appear very strong and have a “six-pack” for abs, but they don’t know how to use these muscles to balance on the surface of the water or propel them through the water. Functional dynamic flexibility will help the body learn to contract and relax efficiently so the muscles can do this when needed in the water. There are many ways to learn these functional exercises, coaches and trainers, fitness instructors, websites, classes etc. I see many clients on a weekly basis that just want to gain a competitive edge in their sport and prevent injuries. Every “conditioning for swimming” video that comes up on Youtube will not be the best exercises for everyone. If you are prone to injuries or have had issues in the past, make sure you consult a professional in the field to help you determine what plan will be best for you. In my own experience I see far more swimmers that hurt themselves from not doing dryland conditioning than get hurt from doing dryland conditioning. But just remember that common sense and knowing your own threshold is a must as part of a dryland conditioning program.

Markell Marler is a Fellow of Applied Functional Science and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. She is the Director of Sports Performance Enhancement at the Orthopedic Sport Clinic in Houston, Texas and the Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Assistant Masters coach for First Colony Swim Team in Sugar Land, Texas.