Whether your usual pool is closed for refurbishment, your car engine has suddenly seized, or your dog is sick and you can’t leave the house, there are still ways to improve your swimming without getting wet.
Bruce Lee once scathingly compared foregoing sparring in martial arts training to learning to swim on dry land. But that doesn’t mean your skills can’t be developed by activities outside your discipline.
Many experienced sports coaches will encourage the participation in other activities to complement your main discipline, and you'll find quite a number of cyclists benefiting from cross-training in the gym or gym goers heading to the pool. Footballers also play a lot of golf, but somehow that's not really comparable.
Swimming uses a wider range of musculature than almost any other sport, but while its physical demands are wide ranging, training out of the water should be seen as an ideal opportunity to focus on areas in which you could do with some improvement.
Here are our top ten ways to get the most out of dry-land swimming and turn your ‘off’ day into a power play.
Sleep and recover
If you’ve been training hard over a long period of time, this might be the perfect opportunity to grab some extra sleep. The body uses your periods of shut-eye to perform repairs on your muscles and optimise the neurons that control your stroke technique, so grabbing forty winks could actually be more beneficial that any other type of training, which we're sure comes as devastating news.
Hit the bike
Cycling is superb for improving your V02/Max - the maximum amount of oxygen an individual can use during intense exercise. The other huge benefit from biking is getting away from the pool and into the great outdoors, taking in that delicious fresh air and seeing the sights. It’s also a great workout for your hip flexors, quads, and glutes, so those kicking legs will be in fine form for your next swim.
Hit the gym
While swimming is one of the best ways to improve fitness and encourage lean muscle growth, there are areas in which a gym workout can benefit your pool performance. Lifting heavy weights or engaging in explosive plyometric exercise produces denser musculature with more fast-twitch tissue than a workout in the water, putting an extra surge of power into your stroke. There are a range of key lifts and focus exercises that are of particular use to the swimmer, who tend to overwork the pectoral muscles. These include squat jumps for explosive power, tricep pull-downs for a stronger stroke, and lat pull-downs for muscle balance.
Go for a run
The main advantage of going for a run is that you need no specific equipment, apart from decent running shoes. It’s also something you can do right now without preparation or inconvenience. However, there’s another big advantage. The pounding of feet on the road, park, track, or trail, causes bone stress, prompting the body to produce tougher bone tissue. Recent studies have found people taking part in high-impact exercise or resistance training have higher bone densities - a major component of bone strength, which in later life reduces the likelihood of fractures and breaks. While a swimmer’s bones also receive a bit of strengthening from the muscle stresses of the swimming stroke, the hard impacts of running will boost your bone density. This increases the load your bones can withstand, and ups the capacity of the muscles attached to them.
Martial arts are a useful complementary form of exercise for swimmers. Not only do they combine the bone-strengthening impacts of running with the explosive power of some weightlifting techniques, but hard-style forms like Taekwondo, Karate, or Northern-style Kung Fu such as Long-fist (Chaquan) or Praying Mantis, will develop core strength, greater flexibility, speed, balance, agility and precision technique, strengthening muscles and tendons less used in the pool.
A powerful core is essential for the modern swimmer, and time spent on core exercise out of the pool is well spent. Planking, hip bridges, and v-sit kicking (performing the swim kicking motion while sitting with your shoulders off the ground) will all contribute to building that deep core power that will pay dividends in the pool.
This is where dryland practice is especially useful. Coordinating the fine detail of your technique while under the resistance of the water and the exertion of many laps is not an easy thing to do, especially if you’re trying to finesse an intricate movement. While in the pool, it’s difficult to know, for example, if your arm is in the precise centre-line position during the front crawl, then getting your elbow position right during the sweep motion.
While out of the water, rehearse the movements very slowly, concentrating on precision. You don’t need to lie on the floor – this isn’t about recreating the complete motion – simply replay it in your head. It can be helpful to approximate the stroke physically while thinking about it. Pay close attention to each phase of the stroke, and ensure you’re coordinating arms and legs, along with your breathing technique. During this dryland rehearsal, place your mind in the pool and visualise how the stroke feels while in the water. Many sports people use this visualisation technique to strengthen the neural connections fired during real-world execution, refining the thought process and removing the number of elements the mind has to think about while performing. It works – try it!
Yoga’s unique poses and static stress positions offer a great workout for swimmers. Not only do they toughen important ligaments, but they are especially beneficial for body alignment and balance, allowing for cleaner, crisper technique in the water. Stretching and increased flexibility also make way for more fluid and complete movements, helping you get maximum leverage from each stroke.
Dancers, particularly those engaged in the modern street or hip-hop dance styles, are known for powerful legs and exceptional core strength. The poise and precision movement of dance is particularly useful for the pool, while memorising steps and positions develops an important sixth sense – proprioception. This is the ability to feel the positions our arms and legs occupy in space and it is important to the proper execution of techniques. This bodily sense is highly-developed among dancers (and, notably, martial artists), and improved proprioception will improve your position in the water, the precise execution of each stroke, and the fluidity of each movement.
Taking a break from the water also frees you up to look closely at your nutrition plan, whether it’s working for your goals or needs recalibrated for your current training levels. Are you taking in enough carbohydrates before getting into the pool, and getting enough protein to build the necessary muscle afterwards? Use this time to reflect on your nutritional needs and see your results improve.