— By Melanie McQuaid
Swimming well is a combination of good mobility, strength, technique and fitness. Most triathletes focus on fitness first, then try to address their technique and, in the process, neglect strength and mobility. This is a mistake as inadequate mobility makes strength, fitness and technique impossible to achieve.
Performing swim drills requires mobility to access the new motor pattern. Similarly, tight muscles work as inefficiently as weak muscles, so strength work to dial in new patterns is ineffective if you aren’t flexible enough. Some athletes try to use strength work to prevent injury when it’s actually mobility (preventing proper technique) that is the root cause of the injury. Finally, most triathletes who struggle with swimming have poor technique, but are very fit, so training harder, with an inefficient stroke, is not productive. All of these factors point to mobility as the foundation of a better swim split.
One reason children pick up swimming more easily than adults is because they have more flexible joints and muscles – basically they have a greater range of motion. Creating new motor patterns to adopt a better swim stroke is impossible if the body can’t get into the right position. Adults who have spent years hunched over a computer have a difficult time activating the correct muscles for a good swim catch. This means the body, which is great at compensating if the correct muscles are not available, uses less effective muscles to try and adopt the new technique. The good news is that persistent work on fundamental mobility can help you improve significantly.
Even elite swimmers continually work on mobility. Elite swim programs in Victoria follow a dryland routine of 10 minutes of mobility, 10 minutes of strength and 10 minutes of dryland warm-up before every practice. This work is on top of any strength and mobility training that occurs regularly as an additional session. Considering that flexible swimmers are always working on their range of motion, triathletes struggling to achieve even minimum mobility should include these sessions.
The following are some ideas on mobility and strength exercises for swimming. These exercises focus on the thoracic spine, shoulders and pectoral muscles. These are a good place to start, but exercises for the hips, lower back and ankles are also important. With persistent practice, tight and inflexible athletes can improve their range of motion and access a good catch and effective pull, the keys to swimming well in open water.
Sit on the floor with your back pressed to the wall. Bring your elbows up to shoulder height, pressing your arms and wrists to the wall in a surrender position. Slowly push your fingertips straight up the wall until you feel a stretch, then release. Keep your lower back, arms, shoulders and head pushed against the wall while you do this stretch. Do sets of 10 repetitions.
Lie on your side with your top leg bent at 90 degrees with you knee on the floor and your bottom leg straight. Have your bottom arm straight at shoulder height and start with your top arm straight on top of it, palms together. Draw an arc above your head, with your elbow slightly bent, feeling a stretch along your thoracic spine and pectoral muscles.
Do sets of 10 repetitions per side.
Dynamic Child’s Pose
Start seated with the knees about shoulder width apart and your toes pointed straight back. Put the hands on the floor, shoulder width apart, and, keeping your shoulders held down and back, stretch the butt back toward the floor. Stop when there is any rounding of the lower back. The spine should remain flat and the objective is to stretch at the hip joint without collapsing. Repeat 10 times.
T-Spint Myofascial Release
Using two massage balls tied together in a bag, start by lying on the balls at your lower ribs. The balls should be on either side of your spine, rather than pressing into the spine. Relax and allow the muscles to release at that vertebrae for five breaths, then move one vertebrae higher. Repeat until you get to the top of your shoulders. Stop before you reach your neck.
The most effective strength exercise for shoulder stability and recruitment is overhand pull-ups. These can be very difficult for athletes unaccustomed to recruiting their back and shoulder muscles this way. Building up to this exercise with assisted pull-ups is an option. Pull-ups with the palms facing away are the best for accessing swim-specific muscles and having the arms in a swim-specific posture.
Training the core muscles with long hold planks is beneficial for all disciplines of triathlon and directly influence body position in the water. Performing planks correctly is critical. Ensure the upper back is flat rather than rounded at the rhomboids. Keep the shoulders pulled down and back, while holding the butt and legs in a straight line to the ankles. Starting with short 10-second efforts with rest to ensure good form, build up to 10 minutes of a variety of plank positions including side and prone position.
Swim cords create visual cues for athletes trying to improve mobility and access new arm, shoulder and hand positions. Using the cords to create the right shape with the arms, shoulders and back muscles in front of a mirror helps athletes feel the position before attempting to transfer it to the water. There is also a strength component practicing with the swim cords, so swim cords are a hugely beneficial training tool. Start with 3 x 40 pulls with swim cords using high elbows, engaged back muscles, relaxed shoulders, then build up to multiple sets.