Courtesy of Gary Hall Sr., 10-time World Record Holder, 3-time Olympian, 1976 Olympic Games US Flagbearer and The Race Club co-founder.
There are three different facets of dry land training, all of which are important; strength training, stretching and fitness. I am not aware of any elite swimmer that does not incorporate a dry land program into his or her training. It is that important. The following reflects some of our philosophy at The Race Club regarding dry land training for freestylers.
When it comes to developing explosive power in the water, which is particularly critical for sprinting, dry land contributes more than swim training. However, because of the exquisite sensitivity to increasing frontal drag with small changes in shape, one has to be extremely careful about developing bulk strength. Swimming is a sport where bigger and stronger does not necessarily make one faster. In fact, we often see the opposite. Consequently, most good strength trainers familiar with our sport have evolved into programs focusing on developing swim-specific strength, building the core muscles involved in the correct swimming motions, while largely ignoring the rest. Becoming strong while remaining lean is a key to fast swimming.
Most of the elite freestylers of the world also have hyper-mobility of certain joints, most notably the shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles. Even so, there is controversy about stretching; how it should be done, when it should be done and if it should be done. Some of the controversy revolves around the question of whether hyper-mobile joints are more prone to injury. Certainly in contact sports that is true, but most of the injuries in swimming are due to overuse, not blunt trauma, and in such cases, hyper-mobility of the joints is not likely to be a contributor. It may even be a preventative measure for joint-related pain.
When it comes to flexibility, however, I do know this. In a sport where small degrees of angles make huge difference in the amount of propulsion that can be generated or the amount of frontal drag that can be reduced, freestylers must have great flexibility in certain joints. Ankles are a good example. To develop a fast flutter kick, one must have extreme plantar flexibility in order to get the surface area of the top of the foot to push backward on the down kick. Not having it is like trying to be a good gymnast without being able to do the splits. It doesn’t work.
Finally, we use dry land training to develop fitness, particularly with the core muscles and the kick. Throughout a swimming race, the core and leg muscles never stop working. Consequently, they are normally the first parts of the body to give out. To swim fast, much strength and fitness is required of both. If we lose the ability to sustain the tight strength and motion of either legs or core, what follows is not pretty.
Japan has enjoyed great success in swimming in the recent few Olympic Games. One of the reasons, I believe, is that their coaches spend more time on dry land training than we generally do. The result has been stronger, fitter and faster swimmers. Perhaps we need to learn something from them.
Yours in swimming,
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