As many of you know, the time in my week where I’m not coaching you lovely folk at W10 Performance I spend working as a strength and conditioning coach with British Olympic Swimmers at the National Training Centre. I feel extremely fortunate to work with such an elite group of swimmers and coaches and I am often asked questions like “how do they train, are they strong, how much time do they spend in the gym, do they go away on training camps?”
The answers I’m afraid are fairly mundane. Yes they lift weights, yes they are strong, they spend a decent (though not massive) amount of time in the gym and yes they do go away on the odd training camp to a nice place. Athletes, contrary to popular belief are like everyone else. They are made up of skin, bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments. Their hearts beat like everyone else, they require sustenance to fuel their bodies and they experience pain and emotional stress the same as the rest of us.
Swimming requires an interaction between many different systems, depending on the discipline and length of race. For example a 50m Butterfly event requires a huge amount of strength and power compared to say a 10km Open Water event that relies more on muscular endurance and aerobic energy production. However whether it is a 50m sprint or a 10km open water race the performance is built on a foundation of strength training on which the relevant energy systems and muscular power and or endurance are developed. This strength forms a foundation for human movement and whether you’re an Olympic swimmer or an office athlete (as I like to term it) we all require that base level of strength training. With this in mind we require all athletes to become proficient and strong in the key lifts you will all perform at W10.
The squat forms the foundation of a program and high levels of maximum strength in this exercise correlate well with a persons’ ability to jump high. This jump height and power in turn correlates with fast start and turn speeds in swimming, so the stronger they are, generally the more powerful they can become. Basic upper body key lifts such as bench presses, chins and overhead pressing are important as all swimmers require high levels of balanced upper body strength for both injury prevention and power production in the water. Further to this we will choose specific exercises based on the individual needs of the athlete, the discipline they compete in and the time of year (i.e. pre-competition or general strength phase).
In a previous blog I wrote about the importance of technical competence when lifting weights. This is something we stress highly in our athletes and we have a very well defined technical model for each key exercise in the gym. We encourage the athletes to hold themselves to a very high standard of technical competence within their lifting sessions to maximise the strength gains and minimise risk. This should all sound fairly familiar in terms of the key exercises we use and the importance of technical competence/attention to detail. Yes, the loads lifted and speeds achieved will (in most cases) be higher in athletes but the core principles of using ‘big’ compound exercises to get strong and quality reps are the same for EVERYONE, athlete or not.
This is an extremely brief and general overview of strength training for swimming but I cannot stress enough that whether athletes or not, BASICS GET THE JOB DONE BEFORE THE FANCY STUFF HAPPENS.
Training camps are a chance for coaches to get athletes away from their home environment and spend time training and focusing on their sport without the usual distractions of daily life that everyone has to deal with when at home. Every time I travelled to a training camp with whatever sports I have worked in, I have been pleasantly surprised by level of intensity and quality all athletes exhibit. The training sessions are often exactly the same as was prescribed back at base but the one thing that has changed is the athletes have been able to distance themselves from the stresses of life back home (wives, husbands, house and life admin) and focus solely on training, recovering and relaxing.
We can learn lessons from athletes’ training camp performances to improve our own performance. It is not possible for all of us in the real world to just drop tools and fly off to some place and do a couple of weeks of training, leaving the wife and kids at home to fend for themselves while you add a couple of kilos to your squat and knock an inch or two off the waist.
It may be possible however to have a number of targeted weeks (preferably in a row) in your year where you focus even harder on the quality of your training, recovery and nutrition above and beyond your normal (which should already be above average). It may coincide with a period of holiday or a time where work is light; you are less stressed and able to focus on improving your health and performance.
So as I stressed earlier, we can learn many lessons from elite athletes…
- Perform the key lifts with intensity and quality. There is no substitute for these when developing strength and a good physique.
- Focus on achieving technical competence in everything you do in the gym.
- Aim to recover, sleep, and eat well, as an athlete would.
- Take time in your year to intensify your training but also intensify your rest and relaxation. Reduce external stress and focus on YOU as if you were on a far away island training retreat.
We are never going to have all the available time to train that elite athletes do but if we apply some of these simple principles we can improve the quality of our training and health.
By Mark Taylor