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I started swimming regularly about a month ago, and I can currently swim freestyle less than 75m before I have to stop and recover for a short time. I have a simple goal of being able to cover 500m without completely exhausting myself.

Assuming I have a fixed amount of time at the gym each week, should I be spending as much as possible in the water to work on my technique until I stop seeing improvement, or does it make sense to spend any of that time on weight training instead? If so, what should I focus on? Are there specific exercises that would help with my form and endurance?


To provide some more detail, here are the main problems I continue to run into with the freestyle stroke, even as my form improves:

  • My arms, shoulders, and upper back tire quickly, and when they do, my need for air increases and my form suffers.
  • Slowing my kicking and/or stroke rate affects my body position, which negatively affects my form and efficiency.
  • There is no sustainable pace. I can swim separate 50 yard laps almost endlessly, but only with short rests between to catch my breath and let my arms recover.

I feel like the overall problem is a lack of strength and endurance in my upper body, which could possibly be addressed more directly by weight training than swimming alone.

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Any reason why you would pick weight training over actually swimming? If swimming is your weak point, then this is most likely due to a 'poor' technique or your ability to maintain this technique for longer periods of time, so wouldn't swimming more be a better strategy? –  Ivo Flipse Mar 20 '12 at 23:37
    
That was my assumption, but I don't know if strengthening under-developed muscles can encourage better form, or reduce whatever problems someone who normally uses the legs for everything might have with swimming. I guess I'm also used to higher-impact activities where I have to change things up periodically to avoid injury. –  robots.jpg Mar 21 '12 at 14:39
    
Perhaps you should simply change the question to what type of training would be beneficial for a triathlete that's a beginning swimmer? If you should do weight training, well then the answer will say so :-) –  Ivo Flipse Mar 21 '12 at 15:04
    
@IvoFlipse I should actually remove any mention of triathlon from the question since I'm specifically asking about improving swimming, and whether or not weight training should be a part of it. –  robots.jpg Mar 21 '12 at 17:22
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I managed to reach my goal last week. The main difference makers were actually proper body rotation while breathing, and kicking smoothly from the hip. When I was able to do both of those without thinking, everything else fell into place. I have been doing other strength and conditioning work as well, but I would say that 90% of my improvement came from time spent in the pool, and everyone else here was absolutely correct. –  robots.jpg Apr 10 '12 at 17:13

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

Specificity of execise suggests that if you want to swim better, practice swimming. Working to streamline your form should help reduce your energy expenditure and improve your stroke efficiency. Better breathing helps you swim longer. Conditioning helps your cardio-vascular system perform better.

  • Form: This question/answer addresses how to improve your freestyle swimming pace. Spend some time with a good swim coach to maximize the efficiency of your stroke.

  • Breathing: Breathing is also very important to being able to swim distances well. This q/a addresses how to practice breathing correctly, exhaling while your face is in the water so that you are ready to inhale as soon as you turn your head.

  • Resistance Training: Resistance tubing is an effective way to concentrically strengthen the muscles you need for your stroke, esp. your chest, upper back and rotator cuff. You can use the bands as you perform your power stroke on dry land against the resistance of the bands or cable resistance as in these videos video 1 and video 2 .

    In the pool, you can use a resistance cord attached to your body in the pool to add resistance as you swim. If you don't have a shoulder or rotator cuff problem, swim gloves can add resistance to your workouts.

    If you have access to a total gym or vasa trainer, you can lie down on it on your stomach and perform your stroke against the resistance of your body weight, (the higher the angle, the more the resistance).

Just keep in mind the idea of specificity of exercise. Static weight lifting exercises do not translate as well into the needs of your swim stroke as these types of dynamic gym circuit or interval exercises will.

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When you are talking about endurance, and not sprinting, the problem is lasting until the end. The big question is how do you increase your endurance, particularly when the smaller muscles are the ones getting exhausted. There are several ways of attacking this, but you have to understand that the type of conditioning you need is more of the oxidative metabolic path.

Your pace is probably too quick to maintain for the distance. Your body can only provide short bursts of energy for so long. From the description of your problem it sounds like you have some technique gaps to deal with before looking anywhere else.

  • The form will be different at a slower pace, but if you are going to cover distance, you have to find that medium ground.
  • You have to find that sustainable pace. A marathon is won by finding a pace you can maintain for long distances.

Once you cover those technique gaps, you can start training for the longer distances. You can do HIIT (high intensity interval training) by doing one leg of a lap at full speed (50m), and the next at a slower speed, and keep repeating until you get to the full 500m. Change the intervals so that you have more and more high speed etc.

I wish I knew what has the most carryover to swimming. You'll need both shoulder strength and stability. Perhaps overhead presses might help, as would snatches. Bench press would not have as much carryover to what you need. Beyond that, I would be at a loss.

I do recommend working on slower pace swimming first. Make each stroke powerful, and count.

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