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Fitness Booster: Time to get cross to help your swimming!

Other sports and cross-training can help swimmers improve their performances in the pool. Ollie Baker takes a look at the options available.

Whether you swim recreationally for fitness or train for competition, it’s quite easy to think that swimming is the only form of physical activity you should be doing.

However, there are lots of benefits to combining your swimming training with other sports in order to get the most out of your fitness and to give you an edge over the competition.

Building strength, increasing your aerobic stamina, improving your flexibility – these are all things that you can achieve outside of the pool and bring back to complement your swimming performance. 

Benefits of cross-training for young swimmers

It is quite important to allow children to do multiple sports when they are in the early stages of development, which is why every school has a physical education programme.

If your children love swimming, there is no reason why they shouldn’t also get involved in other sports too. 

Perhaps the most important reason is to help increase bone density. Impact sports like running, football, rugby, tennis and volleyball will help to make bones denser, making stronger bones and lowering the chance of osteoarthritis in later life. 

Just like muscles, when bones are jarred or the load on them is increased, they adapt and get stronger in order to take the load.

Although this happens during swimming, for children and young people running, jumping and other forms of weight-bearing exercise are a great way to make sure their bones are strong and healthy. 

The other major consideration for young swimmers is making sure they are stimulated when they are exercising.

Before they are 11 or 12, swimming drills several times a week can sometimes lead to them losing interest in the sport.

Getting them involved in other team sports such as water polo, football or netball can add some variety into their training, whilst also helping them to develop their muscles and aerobic stamina in ways which will complement their swimming training. 

Hitting the gym

Perhaps this one is the most obvious.

All elite athletes will have a gym programme to run alongside their swimming training, so anyone who has their sights set on making performance gains in the pool should consider a gym programme as part of their training regime.

You don’t necessarily have to go down to a gym. You can easily do exercises at home that will make a difference. 

One of the most important things for swimmers to work on is their strength. The greater your strength, the more power you will be able to produce through your movements and the greater propulsion you will achieve whilst moving through the water, which will increase your overall speed.

Your gym programme should include exercises that will overload the muscles that you will be using during swimming. The three main muscles are the quads (quadriceps), pecs (pectoralis major) and lats (latissimum dorsi). 

Whilst building strength in the muscles you will use for propulsion is important, having good core strength is vital too.

A strong core will help to keep your body streamlined in the water, assist with rotation during strokes and help with turns. The major muscles in your core include the abs (transverse abdominis and rectus abdominis), obliques (internal and external) and the erector spinae. 

It is important to remember with any weight training or body weight exercises that correct form (correct execution of the movement) is essential.

You need to train your muscles to perform the movement correctly before you begin overloading them. Failing to maintain correct form can result in injury or incorrect development of muscles. 

If you are going to a gym, ask instructors to go over the movements with you before you dive in. If you are exercising at home, think about having a personal training session or get someone who knows what the movements should look like to spot you.

Running up aerobic stamina

Running is one way to improve your cardio

Aerobic stamina is the ability to maintain levels of physical activity over time.

For swimmers, this is especially important during training when you might be doing long sets for an hour or more.

Improving your aerobic stamina will help to decrease the speed at which you fatigue, help you to maintain a lower heart rate whilst exercising, improve the efficiency of pumping oxygenated blood to your working muscles and help you to train your breathing. 

Whilst you can do all of this in the pool, when you are concentrating on perfecting technique and increasing stroke rate by performing drills you are not necessarily going to be pushing your cardiovascular ability. 

Running is one way to improve your cardio.

Interval training or hill training is a great way to build up your aerobic stamina – short bursts of high intensity sprints followed by a lower intensity run for recovery. This might look like 10 seconds of sprinting as fast as you can, followed by 30 second jog back to your starting position, then repeating the process. 

There are many different types of intervals you can do, from Fartlek training through to pyramid intervals.

Interval training is great because it can be done anywhere – on a treadmill, in a field, on a bike or using a rowing machine. Interval training can also help to build mental strength as it allows you to push through exhaustion and continue training with fatigue, something which will translate into your pool workouts too. 

Build core strength and flexibility with yoga

Yoga exercises can help make sure muscles are warm and stretched

Yoga might not be the first form of exercise which springs to mind when you hear the words cross-training but, as a swimmer, it really should be.

First and foremost, utilising yoga poses before and after your training can help to make sure that your muscles are warm and stretched, your joints are mobile and you’ve warmed down properly after an intense workout in the pool.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Yoga is a great way of developing mental skills. Positive thinking, visualisation, relaxation – these are all things that you develop whilst practicing yoga and can prepare you psychologically for competition and training.

These practices can help you to control anxiety before a race, visualising your race plan so that you can execute it effectively when the time comes, and relaxing yourself so that your body and your mind aren’t tense as you prepare for the race. 

As yoga makes use of your core strength, as well as your upper and lower body strength, it is the ideal form of exercise to complement your swimming.

Yoga uses both static and dynamic poses, so that the strength you gain is functional. This means that rather than just being strong on a single plane – e.g. pushing the weight upwards in a bench press – a dynamic pose will develop the strength of the muscle in a variety of positions, making the strength directly transferrable into your swimming.

It also helps to make your joints more mobile with a greater range of movement, which will improve the integrity of your joints and help to avoid injury in the pool.

Another great benefit of yoga is breathing coordination.

Yoga teaches you how to breathe as you move, giving you a greater control of your breathing and helping to keep you relaxed whilst performing movements.

Feeling at ease whilst performing movements with effort is something that can improve your performance in the water.

Finding discipline with martial arts

Another type of sport which lends itself to swimming is martial arts and other combat sports.

The key to pretty much every martial art is discipline – respecting your teacher and fellow martial artists. Also understanding your body and being able to control your movements is integral to martial arts. 

Performing complex kicks without losing balance, striking or taking down your opponent without hurting them along with proper breathing and posture are all key elements.

Martial arts will teach you to have more control over your body, build functional muscle strength, increase aerobic stamina, increase bone density and develop mental skills.

Cross-training develops well-rounded athletes

Taking part in other sports helps to develop well-rounded athletes, utilising practices that are used in other sports and bringing them back into swimming training.

Alex Shoebridge is the Director of SCI SmartCoach, from the multiple award-winning Strength and Conditioning Institute.

We asked him about the role cross-training plays in sport and he said: “With the rise in popularity, and growing participation by children and adults in so many sports these days, it’s becoming increasingly important for these participants to try to include movements and practices from disciplines other than their chosen one, to further enhance their performance.

“This is what cross-training is all about. 

“Working with several grass roots and amateur athletes on a weekly basis, I work hard to ensure these clients don’t become too one-dimensional, which can happen very easily when somebody is training the same sport five to seven times week. 

“For example, I try to incorporate the flexibility benefits from a stretching practice such as yoga, the core benefits from Pilates, the aerobic benefits from HIIT style training, the strength benefits from resistance training, the proprioceptive benefits from bodyweight training (or calisthenics) and, perhaps, even capitalise on the benefits of things like reaction times from various martial arts.

“What I have seen working with clients and athletes for the last 13 years is that the benefits of cross-training are huge. All of the above serve to develop a far better-rounded individual, whether they’re taking part in a sport competitively or recreationally.  

“A good cross-training programme takes methods from many disciplines and brings them together in harmony.”

“It lessens the likelihood of injury from overuse of certain muscles, such as the pectorals, and biceps in swimmers. These muscles are known as ‘internal rotators’ and overuse or development of these muscles, in particular, can contribute to poor posture over time, if not combined with things like resistance training and flexibility practices like yoga.

“Cross-training for me has been shown to promote exercise adherence and prevents boredom.

“And when we’re looking at increasing somebody’s longevity in exercise and improving their quality of life, this cannot be overlooked.”