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Pool Workouts

Article By: Erin Sloan M.Ed


Many athletes today are extolling the virtues and benefits of swim training. They are making the discovery that, done safely and with serious intent, there is no downside to cross training in the pool. This is a phenomenon that surfaces from time to time on a variety of levels, and history is replete with examples of champion athletes that have supplemented their training with swimming (ala "Rocky II") or have made the conversion from competitive swimming to other sports with some success.

Stanford bound Julie Allen, the distance ace from Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach California, is the latest addition to the roll of champion swimmers who have made the successful crossover to other sports. Others in the not too distant past were Kiki Vandeweghe of UCLA and Denver Nugget fame, 1979 Modern Pentathlon World Champion Bob Neiman, and Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger, all dominating swimmers as youngsters who dedicate a good deal of the success they have achieved to their background in swimming.

Physical therapists have traditionally held the torch for swim training due to the low stress, low impact nature of the activity to the bones, joints and connective tissue of injured athletes. These professionals are charged with the pre and post surgical care of these athletes and always, or almost always, incorporate some form of work in the pool in a progression toward recovery.

Forward thinking coaches have used this concept in devising a plan of preventive maintenance when it comes to the rigors of conditioning. These coaches have come to the conclusion that the amount of "terrestrial" training necessary for the high levels of aerobic conditioning, needed to remain competitive, contributes to the inevitable injuries developing athletes sustain. They subsequently, and thoughtfully, come up with some type of aquatic conditioning program. Unfortunately their expertise ends there. A lack of knowledge and training become safety issues and hinder the efficient administration of a good idea.

A strong warning is issued at this point for all coaches reading this article interested in cross training their athletes in the pool. It is absolutely imperative that an accredited swim coach's safety course be taken before any undertaking of this type. I hesitate to recommend the Red Cross, due to current events, but their instructors are usually highly professional and not involved in the business, or political side of the organization. Secondly, consultation with an experienced swim coach to aid in the development and implementation of the plan is highly recommended. Almost every community with a post office has a U.S.S. swim club (for readers outside of the U.S., contact your national governing body of swimming for a team in your area). Start there. Do not assume that the average high school swim coach is competent in this area.

As with any educational endeavor, the most important initial activity is the diagnosis of your swimmer's skill level. This is accomplished by putting the swimmer in waist to chest deep water, having them push off the wall and swim across the shallow width of the pool (assuming you have a pool with a shallow and deep end). Take accurate records, noting medical histories and any other concerns you have, and any observations you make. After the third or fourth time through this diagnostic a clear picture should emerge and from this you should be able to form two groups: swimmers and non-swimmers.

This brings us to our second consideration; pool size, depth and configuration. Most, but not all, of the pools have an "L" shaped configuration? One arm of the L is 25 meters by 12 ½ yards, and runs from 3 ½ to 6 feet deep. The other arm of the L is 25 yards by 12 ½ meters, and runs from 5 to 12 feet deep. The deep arm can be roped off, providing a 25 yard lap pool for the more advanced group, separated from a smaller shallow end for the beginners. You probably do not have this configuration, so consider carefully the pool and situation you have. Your facility and skill/comfort level may require that you break the two groups up into two (or more) training sessions. The size and configuration of my pool, and my skill/comfort level allow me to run two separate groups concurrently. I can never give any one group or individual 100% of my attention, as even the most advanced swimmer must be safeguarded. This technique of teaching, coaching and lifeguarding, at the same time, requires a great deal of energy and a commanding voice. You may want to start with smaller groups and separate training sessions based on ability levels.

The third consideration is equipment. You will need kickboards and swim fins for all your athletes. Kickboards provide floatation and give some peace of mind to the beginning swimmers and allow you to isolate the largest muscle group for cardiovascular conditioning in the more advanced swimmers. I will discuss some stroke drills later that require the use of a kickboard. This is the first, and most essential piece of equipment you will need. The good thing about this is that most pools that have swim teams training in them have these in abundance and rarely mind if others borrow them (assuming they are used for their correct purpose, are not destroyed and are put away at the completion of the training session). Fins are not "one size fits all", are a little more expensive and not used as commonly as kickboards. The investment is worthwhile however as they greatly facilitate the learning process and stroke training. Swim goggles are recommended, as they eliminate the problem of chlorinated water, and it adds to the comfort level of the swimmer when they can actually see where they are going. One bit of advice: Don't let them become a distraction for you. The swimmers will have you adjusting them constantly if you let them get away with it. This takes you away from your job. Make them responsible for their own gear. Also, do not let them use their goggles as an excuse to sit out some exercise? If they can't deal with the goggles make them swim without them. This is the best motivator to learn to use this piece of equipment.

I will now take you through the program, from absolute "I don't know how they manage to take a bath because they wont put their face in the water" phobic to "You should really try the swim team during the off-season" naturals. You may use your own judgment as to where you will position each swimmer within this training schedule. Remember, the more division within the group, the more attention you must pay to sub-groups. I suggest two activities, three maximum, at one time.

Raising the comfort level and confidence of non-swimmers:

Step one.
Some people are actually afraid of the water and will not put their face in it, or submerge their head. Have them put both arms on the wall, both feet squarely planted on the bottom of the pool, and then work their way from putting just their mouth under the water, then add the nose, then the eyes, then the whole head. This sometimes takes one whole training session and part of the next. Be patient. Rushing this step could ruin a potential swimmer for life. It will come. I just saw an ex-student of mine swim the 200 freestyle in a high school meet, and a little over one year ago I was taking him through this step, and it took two days to get him to put his entire head under.

Step two.
Still holding the wall with both hands and both feet firmly planted on the bottom, have the swimmer put his head under the water and blow bubbles. Tell them before hand that as soon as all the air has been blown out, lift their head and breathe in. Repeat until this can become a natural breathing rhythm.

Step three.
Have the student take one step away from the wall and fall forward grabbing the wall with both hands and submerging their head, blowing bubbles and then standing to repeat the process until the individual is comfortable with this.

Step four.
Add another step backwards, and repeat the above procedure.

Step five.
Add another step backwards, etc. This time they will probably have to give a little forward push off the bottom and glide to the wall.

Step six.
Add another step backwards, etc. This time they may have to kick a little to get back to the wall.

Introduce the kick board. Everyone must listen to the correct way to hold the board and insure that this is the only way it is held, always, unless you specifically tell them to hold it a different way to facilitate a drill for some other advanced training.
Most kick boards have a squared end and a rounded end. The rounded end is the front and the squared end is the back. Have the swimmers put their elbows, one on each of the corners of the back of the board and then grab the side of the board with their hands at the corresponding position the length of their arm dictates.

Step one.
The freestyle, or flutter kick is the most common kick taught to beginners in the United States. Europe is different, or at least has been in the past.
The flutter kick requires a relatively straight leg with pointed toes. The feet travel in an up and down motion, alternating left-right, left-right in rapid fashion, making a slight splash in the back. It is important to keep the kick below the surface of the water for maximum propulsion. Extraneous splashing looks effective but it is really wasted motion.

Step two.
After 2-4 laps of flutter kicking have the students put on fins (continue to use the kick board as well).
These will help the swimmer keep their feet in the proper position.
Insure that the fins bend on the down stroke, the swimmer's leg stays straight and they keep the kick beneath the surface with no splash. Additionally, this should be done with a maximum effort, as fast as the swimmer can kick, at all times.
The swimmers quads will be burning during this exercise and cramps are common at this point, in the arch of the foot first and the calf muscle later. Stretch and move on.

Step three.
Have the swimmer move both hands down to the middle of the back end of the kick board, fingers on the top of the board, thumbs on the bottom. Their hands will be gripping the board, together, in a relatively streamlined position. This time when they kick they will be kicking with their face in the water blowing bubbles, raising their head only to breathe in.

Step four.
In the same position, in a progressive drill, have the students take a freestyle stroke (like climbing a ladder one rung at a time, with an over water recovery) when they have to breathe, alternating arms. Have the swimmers breathe on the side of the arm that is stroking. Remember, the hand that is not stroking is holding the board.

Step five.
Do the same drill as above, but this time use fins only. Do not use the board, but have the swimmer keep their hands and arms in the same position as when they were using the board.

Step six.
Take the fins off and do the same drill with the kick board this time.

Step seven.
Do the same drill as above with no equipment.

Step eight.
(Fins optional) Increase arm turnover rate by having the student start the next stroke as the previous stroke is entering the water after the recovery (above water) phase of the stroke. The breathing pattern can be adjusted but it should always alternate sides, every 3, 5, or 7 strokes.

This is 6-10 weeks of training at three sessions per week.
By the end of this period all of your athletes should be training in the deep end of the pool, swimming 25yard laps. Be your own judge though. Do not rush any one.
Let the weakest swimmers always swim closest to the wall and keep your faster, more confident swimmers in the center of the pool.
For the first few sessions that your previous non-swimmers are in the deep end of the pool maximize the use of kick boards and fins. They are physically capable of swimming in deep water, as they were not using the bottom in the shallow end before, but the psychological aspect is still a huge factor.

When warming up for a swim workout always start with between 200-400 yards of easy freestyle, followed by a like distance of easy freestyle kicking.

The following are some basic interval sets for average to good swimmers.

Repeat one 50yard freestyle kick every 1:20 ten times.
(An excellent swimmer would repeat on: 50 or faster).
Repeat one 50yard freestyle swim every 1:00 ten times.
(An excellent swimmer would repeat on: 45 or faster).
Repeat one 100yard freestyle swim every 2:00 ten times.
(An excellent swimmer would repeat on 1:10 or faster).
(See Addendum for sample workouts).

A basic rule of thumb for swimming/running conversions to remember is that swimming a distance takes approximately four times the time as running that same distance.
Example: The world record for swimming 100 meters is approximately the same as the world record for 400 meters on the track and the world record for 400 meters in swimming is roughly equal to the world record for running the mile.

Training will be different of course due to the low impact nature of swimming, and cardiovascular conditioning is related to the sustaining of a high pulse rate over a set amount of time. The power curve on swimming degenerates, like any other activity, the more comfortable an individual becomes in the water.

Sample Workout #1
200yard/meter freestyle and 200yard/meter freestyle kick
Workout (interval training)
8x50yard/meter freestyle kick on ________ (pick an interval)*
4x100yard/meter freestyle on _______ (pick an interval)
4x100yard/meter freestyle kick with fins on ______ (pick an interval)
8x50yard/meter freestyle on _______ (pick an interval)
400yard/meter freestyle (easy)
Total yardage 2400 yards/meters (cardio-vascular equivalence to a 6 mile run workout)
Level of difficulty for moderately good swimmer: easy to medium

Sample Workout #2
400 freestyle and 200 freestyle kicks
Workout (interval training)
12x50 freestyle kick on ______
6x100 freestyle on ______ descending (easy to hard) effort on #'s 1-3, 4-6
3x200 freestyle on ______ descending (easy to hard) effort on #'s 1-3
300 freestyle (easy)
Total yardage 2400 (cardio vascular equivalence to a 6 mile run workout)
Level of difficulty for a moderately good swimmer: medium

Sample Workout #3
400 freestyle and 400 freestyle kicks
Workout (interval training)
8x75 freestyle kick on _______ hard (go for lactic acid burn in quads) on lap 3
8x75 freestyle on _______ breathing every third stroke on lap one, every fifth stroke on lap two, and every seventh stroke on lap three. Follow this pattern on the odd #'s (1,3,5,7); reverse it for the even #'s (2,4,6,8).
6x200 freestyle on _______
400 freestyle (easy)
Total yardage 3000 (cardio vascular equivalence to a 7 mile run workout)
Level of difficulty for a moderately good swimmer: medium to hard

* Build in rest intervals of no less than 10%, or no more than 50% of the total swim time.
Example: if it is taking the swimmer 60 seconds to swim 50 yards the interval should be no less than 1:06, or no more than 1:30.

Continually monitor pulse rates, and always stretch after workouts. Cross training is always beneficial, physically and psychologically, and learning to swim and becoming comfortable in the water has no down side. I hope this gives you some ideas and motivates you to get in the swim of things.

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