One of the most common questions we receive from parents of children who take part in competitive swimming is “Why do swimmers have to train so much?” It’s a question we recently received in our parent support program.
Children who play land based sports like soccer, football, netball, basketball, hockey or whatever sport it may be, attend training once or twice a week as a junior and age grouper and in most cases, their games last for a period of time longer than their training time. The skills that children learn in many sports have been learnt since they started crawling, walking and running, all land-based activities.
Learning Skills in Water and Not on Land
Swimming is not done on land and is totally foreign to our neuromuscular system, our balance mechanisms, and the way we breathe. To swim, we are immersed in a totally different medium to what we were designed for, so that takes some getting used to. Our body is in a horizontal position instead of our normal vertical position and we have our face in water, so we must learn how to breathe. To breathe, we first need to be able to blowout underwater and then breathe in when the mouth is clear of the water and then regulate the breathing in a rhythmical way. This is not a natural thing to do.
On land, we propel ourselves using our lower body. In the water, propulsion is largely done with our upper body. So, learning to swim is a hard skill to learn. We’ve got to go back in a way, like we did when we were learning how to crawl. We learn a whole new set of skills that prepare us for motion or propelling in the medium of water. Our neuromuscular system must start from scratch, but teaching totally new motor patterns, and then there’s the difficult task of applying pressure to this medium that moves (water) with the limb applying the pressure (hand and arm).
So when we walk or run we make contact with the ground which doesn’t move, and the frictional force is so great that we can pull ourselves past the point where we’ve connected with the medium (ground) and propel ourselves forward. In swimming, as soon as we apply force to the water, the water moves. So, we have to manage how much force we apply to be able to move forward efficiently and get as much distance as we can for each propulsive movement. That’s a very complicated task and some people naturally have much more sensitivity to the pressure in that moving medium (water) than others. And that’s the big factor that separates really talented swimmers and people who are not as talented.
This complexity requires a lot of practice and we can only learn how to swim in the water. We can’t learn to do it out of the water. We can enhance it with exercises out of the water but we can’t learn how to do it. Each stroke has different technical requirement and each skill (think starts, turns and finishes) are learned skills that take time and plenty of practice to do well.
Training for Swimming
When it comes to actually training for swimming, the specifics of swimming and swimming fitness can only be done in the pool. They can’t be done anywhere else. We can develop cardiovascular fitness outside of the pool, but we can get that specific swimming fitness that we need for swimming.
We have found that to be average at competitive swimming, you have to do a lot more training than people do in other land-based sports. So, it requires a massive commitment because we are constantly adapting to that fluid environment. We need to be able to train a lot to condition our body to be able to manage everything that we have to do to swim in the pool.
If we work on improving our technique and swim more often whilst receiving the right sort of feedback and monitoring, we are more likely to get better at it. But if we don’t practice regularly, we won’t improve, and swimmers quickly lose their feel for the water. That’s why the sport doesn’t offer long breaks. The current coronavirus situation has really tested this. Once kids have got back into the water, they start to get their sensitivity back. It has however taken some time, but a majority are swimming really well again after just 8 to 12 weeks.
Swimming also requires an enormous amount of aerobic development. It really is a highly aerobic exercise. To get that aerobic fitness in swimming and particularly to develop the muscles that are going to propel us through the water we must swim a lot. It takes a long time to get the muscles to adapt and for us to get that cardiovascular fitness that we need that is specific to swimming. It requires a lot of training, particularly in the teenage years to create the anatomical changes that we need to support us when we swim.
One of the things basically that’s going to happen to us is apart from all the technical elements of being able to swim with really good stroke technique in the water and swim efficiently, is that we have to deliver nutrients and oxygen to our muscle cells and we have to remove the metabolites after we’ve produced the energy so we have to have this really good circulatory system.
So, the more training we do, the more the vascular system develops, and we get more and more fine capillaries around the muscle fibres and that allows us to deliver more oxygen and more nutrients. This can only be developed through volumes of training over the years.
If you are a parent of a competitive swimmer and would like to learn more and help support your child to be the best that they can be, join us at Swim Parent Advantage.
In our latest Swim Parent POD, sport psychologist Megan Davis explained the ins and outs of sport psychology and how what we say to our children can greatly affect them in a positive or negative manner.
Today we share a few excerpts from the most recent POD where Megan discusses the way she likes to work with sport psychology. It is so much more than just peak performance. It’s about establishing a foundation of a ‘secure self’ and then working towards ‘great practice’ before any focus on ‘peak performance’.
In the video below we have shared the discussion on ‘great practice’. Megan is a regular contributor to Swim Parent Advantage and the full one hour session is available to all members.
“It’s a pity there are not 2,000 parents on this today because this information is gold. I’ve really enjoyed listening to you speak Megan and absorbing the salient points here. There is no doubt that members (and future members) will be going in and looking at this at a time that is more convenient to them” former Australian Head Coach Leigh Nugent said at the end of the POD.
The program is designed to assist parents of competitive swimmers aged 8 years through to high level performing swimmers by educating and supporting them in a safe environment.
For a majority of parents and swimmers, the pending re-opening of swimming pools around Australia and in many other countries is a big step back to re-gaining some normality in their life. The announcements that pools can re-open under strict guidelines have started. The swimming bags are packed, training equipment has been disinfected and all we are waiting for now is the email or message from the coach to say “we start back on this day”.
But for many, the celebrations will go on hold very quickly as aquatic facilities, program managers and swim coaches work through the logistics of the restrictions placed upon them if they re-open. Many are waiting for public health orders to even be allowed to open and others are preparing their COVID-19 safety guidelines and procedures for their operations.
Most aquatic facilities will re-open when it is safe and financially viable to do so. This will not necessarily be the date that has been publicly provided by government leaders. If it is financially and operationally viable to open the pool, facility managers will then need to decide who can utilise the pool. If numbers are restricted, many Councils will use a booking system for lap swimming and it is unlikely that squads will be allowed to swim as the community may take up all the places.
Club’s will need to work through with the facility operators to secure pool space at a reasonable rate and be on the same page in regards to policies, procedures and guidelines around the health and safety of all users.
Our new program Swim Parent Advantage has weekly posts and fortnightly Parent PODs on Zoom where parents enjoy asking questions, sharing ideas and educating themselves on competitive swimming. Led by former Australian Head Coach Leigh Nugent, Olympic Gold Medal coach Rohan Taylor and experienced aquatic educator Gary Barclay, this program is the first of its kind in the world. Membership is now open for all parents of competitive swimmers.
For many clubs or programs, starting squads back with limited numbers allowed in the water at any one time will create issues around the financial viability of the program. Low user numbers will mean low income – if groups are limited to 10 or even 20, income will be limited. The aim for each program must be to break-even in most situations. A return to the pool may be cost prohibitive. Clubs and program operators cannot afford to run at a loss so they may have to make a hard decision and not start back until the restrictions on numbers have been eased. Charges to families may also be higher due to small numbers.
In many cases, squads will not look the same. Coaches will have to group swimmers by the numbers permitted and that group will train together whenever they train. By doing this, it is easy to recognise which swimmers or families may have been exposed to coronavirus if someone was unfortunate enough to get it within that group. They will also know that members of each group should not have been in contact with each other, at least at the facility.
Coaches will then have to decide which swimmers can come back to training. This decision will invariably depend on the numbers allowed in the pool, the number of lanes available, the number of swimmers allowed in each lane and the length of time the pool is available. This will vary from club to club however what we do know is that it will not be the same as normal.
Many clubs will choose to bring an older group of swimmers in first. These athletes will be more likely to follow social distancing guidelines and will be able to raise any concerns they have with the coaches and facility so that improved steps can be implemented before younger swimmers return. They will also be good role models when more participants are allowed to attend the pool. Talking last week with a leading coach in a high profile program, he explained that swimmers training 8 times a week for 2 hours have ‘missed’ the equivalent of 128 hours of training in the last 8 weeks. Swimmers who train 3 times a week for 1 1/2 hours have ‘missed’ the equivalent of 36 hours of training. It is therefore much more important for the older more accomplished swimmers to be the first groups back into the pool and then other age groups can re-join over time. It may take 12 to 16 weeks before all squads are back in the water on a regular basis.
What I can say is that I haven’t spoken with a coach yet who is not keen to get everyone back ASAP, and I encourage parents of swimmers who may not be invited back to the pool immediately or are offered a very reduced session load, to remain supportive of the club, program and coaches. When squads return they may initially have reduced time, for example 45min session and then have 5-10 minutes to pack up and leave the centre, before the next group enters and is in the pool 5 minutes later for their 45min session. This may happen multiple times each morning and night.
So, while governments and those in authority make announcements around pools re-opening, facility managers, pool operators, clubs and coaches may have many other issues to consider before everything is back to normal. Parents and swimmers will have to be patient…. just for a little bit longer.