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.
So swimming requires you to be more of an athlete than any other sport? You are stupid. All sports require a balance of training & recovery, plus a balance of real life. Training at 4:30am before school is reckless for an abundance of reasons. Main stream sports drive to develop successful young men and women… not so much swimming. A sport so arrogant they deliberately try to hold these young athletes back from being their best selves outside of swimming! Btw. I swam year round and played D1 soccer.
Thanks for your constructive feedback Jonny, however you have missed many of the key points of the article, and introduced your own issues . A majority of athletes, families and coaches have a very enjoyable association with the sport and take on the challenge to improve their swimming and their life skills. I’m not sure where you swam but it doesn’t sound like you were supported very well, which is a shame. We all have different experiences.