What's the best way to improve your swimming if you are from a non swimming background?
This is a very common question in my triathlon community. It was once my question and there isn't one right answer for everyone. I think my key message is that you need to explore things yourself and not only rely on your coach, your friends or yourself to give you one right answer.
I am not a front pack swimmer, but I've managed to improve fairly consistently from a non-swimmer to a solid age group swimmer in 4-5 years. My non-swimming background made ot a struggle to start with and I'm still exploring ways to improve my swimming and learn.
Along my swimming journey I quickly figured out that focusing on just smashing myself in the pool, or swimming lots wasn't an effective way for me to improve. I only swim 3 times a week so rather than focussing volume I spent time evaluating where I was as a swimmer and realised that I was being held back by poor technique. This included poor mobility and next to no feel for the water or an idea of an efficient swim stroke.
This was when my coach suggested swim cords as a training aid to help me figure things out.
This is how my obsession with swim cords started:
Swim cords are essentially paddles or handles on an elastic resistance band. You tie them to a fixed point and away you go. They are light, easy to travel with and come in a few resistance levels depending on your strength. They can be used for warming up, during swim sets or as part of your strength and conditioning program. I usually do my sets on the balcony, in the living room or at the back of my unit block.
1. Improving feel and technique
Non swimmers struggle to grasp how the swim stroke should feel due to lack of swim experience and knowledge, often resulting in a very mechanical stroke. Whilst drills in the water are good, they sometimes fail to transfer to the swim stroke unless the athlete has good body awareness and understanding.
SWIM CORDS - the cords enabled me to develop feel for my catch and pull by isolating parts of the stroke and putting my arms in the correct position. This can be done solo but helps with the aid of a coach. This helped me to also create a visual of what arm position I was trying to achieve and the feel for which muscles should be working to achieve it. It is also a good way to isolate weaker parts of the stroke.
2. Improving mobility
I had started to develop some feel for the water and could correct my own basic technical errors in my stroke. I was beginning to stop crossing my arms over my mid-line, I was breathing bilaterally, but I was still quite inefficient and not too quick. With the help of my physio I found that of my big limiting factors was my upper body mobility and the referred injury risk of using incorrect technique. My shoulders were very stiff and I struggled to internally rotate them. I had very tight pectoral muscles and poor thoracic spine flexibility. I was also not using the correct muscles to initiate the catch and pull. Essentially during my stroke I picked up the bad habit of lifting my shoulders forward to compensate for poor mobility and began overloading the shoulder joint, creating constant pain.
SWIM CORDS - I began doing regular stretching and shoulder stability exercises to become mobile. I incorporated this into the swim cords exercises to try to relearn the correct muscle movement patters. I worked on internal shoulder rotation improvement, trying to catch without forcing my shoulder into a bad position, and feeling the correct movement using the cords. Once I became stronger and more mobile I was able to stabilise my scapula well, rotate better through my thoracic region and it was easier to replicate this position in the water and led to a more efficient stroke, without pain.
3. Improve strength
I'm a huge believer of building specific strength during the activity. For swimming I like to focus on strength coming from paddle work and stretch cords, I use the gym to supplement and support this work. Coming from a running background, my 69kg frame wasn't really well-trained for upper body strength, endurance or stability. I lacked the ability to withstand fatigue in swimming, leading to bad habits when swimming tired and activating the incorrect muscles.
SWIM CORDS - Along with improvement in mobility and technique I began using swim cords 2-3 times a week on the days in between swim sessions. This kept a regular focus on improving strength and keeping feel. Being able to highlight single parts of the swim stroke or replicate the whole movement and essentially fatigue the muscles in a 15-20 minute session not only improved my strength, but also helped keep me injury free, understand the swim stroke better and swim faster.
I can only swim a limited number of sessions per week (usually 3). I strive to make sure that my value for time is high and swim cords still help me to achieve this and work on my inefficiencies. I only do a short set 2-3 times a week in addition to my swim sets, but it seems to help and keep me better prepared for the demands of swimming.
If you are stuck in a rut with swimming or know that stroke efficiency or technique is an issue, this may be a little kick starter to help you improve.