Andrew Hamilton presents some of the latest findings from the world of sport performance science MORE
Swimming performance: can you parachute your way to a PB?
In the quest for performance, swimmers typically cover thousands of meters in the pool with nothing more interesting to do than look at the ceiling or bottom of the pool. As with other endurance sports, some carefully targeted strength training may be a better addition to a swim training plan than simply adding another couple of thousand metres, and this explains the popularity of ‘land-based’ strength programmes for swimmers. The problem with land-based training however is that swimming in water requires a different set of motor skills than training on land. This is why any strength training for swimmers needs to be highly specific and transferable – ie the additional strength and endurance developed has to transfer across to swimming performance in the water to be of any use.
One way to achieve this specificity and transferability is to perform swimming-like resistance training exercises not on land, but in the water while performing your normal swimming stroke. Paddles are one way of achieving this but even this method is criticised by some coaches as encouraging different motor firing patterns in the muscles – and increasing the risk of shoulder injury. One way to get round this is to use a water parachute (see figure 1), which increases drag and resistance but doesn’t interfere with the stroke pattern in any way. Even better, this mode of training is backed by research suggesting that a swim parachute could be a worthwhile investment for swimming performance.
In one study, Greek researchers set out to assess the effect of an 11-week resistance training programme in twelve female swimmers [J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Mar 8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001879]. The resistance training was performed in the water, with the resistance supplied by an in-water parachute while the swimmers performed their front crawl stroke. Twelve swimmers were matched in pairs according to their best performance at 50m, and were then randomly assigned to an experimental or to a control group. Both groups followed exactly the same swimming training program. The only exception was that the experimental group performed a sprint-training section with increased resistance pulling a water parachute, while the control group performed the same section without parachute. Before and after the intervention program, the best performance of both groups at 50, 100 and 200m front crawl swimming were assessed. Also, the movement patterns of each swimmer’s stroke were calculated during a 50-metre front crawl sprint at maximal intensity and the results analysed. This was to see whether the resistance training had negatively affected the stroke pattern in any way.
When the results were number crunched, the data showed that there was a significant improvement (around 3.2%) in the best performance at all the swimming distances – but only in the experimental group. In the control group, there was no such improvement. When the stroke kinematics were analysed, no significant changes were observed in the stroke length, the stroke rate, and the duration of the propulsive and non-propulsive phases in either group. The only difference was the swimming velocity in the resistance-trained group, which increased by 2.2%.
FIGURE 1: SWIM PARACHUTE
Implications for swimmers
The results of this study are supported by previous findings on devices that increase swimming resistance in the water1. What’s really encouraging however is that the kinematic analysis of the swim stroke show absolutely zero change when using the water-parachute, which indicates that the transference of the additional strength was near perfect. This is in contrast to many land-based training programmes, which either produce strength gains that are not transferred to the water, or produce gains that are offset by a less efficient swim stroke as a result of altered motor firing patterns.
If you want to try using a swim parachute to improve your swimming efficiency, here are some tips:
- Choose a swim parachute that includes a stabilisation buoy. This can be adjusted to allow the parachute to float at varying depths, which affects the level of resistance you will experience.
- Don’t combine a swim parachute with other devices such as fins or paddles. The idea is to increase resistance without altering any other of stroke technique. Also, the combination might provide excessive resistance.
- Use the parachute for short, high-quality, bursts of high-speed work. Remember that you are trying to build swimming-specific strength while retaining optimum technique. Don’t use it all the time for your base endurance training.