Chris: Thanks for taking the time out to do this interview, John. What areas of research (e.g. biomechanics, training, recovery, nutrition, etc.) have you found most useful for programming strength and conditioning for swimming?
JM: All of these areas of research are extremely helpful for programming strength and conditioning for swimmers! However, unlike most other sports, biomechanics play a very large role in determining swimming performance. Therefore, understanding the unique range of motion (ROM) and strength requirements that drive optimal swimming biomechanics is most beneficial.
For example, it is very useful to know about the adaptive changes, including alterations in ROM, that occur in the shoulder throughout the long swimming season (often 11 months). Knowing what happens in this respect can help you program and protect against swimmer’s shoulder (shoulder impingement), which is a problem that runs rampant in the sport. Currently, it is thought that around 50 – 70% of swimmers will have shoulder pain at some point in their career, which is astonishing.
Another example that is less clear is ankle ROM. Historically, it was believed that greater ankle ROM might be important for swimming success (Mookerjee et al. 1995; McCullough et al. 2009; Beason, 2013). This factor is something that many strength and conditioning coaches have long worked on obtaining (Willems 2014). However, the most recent research indicates that this factor may well be negligible (Willems et al. 2014).
Finally, many coaches believe that the ability to display a large hip internal rotation angle allows the unique ROM that is needed for success in breaststroke. Unfortunately, little research has confirmed this and looked at what can be done to increase hip internal rotation ROM safely and effectively in swimmers.
Chris: When programming strength and conditioning for swimming or even swimming training in general, what mistakes do you see other people making that a better knowledge of exercise science would help prevent?
JM: There is a lack of knowledge in respect of both motor learning and energy systems. I often see energy systems being the main course of training in dryland training sessions, although swimmers already maximize their oxidative training in the pool. If a coach is performing more oxidative training on dryland, then this is increasing the risk of overtraining and impairing performance rather than enhancing performance. In swimming, swimming practice is the most important means for swimming improvement. This means that the strength and conditioning training must complement the swimming training, prevent injuries, and provide a means for improvement that doesn’t involve burning the candle from both ends.
Similarly, a common error during dryland training for swimmers is exacerbating overuse. Some coaches attempt to mimic swimming motions on land using specific machines (that are not really close to the movements in the water anyway) and this causes an increased risk of overuse injury to the shoulders.
Chris: Being realistic, swimmers are never going to get the kind of attention that other more popular sports are going to get. Given that, what questions do you think researchers should explore that will help swimmers most?
JM: Continual research on biomechanics of elite performers (especially during meets) would greatly benefit the sport of swimming. These studies could analyze the hip ROM and lumbopelvic motion utilized during breaststroke, as mentioned earlier. Also, it would be very helpful to understand the spinal ROM and lumbopelvic motion used during butterfly. Finally, it would be really interesting to understand better the biomechanics of shoulder movements in freestyle, backstroke, and butterfly, particularly in respect of the extent to which shoulder internal rotation occurs.
Also, it would be very useful to see longitudinal research into the effects of different resistance training programs for the various swimming specialists (sprinters, distance swimmers, etc.).
Chris: In a perfect world, what would researchers explore that would really move swimming (and S&C for swimming) forwards?
JM: For both swimming and strength and conditioning, as noted above, some longitudinal, randomized controlled trials would be great, as there is still much unknown about the effects (positive and negative) of different swimming program variables and strength and conditioning program variables on swimming performance. So, ideal studies would analyze different swimming programs (high intensity, low volume swimming and high volume, low intensity swimming) and also different strength and conditioning programs. In reality, most of the swimming research is limited in these respects on many levels.
Additionally, as noted above, it would be great to see some detailed biomechanical analyses of different dryland and swim-like resistance training (swimming rack or power tower). In actual fact, there is very little research in this area, so almost anything would be beneficial!
Chris: Thanks for your time, John.
Swimming Science is having a Twitter chat tomorrow (18 December) at 6pm EST all about dryland for swimmers with the hashtag #swimtalk. If you’re interested in S&C for swimming, don’t miss it!
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