Swimming for CrossFit Athletes

Swimming for GPP

Swimming for GPP can be an athlete’s best friend. There isn’t one way to improve your general physical preparedness but here are a few reasons why I would recommend almost all athletes use swimming for GPP training.

For an age group athlete (under 18), it can aid in helping build an aerobic base and improved lung capacity, along with coordination of arms and legs.

When it comes to elite athletes who are fairly conditioned all season long and mostly work on peripheral skills for their sport, swimming can help with taking the “load” off and alleviate stress put on the joints during land exercises and specific land training.

In this way, the elite athlete can use swimming for recovery and conditioning when sport specific skills are less important. Not to mention, when it comes to high intensity training with minimal impact, swimming can be your best form of training to avoid the high impact seen on land and in high intensity activity.

Training Frequency for Health and Longevity

Athletes training for health and longevity should at the very least try to get into a pool 1 time per week for an hour.

Anything upwards of that is a bonus. There aren’t many activities one can do that will force them to take notice of their breathing. In swimming, this is fundamental in order to move efficiently… or move at all for that matter.

I believe that on top of all of the therapeutic benefits we know swimming offers, swimming can quite literally teach us to breathe, which once understood, will transcend into all other activities one does for health and fitness.

Swimming for Recovery

Swimming for recovery is programmed based on the swimmers current level. A more advanced swimmer can afford to do 2000m+ of swimming at a heart rate of <140; they have the efficiency and skill.

A beginner level swimmer would be more limited in what they can do but they could still use swimming. For them I would advise on using fins and kicking with a flutter board or shorter swim distances that doesn’t compromise their technique.

Swimming for Competitive Athletes

Swimming should be in all competitive CrossFit athletes’ training, as swimming is showing up more and more in CrossFit competitions.

When it comes to training in terms of becoming “fitter” swimming is a great tool for building aerobic capacity without the punishment taken from high impact activities, like running for example.

Without bashing other modalities of training, swimming is just another way to stay aerobically primed and can be a wise alternative for athletes who may suffer from minor injuries. It can also come in handy for athletes rehabbing injuries who don’t want to lose base fitness.

I can go on all day about how great a semi-buoyant environment is for training.

Balancing Swim Specific Training with Mixed Modal Training

Programming for swimming specifically is periodized just like any other sport (except E-Gaming… not sure how they do it).

You have phases of training and you coach the athlete for their goal race, typically over a period of 48 weeks. It’s fairly linear.

Programming swimming in mixed modal training is mostly based on the athletes goal at that time but also the other modalities involved.

My ability to “play” with the workout is more limited as the athlete may have had a heavy leg day in their other training, so I’m cautious in how much more load they can take for that body part.

Overtraining/overreaching is important in both specific swim training and mixed modal training but it takes a lot more consideration in the latter. However, no matter the goal, I always want one thing for all athletes in mixed modal sport to achieve in their training session and that is to have the athlete learn something new about themselves.

If the athlete can leave the session knowing that no matter what unforeseen obstacles may appear on competition day, that they have the “tools” to overcome them, then I’ve done my job in programming the right workouts.

Self awareness is perhaps the most underrated skill in sport, mostly because it requires the athlete to fail a ton, reflect and try again.

3 Most Common Mistakes CrossFit Athletes Make in the Water

First mistake is their approach to training. I typically see short sessions with a lot of attempting to swim and basing swimming success on their WHOOP score or heart rate.

Swimming is a highly technical sport and requires a lot of detailed practice to become more proficient in. However, if all you want is to spike your heart rate, no need for the drill work…

Which leads me to point two. I see a lot of “fast” swimming up and down. Everyone wants to swim like Phelps, but no one wants to do the training required for performance.

Yes, practice is not always sexy or instagram worthy. To get better at swimming, practice the fundamentals! Yes they are boring and yes they can be challenging but like I said in the previous point, swimming requires finesse, and a lot of that is gained from doing drills such as the side-kick.

The final mistake I see is long breaks in training. CrossFit athletes sometimes tend to get really into a training modality and once it’s not potentially present in a upcoming competition, they stop cold turkey.

Taking breaks is important, but only for 1 or 2 weeks. After this point, you should at the very least try to maintain the training you’ve built. Keeping at minimum a once a week swim session will go a long way when you want to ramp it back up for a competition.

It will take less time to get competition ready and will mitigate the chance for injuries.

In terms of technical mistakes in the water… let’s call them lack of training.

1 – Low hips and heavy legs due to poor body position.

2 – Over kicking to attempt to get the hips up.

3 – Swimming freestyle with no rotation; very flat freestyle.

How to Break Bad Habits

Breaking bad swimming habits with CrossFit athletes is not difficult. CrossFitters are typically keen to learn better movement patterns.

My most common starting point to breaking bad habits is by showcasing that swimming can be done with ease just by changing your body position in the water.

Once they realize that learning how to “float” better can make it easier to swim longer, they buy into all the other drills and skills designed to break bad habits and create better movement. In short, selling the idea that technique goes a long way in swimming makes all the difference.

Measuring Progress in the Pool

I use two benchmarks to assess an athletes natural abilities in the water, but also their progress. The first is the endurance test, which for most CrossFit athletes is a 400m swim freestyle. The second benchmark is a sprint test, which is typically a 50m swim freestyle.

This gives me a speed/distance index. From this, I can get a bigger picture of whether the athlete needs more speed, technique or endurance. Usually it is a combination of all three varying in percentage spent on each.

3 Essential Drills for CrossFit Athletes

The three drills I like to use with CrossFit athletes are the superman kick drill, the dribble drill and the catch-up freestyle drill.

The superman kick really teaches the athlete to find a great body position for moving through the water effortlessly.

The second drill is dribble drill. This pretty much is a broken down freestyle that forces the athlete to get comfortable not only on their front but on their side. The side-kick position in swimming is extremely important. It’s a difficult position, but once mastered goes a long way to improving quickly.

My final drill for crossfitters is the catch-up freestyle. This drill works well with CrossFit athletes because it teaches them patience.

I eventually want them to move away from doing catch-up strokes, but when you are a beginner, this drill works wonderfully in teaching the athlete to calm down and that they won’t sink if they don’t fight the water.

Programming for Competitors vs. Folks Who Just Want to Stay Fit

Program design for a competitor is geared more to the side of periodization to peak for their competition. My approach for a competitor is “how do I get this athlete to get the best possible result on competition day.”

From there, I work backwards. A competitors program has strict parameters that should be followed diligently. Some days the athlete may feel beat and broken. Failing in training is not out of bounds and can happen often.

My job is to set these parameters correctly so that the athlete is challenged and loaded gradually until it is time to peak.

For an athlete wanting to stay in shape, there are some similarities in terms of periodizing their training, however the finish line is not as concrete.

Without the time constraint to peak at a very specific time, my approach is having the athlete leave the session feeling challenged but never broken. Longevity is more commonly the state of mind.

Not to say that competitors should not strive for longevity, however, “health” is a negotiable when we talk about performance.

Whether it’s a program for a competitor or an individual wanting to stay in shape, setting clear goals is extremely important for many years of continued success both mentally and physically.

If you’re ready to reap all the benefits of swimming by adding it into your training schedule, check out trainsinkorswim.com for more information on workouts, programming and coaching options.

Also, be sure to follow us on social media @trainsinkorswim for regular swim tip videos, drills and much more!