How to Swim on Land
The gun goes off and you start turning your legs over quickly, pushing hard. Because you had just been standing around for a couple hours your back feels a little stiff. Your hip flexors tight. But, it’s time to perform your best and test the fitness you’ve worked so hard to build. Imagine doing this, skipping a warmup before a half marathon (or virtually any race). This would be some version of your experience – a shock to the body, unprepared for what you’re asking it to do. It may sound obvious to avoid this, however, I see MOST athletes bypass a warmup before a swim or triathlon.
Swimming is about as unique of a sport as they come. Prone rather than upright. In water rather than on land. The overhead extension is perfectly counter to how you carry your arms throughout the day. We’re just not fish. With that qualified, our bodies need to be told what to do, told what’s about to be asked of it.
A dryland warmup will ready your “swimming muscles” by creating the neuromuscular (mind to body) connection and movement patterning for swimming. Shoulders are vulnerable by default, and it’s helpful to introduce range of motion and stability in that joint before hopping in the water and expecting your shoulders to perform easily through its resistance.
Posture is the name of the game in swimming, and because it’s so nuanced and specific, warming up with a purposeful progression will provide necessary body awareness to maintain alignment and optimal mechanics in the water.
Think of your shoulders for swimming, to that of your knees and hips for running. It’s critical to warm them up, protect them and build stronger, healthier joint function. Here are a couple of ideas that may work well for you.
The water may be cold or perhaps you don’t want to stand around in a wet wetsuit pre-race, whatever your reason, there’s no excuse for bypassing a warmup before the swim. The good news is that you don’t even have to get in the water to properly warmup.
To simplify the equation, consider your shoulders to be the primary focus of your warmup. Mobility. Posture. Stability. Focusing on these three elements will prime your shoulders for the stress you’re about to place on them in the water. This can all be wrapped up neatly into a series of banded exercises, totaling maybe 7-8 minutes.
The initial focus should be on mobility, particularly the internal and external rotation of your shoulders. Grab a pair of stretch cords or elastic tubing, pin your elbows to your rib cage, arms extended ahead shoulder width and palms facing up while grasping the band tightly. Smoothly rotate your arms outwardly until your elbows separate from your body or your form compromises in any other way. This is your range of motion. Aim to pass through this fluidly and with control, the manner in which you hope to initiate your catch at the front of the stroke. Run through 3 sets of 10-15 reps of this.
The orchestrating of four limbs, no two in the same phase at any time is, well, HARD. It’s easy for an elbow to drop or arm to collapse in the water while going through the stroke cycle. This happens when stability is missing. Visualize the extension of your arm and beginning of the catch like an anchor, a stable ground for you to hold onto and gain leverage from. Let’s reinforce this in our warmups with a pair of stretch cords or bands.
Tether the bands on a poll or fence eye level, step back until you have slight tautness in the band, slightly bend your knees, hinge forward 45 degrees and extend your arm overhead along your body gripping the band. This setup is the gold in this exercise, establishing this “form” while lengthened through your arm. From here you can iterate off this as you see best fit and I recommend going through the entire range of the pull. Over and over. Reset your arm to your stable anchor point each rep. Smoothly transition your forearm vertically into the catch. And finally recruit your lats to pass your arm through the pull until it’s fully extended behind you. Go through 3 sets on each side of 10-15 reps.
Assuming you drive a car, or use a cell phone and computer daily, we can also assume your posture is anything but optimal. This translates directly in the water, too. To combat this forward rolling of the shoulders and head, we need to ingrain the focus of actively recruiting your back to keep you upright and aligned. Scapular retraction.
Try this out – shrug your shoulders up to your ears and slowly draw your shoulder blades back and down. The bottom of that range of motion is the sweet spot. In short, this pinning down of your shoulder blades is the active recruitment you should maintain throughout the ENTIRE stroke cycle. That hold will provide your shoulder the support and stability necessary to generate power without asking too much of your shoulders.
Maintaining scapular retraction is what ties everything together in freestyle and should be your principal focuses in your warmup exercises. What you do on land is what you’ll do in the water, so take advantage of your minutes before your swim to remind your body of what you want it to do.