The term ‘cross training’ has been around for a long time but popularised by the shoe company Nike to sell more shoes in the 80’s. In the early days, swim training was on your own, basically it was just swimming further than the next guy to get faster. There was no ‘cross training’.
Racing and competitions created a more exciting arena. So coaches began to get involved and swim training began to evolve. However not by much. The philosophy of more is better didn’t change. Swimmers went further and further but with better technical skill. By the 1980’s swimmers were beginning to swim astronomical distances…twice a day or more. Some swimming over 120,000m per week regularly. Sports Scientists used swim coaches as an example of how not to train correctly, while swimming coaches spouted ‘speed through endurance’. Occasionally there were innovative coaches like Doc James Councilman, but not too many more.
Recently the new crop of coaches, more highly educated in sports science, found that swimmers who only swam began to plateau at a young age. So innovation stepped in and cross training became far more normal.
The variety of exercises available are almost endless but luckily swimmers use more muscles than any other sport, so cross training is ideal. Huge gains began to show up in all race distances once cross training began to emerge in swim training. In particular sprinters and breaststrokers. Sports science has known this for years but swimming was now catching up.
The difference was physical literacy. This term became more well known when an athlete’s long term performance became more understood. Physical literacy is the basics of jumping, throwing, running, catching and the simple things many athletes take for granted. Without these skills an athlete’s long term development will be limited because there seems to be an ideal time frame for picking up theses skill; pre-teens!
So although some swimmers were seen as fast back in the 80’s (and earlier) those swimmers would not hold a candle to any finalist today. For example Adrian Moorhouse won the Olympic gold medal in 100m breaststroke in 1988 in a time of 1:01.49. Eighth place time in Rio in 2016 was :59.85. Almost two seconds slower so he would have been three meters behind the 8th place swimmer and almost six meters behind Adam Peaty.
Improvements to swimming through cross training (or dryland as it is known in swimming circles) has revolutionised swimming; but sport science was not surprised! To perfect skills like a dynamic dive with quick reactions, followed by a powerful dolphin kick, followed by any stroke, a swimmer must have the foundation of physical literacy to do it. If you can’t jump, for example, you’re not going to have much of a dive. Just like a musician has to put in the time learning the basic cords and an engineer needs all the basic math background.
So if you are thinking ‘how will all these exercises improve my swimming’ without a pool? Then be confident that the basics are essential and cross training will take you to the next level. In fact, without these basic physical literacy skills you won’t progress to the lofty heights you are dreaming about. If you put in the time now you will be glad you did later.