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by G John Mullen

December 6, 2012

A realistic approach to improvement

Masters swimmers are interesting creatures. These typically early risers hit the pool before many sane people would consider waking up, let alone exercising. Masters swimmers commonly come in three forms:

  • Swammers: Swam in high school or college. Typically have difficulty with other sports and likely reverted back to the sport they grew up with. Some don't necessarily enjoy swimming, but it’s the only thing they know.
  • Black Liners: Recreational swimmers with no interest in sets, flip turns, or technique. All they want to do is stare at the black line; their primary goal is to keep moving without interruption.
  • Motivated: This group contains any Masters swimmers hitting the sport with a goal, and has a few subgroups:
  • »      First-timers: Looking for a new challenge. They want to learn the strokes.
  • »      Triathletes: Looking to improve the swim portion of their triathlons.
  • »      Swammers, Part II: Have maintained motivation throughout the years, still love the sport, and continually look for improvement.

This article is for the motivated group. If you're a disgruntled swammer or black liner, hit the X in the upper right corner—no hard feelings!

In-water methods for improvement

For those of you still with me, let's talk about methods for improvement. First and foremost, swimming is the best road to swimming improvement, more specifically, swimming technique. If you have not reached a plateau in improvement, then continue improving your swimming capacity, as this is likely your limiting factor. However, this phase should take only a few months. Once you've reached a plateau, little improvement is likely unless you improve your technique and motor programming.

Technique is best improved by underwater analysis and force interpretation. These tools can be expensive and difficult to find, but are essential if you've reached plateaus. Many swimmers have difficulties improving their strokes, especially if they started in adulthood.

Motor Programming is a fancy name for repetition. The more you perform a specific task, the more ingrained this task becomes. For example, if you have a stroke flaw you are trying to correct, and your coach has given you a drill to correct it, keep doing it until it becomes automatic.

Technique and motor programming are often hindered by poor motor control. Motor control is the ability to manipulate the body. If you didn't swim as a child, it’s likely you have physical limitations (muscle length, strength, and timing) that are preventing correct form. To improve, it’s often essential to enhance specific muscles that are tight. This is where drylands can help.

For example, if you have problems performing an early vertical forearm, more shoulder range of motion is important. If you have difficulties finding a streamline position, it’s likely you can't coordinate your core and find a balanced resting position in the water. Both could stem from poor thoracic spine range of motion. If you have difficulties making stroke adjustments, it’s likely you have poor motor control of your body.

Choosing a supplemental dryland program

Finding a strength coach or rehabilitation specialist to help unlock weak links that are inhibiting correct stroke technique or motor programming can be difficult. Too often swimmers seeking drylands to enhance their swimming run into fitness professionals who don't understand the uniqueness of the sport. Overzealous strength coaches may provide an ideal program for a football player or fitness enthusiast, which can result in excessive soreness and injuries that disrupt motor learning and stroke mechanics.

A dryland program for the swimmer should be supplementary and must aid skill and strength goals in the water, not hamper them.

If you're looking to enhance your swimming outside of the pool, keep it simple and get help from a fitness professional who understands swimming. Start with the National Strength and Conditioning Association to find one in your area, and then ask about his or her experience with swimmers.


  • Technique and Training


  • Drylands
  • Weight Training
  • Stroke Technique
  • Fitness