What swim training methods work? Here’s what the science says!


Oh how I love the Olympics! The highs and lows of winning and losing, the emotional heartache of defeat and the ecstasy of winning a medal. We masters athletes can only watch in awe at the extraordinary performances in the pool, all under the intense pressure that only the Olympics seems to bring. We also appreciate how hard and long these swimmers have worked to achieve their dreams. Swimmers do large volumes of training in the pool and on dry land. Strength training of various forms is also widely used, and the swimmer’s energy systems are addressed by aerobic and anaerobic swim training. But what training methods have been shown to work according to the science? The aim of a recent review was to summarise results from controlled training intervention studies within competitive swimming.

The Research

From a structured literature search using library databases, the Scandinavian researchers only found 17 controlled intervention studies that covered strength or resistance training, assisted sprint swimming, arms-only training, leg-kick training, respiratory muscle training, training the energy delivery systems and combined interventions across the above categories.

The Results

The review found that:

  1. Heavy strength training on dry land (one to five repetitions maximum for three sets with maximal effort in the concentric (push) phase of swim-specific movements) improved performance in sprinters.
  2. Sprint swimming with resistance using elastic tubing or pulling a perforated bowl may enhance performance, and may also possibly have positive effects on stroke mechanics.
  3. Respiratory muscle training had no effect on swim performance.
  4. High training volumes do not pose any immediate advantage over lower volumes (with higher intensity) for swim performance.

The So What?

The researchers were surprised at how few valid and reliable intervention studies had been conducted. The included studies predominantly involved freestyle swimming and, overall, raised more questions than answers within intervention-based competitive swimming research. However, the review did highlight that sprint performance in swimmers demands high intensity weight training and resistance work in the pool using tethered swimming and pulling of buckets. It also highlights one of the major tenures of my book The Masters Athlete that resistance training, particularly for masters athletes, is critical to improve or maintain performance. Chapters 7 and 8 actually spell out the why’s and how’s of improving strength, speed and power. Get fast, get strong.

Aspenes, S. and Karlsen, T. (2012). Exercise-training intervention studies in competitive swimming. Sports Medicine. 42(6): 527-543.