Coaching Today

Incorporating Plyometric Training to Improve Your Swimmer's Start

 

By Jessalyn McGuire 

Incorporating Plyometric Training to Improve Your Swimmers Start_DBAnyone familiar with Michael Phelps’ 100-meter butterfly race during the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games knows that a race can be won or lost by the slimmest of margins. Results from the 2009 FINA World Championship 50-meter freestyle event show that the difference between first and fourth places was 0.3 seconds. With such tight margins of victory, it is vital to optimize every aspect of the sprint performance, especially during the 50-meter freestyle. In sprint events, when 0.1 second can be the difference between a podium finish or obscurity, how can a swimmer improve his or her race time before he or she even hits the water?

The swim start is a critical component of swim time and overall performance success.  A “good” start off the swimming starting block requires  fast reaction time, explosive power generated in both the vertical and horizontal axes, and low resistance (drag) during the water entry/underwater gliding phase. In the 50-meter freestyle race, the start off of the blocks accounts for approximately 30 percent of the entire race time. Improvements in a swimmer’s start can lead to significant improvements in race time and overall performance. One way to improve a swimmer’s start is to increase lower body strength and power generation capabilities. This can be accomplished through the addition of plyometric drills to the team’s dryland training regimen.

Plyometric exercise refers to movements that allow the muscle to reach maximal force generation in the shortest amount of time. These movements typically use a prestretch, or countermovement, that allows the muscle to store elastic energy. The countermovement serves to increase explosive reactive power throughout the entire range of motion of the subsequent movement. After the countermovement, the stored elastic energy is used to increase force generation of the following movement. Research has shown that the addition of plyometrics to a strength and conditioning program allows the athlete to enhance force generation potential of explosive-reactive movements.

The effectiveness of a plyometrics program depends on sport-specific movements and the appropriate intensity and frequency of the plyometric program. Sport-specific movements enhance neuromuscular development, which allows the athlete to perform a specific movement with a greater amount of available muscle mass. The increased use of muscle mass allows for greater force generation during the movement.

In the past, some coaches have felt that plyometrics may not be appropriate for adolescent athletes, but research suggests that a low to moderate intensity program may allow for neuromuscular and physiological adaptations to occur. The intensity of a plyometric drill refers to the amount of stress placed on the muscles and connective tissue surrounding a specific joint. Intensity is primarily controlled through the type of drill performed and the amount of drills performed. Standing jumps are less intense than multiple jumps (bounds) and double leg movements are less intense than single leg movements.

Other factors that may affect the intensity of plyometric drills include points of contact (double versus single leg movements), speed, height of the drill and body weight of the individual athlete. Research suggests that athletes just beginning a plyometric program should not exceed 80 to 100 jumps per workout session. As the athlete progresses, more jumps may be added to the plyometric session; an intermediate athlete can perform 100 to 120 jumps and an advanced athlete may perform up to 140 jumps in a single workout session.

Frequency refers to the number of plyometric workout sessions per week. Depending on the sport and phase of training, the frequency may range from one to three plyometric sessions per week. For adolescent athletes it may be appropriate to perform only two plyometric sessions per week, with at least 72 hours of recovery in between each session. The athletes and coaches should focus on proper technique during the plyometric drills to ensure safety and decrease the risk of injury.

While the benefits of a plyometric program may be negligible in the water, research has shown that the addition of a plyometric program can significantly improve start performance and overall race time, specifically for swimmers who participate in the 50-meter freestyle event. One research study implemented an eight-week plyometric program for swimmers participating in the 50-meter freestyle event. After the eight weeks, the swimmers saw a decrease in time by as much as 0.59 seconds, which equates to a 15 percent improvement in performance. The improvement in time was thought to be due to an increase in lower body peak power through neural and metabolic adaptations. The increase in peak power allowed the swimmers to achieve a greater distance off the starting block and a faster transit through the water upon entering the pool. These improvements allowed the swimmers to explosively transition from the starting block to the water and cover a greater distance in a faster time.

When considering the importance of the swimming block start relative to overall swim performance in the 50-meter freestyle race, improvements in force generation capacity can have a significant impact on adolescent swimmers. Based on the results for previous research studies, the addition of a plyometric program may be a simple and cost-effective way to improve a sprinter’s performance. The inclusion of a plyometric program may be most appropriate during pre-season training and will produce rapid improvements in as little as six weeks. The plyometric program can be incorporated into dryland training two times per week and each session should only last about 20 to 25 minutes. In an era where technical swimsuits have been banned, an athlete must be dedicated to training and continually seek to improve by incorporating new and innovative ideas into each workout session.

 For a sample beginner’s plyometric program, see chart below.

 

EXERCISE

REPETITONS

SETS

RECOVERY (Seconds)

2 Foot Ankle Hops

5

2

60

Tuck Jumps with Knees Up

4

2

60

Squat Jumps

4

1

60

Standing Jumps over Barrier

4

1

75

Front Cone Hops

4

2

75

Box Jumps

5

1

90

 

Sources: 

Baechle, T. R., & Earle, R. W. (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Bishop D C Smith R J Smith M F Rigby H E 2009 Effect of plyometric training on swimming block start performance in adolescents.Bishop, D. C., Smith, R. J., Smith, M. F., & Rigby, H. E. (2009). Effect of plyometric training on swimming block start performance in adolescents. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(7), 2137-2143.


About the Author: Jessalyn McGuire, CSCS, is a graduate student at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. She is earning her Master’s of Science in Applied Exercise Physiology.

 

 

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