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Can Competitive Swimmers Train Effectively in a Backyard Pool?

By SwimSwam Partner Content
April 24th, 2020

courtesy of ONEswim.com, a SwimmersBest brand

Let’s face it, most backyard pools are less than 37 feet long. That is less than HALF the length of a 25 yard competitive pool. Most competitive swimmers will breakout beyond halfway across a backyard pool and only have 3-5 strokes before they hit the opposite wall. So while it may sound good to say you are getting in the pool everyday, are you able to do any work that actually has value? In contrast our traditional dryland methods typically focus on major muscle groups and really don’t address the swim-specific muscle chains that we have always developed by swimming in water. This means that IF you have access to a backyard pool while your swim team is not training, you need to find ways to build swim-specific muscles on a daily basis to keep your body in the shape that it is used to. Everyone knows that if you take a week off for vacation that it can take your body 2+ weeks to get back in the same cardio condition it was before the vacation. Imagine what is happening when you take off a month or 2? Or if your team does start in-water training again, will it only be for a month before they are forced to shut down again?

This article lays out a host of methods that can be used to simulate true competitive swimming when you only have 25-30 feet of pool available. It is worth mentioning first that many of these methods will be foreign to many swimmers. Interval intensity methods such as created by Dave Salo is not the standard in the industry and most swimmers are used to swimming ‘yardage’ over interval intensity techniques. USRPT training methods are even more impossible to translate to a backyard pool. True interval methods that focus on maximum effort and short recovery movements is the only real way to do much with a backyard pool (besides working on technique like turns and such). However, interval intensity methods are not used by most teams in the industry and this leaves many swimmers at a great loss in simply understanding training techniques that don’t include sets like ‘10×100 on the 1.15’. If you are used to long repeat sets, the methods we present in this article will be strange and foreign to you. But we have a lot of resources, short videos, and even sets that you can use to get the hang of things right away http://www.swimmersbest.com/private-pool-training/

Using backyard pools to train competitive swimmers will take a host of details: 1) we have to unlearn good ‘walls’ and underwaters if we want to actually work on kick and pull muscles, 2) we have to target specific muscle groups at a time since the pool is too short to rely on endless yardage to make up the difference, 3) we need resistance and a lot variations of resistance!, and last 4) effort.

To help simplify all of these new training methods, ONEswim.com offers a ton of free sets and workout blocks so you can make your own sets.

SEE FREE SET + WORKOUT BLOCKS HERE

They also provide several levels of Backyard Kits to simplify the gear and the swim methods. Every single drill has a quick video so both the swimmer and their spotter understands every detail of these sets. A parent and their swimmer can train at a very high level in a backyard pool during social distancing.

But before we go any further, a legal disclaimer… do not train yourself with any of these methods without an adult to spot you and keep an eye on you. These methods are not recommended for beginner swimmers or young swimmers but should only be done under close supervision just like any other competitive swim practice has a coach and typically a life guard watching you at all times.

Backyard Pool Lesson #1: Change our ‘walls and underwaters’
After years of fussing about swimmers needing to leave the walls underwater, pushing with a powerful glide, and then undulating 3+x before breaking out, backyard pools won’t work with such good habits. If we do that off every wall, we will breakout 15-25 feet from the wall. With a 30-38 foot pool, this doesn’t leave a lot of room to actually ‘swim’, ‘drill’, ‘pull’, ‘kick’, etc… before we turn at do it all again. A well-conditioned swimmer body can swim for hours on end and not impact any of their muscles, cardio, or conditioning if we just do good ‘walls’ in such a short pool. We have a few other options though. The first is to do ‘surface open turns’. We like to jokingly call these ‘tri turns’ as it is common for triathletes to use these turns since they feel that flip turns have no value for them when they train in ‘lap pools’. A surface open turn is also used by new swimmers that are not used to a snorkel and don’t want to submerge their snorkel. Simple do a normal open turn but stay on the surface so you are pushing off on the surface. The resistance of the surface when you push off the wall will prevent you from going too far before you need to start swimming, kicking, pulling, etc…

Video of surface open turn:

Another method that we use in our backyard pool sets is to flip turn just before the wall so your feet can not touch the wall as you straighten out. We have always used a drill called the ’55 drill’ with this method under each flag as a way to simulate long course (50 meter) pools when you only have a 25 yard pool. As you do a normal flip turn, you will be underwater on your back. You first do 3 body dolphins on your back, 3 on your side, and then 3 on your stomach BEFORE you break out to the surface. These 9 UW body dolphins will only move you 1-2 feet and seem pointless but they are one of the best way to perfect your ‘chest led’ underwater technique and really provide you with a great cardio workout.

Video of 55 Drill:

Another detail to reducing our ‘easy speed’ from the walls is to not use fins in backyard pools. They may be one of the few training items you have available right now, but they will just mean you need more hours in the water to get the same result (or no result).

Perhaps the best way to make your short pool seem much longer is with the ONEswim.com Power Chute. This is a parachute that attaches to your back (or stomach) so that it opens up the instant you start to push off the wall. Normal parachutes don’t open up until your feet are 4-6 feet off the way (20-30% of the way to the other side of your short pool) so they do little to help add resistance and ‘lengthen’ your pool. The Power Chute will add frontal drag without hurting your body position or form 100% of the time you are moving in the water. When you are moving slow and it is on your back, you will not notice it much but it is providing 10-20% resistance. If you move it to your stomach it will provide far more drag. And when you are swimming ALL OUT, it will provide maximum drag. So the more effort you expend, the more it will match your effort and ‘lengthen’ your pool.

Video of Power Chute:

Backyard Pool Lesson #2: Target Swim-Specific Muscle Groups
When we ‘swim’ with a full stroke, we are not fully targeting specific muscles and therefore either need a LOT of yardage/time in a short pool, or a LOT of resistance. There are swim-specific muscles that are being neglected and degrading the longer we sit at home and only do some dryland. Our recovery kick muscles are a great example. Lay flat on your stomach on the floor and lift your legs without bending your knees. Do that several times in a row and hold them up for 5-10 seconds each time. These muscles are essential to a swimmer but are not used much at all in our normal dryside activities. Clearly you can visualize how these muscles are important in the kick movements of all 4 of our strokes and our underwater undulations. But full stroke ‘swim’ will not target these muscles that much as we also bend our knees, which tends to negate the development of these muscles and require us to spend many many hours of ‘swim’ for small gains in our recovery muscles. We have a complete article on this very topic that can illustrate a lot of the ways we can target these muscles. All of these methods will work great in a backyard pool (if we use ‘surface open turns’).

GIF of Kick Recovery Muscle Engagement – CLICK IMAGE TO SEE GIF!

Another swim-specific muscle chain is our ‘high elbow’ linkage. Yes, we are target some of these muscles individually in our dryland drills such as pullups, push-ups, etc… but not really as they relate fully to a high catch swim stroke. ONEswim has a fingertip engagement paddle for their dryland stretchcords will is the only true dryland way to target this full muscle movement besides large machines. However, in-water strokes ensures you are targeting precisely the muscle chain needed.

Your ‘outside muscles’ are the lats and teres minor muscles that connect from your large back muscles to your pinky and ring fingers. This muscle chain can also be targeted with dryland but ultimately you need resistive in-water work to maintain these muscles for the value of swimming faster. When you add your kick for a full ‘swim’, you decrease the effort of this muscle chain and get less and less out of each workout unless you are creating high resistance and pull-specific drills.

As the last of many examples of swim-specific muscles, breast kicking muscles are easily neglected with dryland exercises. Any swimmer knows that the legs get very tired very fast when we do much breast specific in-water drills. Imagine how out of shape your breast kick muscles are after so much time out of the water? What is going to maintain those muscles without resistive in-water breast kicking drills?

In our workout sets we also target your core muscles with ample use of the ‘on the back Flow’ drill (on your back chest-led body dolphin). The Flow drill and it’s various versions is an ideal method to build a strong core muscle group when we use a wide range of equipment to target unique variations to our muscle development.

Video of Flow Drill:

Backyard Pool Lesson #3: Resistance
We already touched on the ONEswim Power Chute as an ideal way to add resistance to your backyard pool workouts. This product will add constant drag without negatively impacting your strokes or body position. This is something that should be used all of the time when you are working out in short pools to help ‘lengthen’ the pool for all drills and swimming. Additionally, ONEswim Power Bags is another ideal way to add drag and build muscles. The Power Bags can be worn as ‘socks’ on the feet, over the calves, over the arms, around the waist, hands, and much more. They allow you to target specific muscle groups such as the kick recovery muscle groups in a fraction of the time as normal swimming.

Video of Power Bags:

The 3rd resistance method is to add weight. This doesn’t mean get stupid with huge poundage. ONEswim offers ¼ lb and ½ lb weights that attach to your feet or your ankles. At first you won’t know they are even there… but give it a little time and you realize that you get 50% more value out of the same time/distance with this small added level of weight. Stronger swimmers can use as much as 1.5 lb per limb if desired. ONEswim also offers weight belts that can be from ¼ pound up to 20-30 lbs which is far more practical than other heavy preset belts. Dial in an exact weight belt that meets your needs for each set or drill. The ONEswim weight bags can be slid over 2 fingers to target hand muscles, hand entry technique and recovery muscles. Once you have some of these versatile bags you can also add them inside the Power Bags for more drag and more resistance when kicking or swimming with the socks.

Video of Weight Bags:

Another effective way to add resistance to any set is to tie your legs together. ONEswim offers the Neo Band that is quick to put on and off and soft and comfortable. But they also offer a range of other ways to keep your feet together with other band options. By securing your legs together so they can’t kick, you are forced to press your chest to help lift you hips/legs and you are force to pull MUCH harder to keep your legs planed out on the surface of the water so they create less and less drag. The less you pull, the more your legs sink and the more resistance. Effort = results. There is no cheating when your legs are tied together.

Video for Varying Your Pull Power:

A completely different way to tie your legs together is with a ONEswim Dual Ankle Buoy. These buoys clip around each ankle and help keep your legs afloat. This may SEEM like cheating compared to just a strap around your ankle but it is far from that. The Dual Ankle Buoy creates plenty of frontal drag resistance on it’s own which also improves your muscle engagement of your pull drills. An added bonus is that the Dual Ankle Buoy keeps your ankles very close to each other so you can naturally rotate from side to side. This is a great workout for the core as well as an excellent balance and stroke technique training tool while you are focusing on pull muscle development.

ONEswim offers the Long Cords which can be connected in sets of 2 to make a full 25 yard stretch cord. But their Half Long Cord kit is ideal for the length of most backyard pools. By attaching the Half Long Cord at different points at the edge of your pool or even across your pool deck, it is easy to set up these cords to just barely allow the swimmer to reach the far wall. With 5 intensities available you can perfectly target your own skill level. These are great for pull-only, kick-only, full swim and a wide range of turn practices and interval training. The Half Long Cord Kit includes a belt and a quick connect carabiner so you can quickly disconnect to alternate swimming with and without the cords.

The Single Ankle Buoy can be used on the elbows or the ankles. But on the feet as a kicking device, these buoys are ‘butt kickers’. They create plenty of frontal drag resistance and require minimal knee bend so you engage your larger glute muscles instead of typical knee bending kick style.

Video Single Ankle Buoy:

Upper body development in small backyard pools is perhaps one of the larger challenges since the pull muscles are given constant rests with so many walls/turns. This is mitigated with all of the resistance methods we have discussed above. However, upper body development can be improved in short pools by using ascending paddle types during a pull session. The process of improving technique and feel for the water while building upper body muscles involves the consecutive use of ascending paddle type. One way we use in our backyard pool sets is to start with our mesh Resistance Gloves for a reasonable distance, following by a power paddle such as the Touch paddles and finishing with a displacement paddle such as the Brute paddles. This process can produce muscle fatigue in small backyard pools and forces the swimmer to improve their technique from the catch to the outsweep.

Video for Brute Paddle:

Lastly, ONEswim offers 2 kick resistance systems that use stretch cords to restrict kicking muscles. The Kick Trainer is ideal to power up the flutter kick muscles. And the BR Kick Trainer is specific to breast kicking muscles and technique. Both of these stretch cord kits can be used in the water and out of the water for constant training.

Backyard Pool Lesson #4: Effort
When we count yardage in 2 hour sets in a 25 yard pool, we can overcome the fact that many swimmers put in minimal effort and they can still get stronger and faster. In a short pool, this lack of effort (or inconsistent effort) can make all of your time a complete waste. When a set says ‘all out’, it means 100% effort. As Salo says ‘swim like a cheetah runs’ which means that a cheetah puts out 100% effort for a short burst of time… 99% effort means she doesn’t eat. Saving your effort for the ‘rest of the set’ will not build muscle or conditioning. Many people are quick to buy a stationary swimming cord or bungee to hold them in place in short backyard pools, but such devices do not overcome the problem of effort. A skilled swimmer can swim for hours on a stationary bungee system and exert very little effort and have very little gain. Diverse methods, unique equipment, and intensity interval methods must be used if you are to gain much from a backyard pool. You also need time to equate to your normal training regime. If you normally train 1.5 hours at a time for 5 practices a week, anything less in your backyard pool will certainly have you recede backwards.

So, if you have access to a short pool, get out there and stay in shape. We all know 2020 will be a long year. Whether you are an age group competitive swimmer, master swimmer, or Triathlete, stop waiting for your local pool to open up or your team to have group practices again. Stay in shape with any water you can find!