How You Can Train for Triathlon Swimming Under the New Restrictions – Without Feeling Like a Fish Out of Water

Stay at Home restrictions? But can you exercise with proper social distancing? Runners, you got this! Cyclists too! Triathletes… Triathletes? You’re two-thirds there! But about that swimming….

Thankfully for triathletes, swimming is a small portion of the overall event, but still requires some conditioning for a successful race. So what do swimmers do?

“First, you still want to keep up your aerobic base, because summer is triathlon season,” says Dr. Scott Greenapple, board-certified chiropractor and founder of Greenapple Sports & Wellness Center, and sports medicine-trained acupuncturist at Thrive Carolina. He’s also a triathlete, and part of the Team USA medical staff for six Triathlon and Duathlon Championships. He understands base training from both an athlete’s and a doctor’s perspective.

To maintain conditioning for a triathlon when pools aren’t open, Dr. Greenapple recommends maintaining a strong aerobic base and core strength — which don’t necessarily need water.

“You don’t have to perform triathlons each day to stay strong,” says Dr. Greenapple. “It’s all about form and function.”

The biggest problem he sees with triathletes who suffer from back and shoulder pain during swimming is lack of hip rotation. Good swimming has a reach, a rotation during the pull, and a finish. With no hip rotation, strokes are inefficient, and spines and shoulders suffer. Strengthening your core to improve hip rotation is a good place to start and will help with your speed and endurance during a race. And you can do that without a pool, says Dr. Greenapple.

We’re all familiar with the gluteus maximus — the strongest muscle in the body, and the one we use for squats and hip extension. But Dr. Greenapple says nearby supporting muscles play a role, too, and suggests triathletes focus on them while out of the water.

“The gluteus medius is for stabilization, and tends to be weak in tri runners,” says Dr. Greenapple. “It helps with hip rotation in the water.” It’s a broad, thick muscle on the outer surface of the hip bone. Lunges, bridges, and side-lying leg lifts all strengthen this muscle.

Marches and step-ups are also good exercises for gluteus medius and for stabilizing core muscles, too. Lie on your back in bridge position, says Dr. Greenapple, with your lower legs perpendicular to the floor and hips raised. Take turns lifting one knee at a time for several repeats without dropping your hips.

More muscles to think about for good hip rotation: Sartorius and adductor brevis also assist with internal hip rotation. The piriformis, obturator internus and externus, and adductor magnus need to be worked for external hip rotation.

Planks, sid planks, bird dog, and hook-line curl-ups will help your hip rotation and strengthen your obliques, which are muscles that run up your sides from your hips to your rib cage. Transverse abdominis and multifidus will also be strengthened by these exercises to balance out your core.  Don’t forget to care for your psoas muscle, either — it’s an important hip flexor and stabilizer for your spine. These are all important for your hip rotation in swimming.

Okay Doc — but doesn’t swimming use my arms? What do I do about arm (pulling) strength and technique? Once you realize the importance of hip rotation in swimming — and get your core and spine strengthened and stabilized — “Then we can work up the kinetic chain to put the pieces together for the whole puzzle,” says Dr. Greenapple. That means shoulder stabilization, which you can also do without a pool.

“It’s easier to clean up a stroke on land than it is in water,” says Greenapple. Strength training for the arms should focus on function, stability, and mobility. Using stretch cords or bands to emulate strokes will help strengthen the right muscles, as long as you remember to use good technique. Roll your body as you stretch forward for the catch, keep elbows up as you pull down and push all the way through past your hips. Keep the spine stable and in line – think of rotating the hips instead of twisting the upper body.

Dr. Greenapple says shoulder injuries he sees are from inadequate hip rotation leading to bad arm technique.

“Lats, pecs, and traps are the big ones,” says Dr. Greenapple, “but the four small, non-weight-bearing muscles stabilize the shoulders, so making them stronger keeps them from being pulled out of whack.”

For reference, those are the rotator cuff — the subscapularis, teres minor, infraspinatus, and supraspinatus. Swimmers with weaker rotator cuff muscles and bad technique are especially vulnerable to shoulder injuries, so making these muscles stronger will make swimming easier, faster, and more efficient — and less painful, in a lot of cases. Exercises with a band or a 1-2 lb. weight are good for the rotator cuff.

In addition to using bands for lat pull-downs, do push-ups and dips to strengthen triceps and pectoral muscles. Hands closer together on push-ups for triceps, and wider for pecs, says Dr. Greenapple.

If you need ideas for variety, two of Charlotte’s youth swim teams have been posting workouts on their Instagram pages and stories. Try @atom_nation or @teamcharlotteswim, for starters. Other great sites for dryland workouts include swimmingspecificyoga.com and the YMCA’s virtual workout ymca360.org. If you already have a favorite gym or studio, ask if they have an online workout you can do.

The most important lesson here is this: Don’t let the shutdown be a slowdown in your fitness routine. Taking the time to strengthen your swimming muscles and perfect your technique, while maintaining your running and biking routine, will have you ready for triathlon season when the pools open again!