Land-based training for swimmers

Distance swimming a distant memory? Swim coach Mike Porteous helps plan your return


The grand plan for this year may have involved training for distance swimming, but your arms are now accustomed to planking and your legs to running or cycling. What’s the best way to wake up your muscle memory for good technique now that the end of lockdown is in sight? Here are some ideas and exercises from an expert.

Are you hoping to emerge from your lockdown cocoon and get back to some distance swimming but uncertain if it makes sense to re-start training?  If so, how?  And if not, what to do in the meantime?

Staying on land

If you can’t or don’t feel it is right to get back to open water swimming just yet, stretch cords appear to be a great alternative – if somewhat energetic looking. Stretch cords are simple resistance bands that are used to replicate the resistance of water and enable swimmers to practise the pulling motion. 

I think they can certainly have a place, both for the landlocked and for those beginning to venture into the water – but not as you may see them being used in some pop-up online adverts or youtube clips.  Some of what you’ll see would be great as pumped-up, final warm up routines for a pool sprinter.  You’ll also see people rigidly holding body positions that bear little resemblance to the relaxed, fluent, streamlined positions we want to make our own.

For this reason, I suggest making the focus of land-based training all about reawakening the muscle memory of a great stroke rather than seeking to develop explosive power.  This means a more composed approach with a careful eye on technique.  To that end, I’d suggest starting with a week that ingrains form and movement without the cords, only introducing them in week 2.

The Technique section of an earlier post, A Swim Guide for the Petrified, will help as a recap of the form and movement of the stroke we’re after – and introduces some terms that are used in three sets of exercises set out at the end of this article for you to try.

If you’re ordering some stretch cords, I’d suggest going for ones that have the flat paddles so that your hands are in a good, spearing-in position.  And if there’s a choice of resistance, better to go for something moderate than extreme.

Getting back in

If it is possible for you to swim in a safe open water venue, how to get back into a routine and start building up, assuming that pools will remain closed for the foreseeable future? There’s time – but the secret is not to rush!

Even in so-called “normal” times, I’d recommend a slow, cautious re-entry into swimming after a long break – at most on alternate days and always focused on rediscovering the feel and rhythm of the stroke, rather than setting target times or distances.  For around the first two weeks in the open water I’d want to finish every swim feeling like I could do more, as if ending a little early.

As the water is still pretty bracing you’ll also need a gradual process of acclimatisation that again can’t be rushed. Here’s where The Stoics, cold water dipping throughout the winter, have an edge – though are far too chilled out to make a point about it.

So I’ll be using these next few weeks before a decision is made on big events to ease myself and clients who have signed up for it back into a routine; focus on the technique (as ever); and gradually build in one longer swim a week (conditions and circumstances allowing), whilst keeping the other swims light.

While the opportunities for safe outdoor swimming more limited and weather dependent, keep up light running or other aerobic exercise.  If you’ve been following the Reluctant Runners’ Guide you’ll hopefully be feeling a good level of endurance fitness by now.

Staying safe

The number one priority hasn’t changed since the first days of the pandemic: stay safe and act in ways that keep others safe and well.  That means a continuing emphasis on:

  • maintaining a healthy diet and attention to sleep hygiene
  • making sure any training doesn’t leave our immune systems compromised.  I’ve been prescribing lower intensity training and reigning back on longer sessions or prolonged exposure to the elements
  • and rigorous adherence to social distancing

What if you caught the virus and were laid up with it?  The limited evidence so far points very clearly to a slow and faltering recovery. Athletes’ ability to recover from exercise is still significantly compromised some two months after they believed themselves to be over the worst and ready to renew training.

So if this applies to you, you may want to consider whether this is really the year for that big challenge. Until we know more about the longer term impacts of the virus, I’d suggest only light exercise for well being – and nothing that looks, feels or smells like training.

Finally, as a warm and considerate community of outdoor swimmers it is worth reminding ourselves to show a mindful sensitivity toward others who will be in very different, difficult places.

Week 1

1. The Mirror Exercise

This is called the mirror exercise because…. its best performed in front of a mirror. It’s all about ingraining the arm position that was set out in the Technique Section of the Guide to the Petrified to initiate a strong, steady catch with all the right muscles engaged.

1. Bow forward and bend slightly at the knee so you have a firm hold and straight back

2. Raise one shoulder up, the other dropped so your torso is at an angle, keeping the head looking forward to mimic your body roll as you slice through the water

3. Then on the side of the lower shoulder, hold the arm forward as if it has just entered the water and adopt the ‘fingers below the wrist, wrist below the elbow’ position – pay special attention to the elbow, asking “where’s the crook?” and note the muscles in your upper back engaging.

4. Holding that lead arm still in position raise the other arm up, hand almost in line with your ear as if getting ready to spear in to the water.

5. Hold for 10 seconds.

6. Then slowly switch sides, holding the lead arm position and checking “where’s the crook?” which muscles are engaged?

7. Finally and without any rushing, turn the arms over as if swimming, all the time keeping the body rotating and lower arms pressing the water back, not down. Make sure that just as one hand passes out of view the other is already entering the imaginary water and hand getting ready to tip back

Repeat for 12-20 strokes


2. Floating Like A Butterfly Exercise

Start in the same position as Exercise 1, bowing forward and with a slight bend in the knees, back straight, head looking forward.

1. Bring both arms forward in our ‘fingers below the wrist, wrist below the elbows’, “where’s the crook” position and hold (as if you’re about to hug a Swiss Ball). As in the previous exercise, you should feel those muscles in your upper back/shoulder engage.

2. Slowly tip your hands back, followed by the lower arms at a 900-1100 angle, focusing on keeping the elbow forward and high (not going to the back), until your hands are directly under your shoulders x 12-20.

3. Finish with x 12-20 pulsing back, from the end position above pressing back toward the hips



3. The Dry Long Dog

Same starting position, practice a Long Dog Drill, as if the hands push through the water rather than coming out and over

  1. Focus on:
    • the body rotating; feeling a big stretch through your rib cage as you reach forward
    • and watching the hands pass each other in front of your head
  2. Perform 12-20 strokes (so a total continuous 24-40) as if in slow motion, focusing on a high, forward elbow and strong pressing back.


Week 2

Depending on progress and delivery of stretch cords:

  • Continue with the Mirror Exercise without the cords, performing 2 sets of 12-20
  • Use the stretch cords for the Floating Like a Butterfly exercise (plus pulsing back) and the Dry Long Dog Drill, gradually introducing a second set at a number that feels tiring at the end but never interferes with keeping a good form.


If you feel any sharp pain in your shoulders, stop! Rest and recover. And when you’re ready to resume, pay even greater attention to the positioning of your arms and body.

Use your distance from where the stretch cords are attached to experiment with the resistance – it must never be so taught as to impede a steady, controlled movement.

Good luck! And again great to hear how you get on – drop me a line at or post up on the OSS FaceBook page.

  • Mike is a regular OSS contributor, a Swim and Triathlon Coach and Seasonaire.  He runs ZigZag Alive  an endurance sports coaching company.  He also set up and runs Confidence Centred Coaching, a resource and network for coaches from all sports, putting self-belief and confidence at the centre of great coaching practice.  And he is a Swim Teacher for children with disabilities through the charity Level Water.
Mike Porteous