Are There Any Substitutes For Water Workouts?

The answer is YES (Yay) and No (Boo).

I had one coach tell me that swimmers begin to lose their feel for the water within 48 hours of being out of the water. Yikes! I always figured that this is why swimmers practice twice a day during the week and once on Saturday (not counting swim meets). That or he was just messing with me…

Swimming is different from a lot of other sports because if you want to be good at it, you don’t get an “off” season. Not that I would have it any other way. I’m proud of all of the time I spent with my face in the water. I think swimming is one of the most difficult sports there is and I don’t know if I would have the same respect and dedication to it if it were anything less.

So what happens when you can’t get to the pool? Are there workouts that can be done on land that substitute for swimming?

Let me just preface this by saying that swimming is weird. A person who swims regularly will become better at other endurance sports as they become more fit in the water. For whatever reason (probably because humans aren’t built for water) you can take that same endurance athlete, train them on land, and not see them become a better swimmer. Like I said… swimming is weird.

While I can’t think of anything that is a 1:1 substitution, there are exercises that can be done on land that really compliment water work. They won’t make up for an extended period out of the water, but they will work here and there.

  1. Rowing Machine: Great form of cardio. Works the arms, core and legs. I like to do pretend swim practices on the rowing machine (like 4 x 500s D1-5, etc). I think it works a lot of the same muscle groups used in the pool.
  2. Vasa Trainer: Simulates underwater work and gets some good cardio in the upper body. It can also be set up next to a wall with lots of resistance for the athlete to work the legs by ‘jumping’ off the wall, against the resistance. It works the arms more efficiently than the legs, which is a limitation.
  3. Stretch Cords: Great for circuits and short bursts of power. Most efficient when doing upper body exercises. Promotes lean muscle mass. I am a reformed stretch cord junkie.
  4. TRX Machine: You’re able to work the whole body. It is possible to do strength, cardio or circuit work. They use a limited amount of space and are easy to bring wherever you go. It is easy to adjust difficulty because it uses your body as resistance. I think TRX compliments most sports and if they’d been around when I was in high school, I would have been a TRX junkie.
  5. Medicine Balls: They come in different weights and go hand in hand with swim training. There are exercises that can be done alone, but they work best with a partner of similar strength/ability. They do not travel well.
  6. Free Weights: Done correctly, they isolate selected muscle groups and work the core more effectively than Nautilus machines. It is a myth that free weights make everyone bulky. It is possible to lift free weights and maintain lean muscle mass.
  7. Core Work: I don’t know a decent swimmer who doesn’t also have a strong core. There are a lot of options here and no wrong answers.
  8. Cardio: If you can’t make it to the pool, do another form of cardio.
  9. Yoga/Stretching/Pilates: I find these forms of exercise to be very challenging. Sure, it is a different kind of challenge, but it is good to work on lengthening your muscles, balancing your body and controlling your breathing.
  10. Mental Imagery: I am a big believer in the power of the mind. I absolutely believe that positive thinking yields positive outcomes in events we can control. I even think it can help with events we can’t control. Someone else might have a different philosophy but this works for me.

I think these 10 forms of exercise are a good place to start for anyone in the position of missing a water workout. In fact, they all work so well in conjunction with swimming that I don’t see why they’d be ill advised for triathlete to include them in their regular workout routine (unless that triathlete is training for an Ironman). I’m just a swimmer though. You guys are the triathletes – you tell me what you think about using them when you can’t get to the pool or including them with what you’re already doing.

*On a side note, I did not include Cross Fit in this list because I’m still learning about it. Feel free to share your views on Cross Fit if it is something you do. I’m curious about it.

Categories: Swimming Substitutes

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17 replies

  1. As I am currently on doctor ordered hiatus I started exploring Pilates and find it is challenging but very good for your core. I plan to add it to my already busy workout routine when I am able to continue my normal workouts. Of course I don’t see any substitute for doing drills and swimming.

    • I think Pilates is tough!!! I hope you have good results with it since you’ve had to adjust your training so much. Wish there were subs for swimming but these exercises were the best I could come up with and they’ll only do so much if a person isn’t in the pool. How have your drills been coming?

      • Going to practice some supermans after my pilate class tonight. Have not really had a chance to do some stroke work yet, but I corrected a few mechanical issues last time I did drills. Its all you can expect right? Get a little better and keep working to improve speed through proper form. I’ll know Thursday if I have to worry further or if I can go back to my training schedule.

      • I will keep you in my thoughts and hope you get good news on Thursday. In the meantime, I think you’re doing a good job working on drills. It always seems like you have a good handle on what you want to work on. I’m assuming that superman’s are the Total Immersion way to say you’re working on your streamline?

      • Its another type of floating and balance exercises. Basically you push off from the wall and get balanced in a position very similar to how superman looks. The idea is to gain the ‘downhill’ sensation and to help ingrain that feeling of balance with the water. Sounds weird but most TI drills do serve an end purpose, mostly ingraining the brain and muscle memory. I also try to learn as much as possible, especially from people with more knowledge and experience than myself

      • Yup, that’s a different way to say the same thing. I would have you do the same drill to work on it. We used to turn it into a contest to see who could go the furthest without kicking. I used to be able to make it past the flags at the other side of a 25 yard pool. Remind me someday to write a blog called, “Where’s Your Penny?” as it applies to this very drill.

      • I will have to do that. Yes sounds the same.

  2. I do CrossFit but I know as you pointed out, swimming is weird! CrossFit has helped increase my endurance and focus during triathlon events but my swimming is the worst part of my three sports. I know in order to get better I have to swim. I love CrossFit for it providing speed, strength, and overall fitness but as you said there really is no substitute for swimming.

    • I think I would have made the entire triathlon community’s day if I had a way to improve swimming without getting in the water!!! Sadly, there’s just nothing better than swimming to help a person improve in swimming.

      I always think of crossfit as more of a sprint/circuit based workout but its neat to know it has helped your endurance. I think one way crossfit could really help a swimmer is just by teaching you how to work through intense pain. Have you ever had any issues with injury? How long does it usually take you to complete a workout? How do you fit it into your training schedule? Do you do two-a-days or crossfit with triathlon days?

      • Here is a question do you improve swimming more by swimming laps or by doing drills and laps?

      • My answer would be different depending on who’s asking. I think drills should be the focus for novice swimmers and people that have issues with stroke mechanics or balance. I think laps should be the focus for swimmers that have a good handle on their stroke mechanics and balance. As a coach, my novice practices were almost completely drill oriented – which is very different than how I ran my senior practices.

      • I get weird looks doing drills but I have fixed little things and shaved seconds off of my time so far. I feel like the laps are increasing my endurance, but the drills get me moving through water more efficiently and even getting better at strokes. I watch allot of people in the pool and I think allot of lap swimmers could use some drill practice.

      • Eh, don’t worry about the weird looks. All of the drills you’re doing are things I’ve had my advanced swimmers work on too. Its good that you’re noticing quirks that other people could fix because it means you’re getting an eye for what is efficient and what isn’t. People probably won’t like you pointing out what they need to work on without asking for your opinion first, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention. I’ve never seen anyone with a perfect stroke and there is stuff that even Olympic athletes could work on. The stroke changes are where the easy time drops are, so enjoy that phase while you’re in it. The hard work phase comes next and it is challenging in a much different way.

      • 1. I have not had an injury with CrossFit. My coaches are adamant about proper form and not going beyond your limits. I do get sore and some niggles every once in awhile but that comes with any sport right!?

        2. The entire “session” lasts an hour. We usually do a 400 meter run, stretching with bands, dynamic movements and then move onto a specific weightlifting movement such as clean and jerk, snatch, deadlift, sleds, etc where you do several reps at different weights usually going for a PR. After the single movement, we get into the WOD (Workout of the Day). The WOD can last any where between 5 minutes and 30 minutes. It depends on the type of exercises we’re doing and for how many repetitions.

        3. I added CrossFit into my schedule this summer and would typically go to CF in the morning and then do a triathlon specific workout in the evening. I went twice a week and sometimes had two a days and sometimes just CF or triathlon.

        4. Hope this helps. Check out this post or

      • Hey, thanks for including those links! Sorry it took so long for me to reply, I wanted to look at links you sent first. I just realized you’re in Jax (I have family there). I’ve been to PV a few times and it is a gorgeous area, so jealous you get to train there! I’m glad you have good coaches. I’ve seen some stuff at my gym here that makes me wonder how people don’t really hurt themselves. I’ve really enjoyed the cf workouts I’ve done because they’re so short and so intense. Why workout for an hour if you can reach failure in 20 min??? I’m a believer!!! (I’m also a drop dead sprinter so I’m a little biased). When you do a 5 min workout, what does it consist of? The shortest workout I’ve had was in the 14 minute range, and I don’t do cf regularly. I also adjust it a lot to accommodate my current fitness level and some old, pesky injuries. One of my cf concerns is that it seems like an easy way for people to injure themselves if they aren’t already pretty fit. I did see the link you posted to on the WOD link you sent, and that was pretty inspiring! I wonder if she’s more the exception than the rule? I wanted to post this link for you too, I saw it a few days ago and it cracked me up. You’ll probably get a kick out of it if you haven’t seen it yet:

        Is this paleo???

      • I can’t wait to start doing some intensive and extensive (short and long interval) work in again. I really need to work on endurance, but as I said I am side lined right now. Hopefully soon. I will keep working on drills once I can add those back in though, they really are good practice. I have only once tried to help someone and that is because they were failing miserably at what they were trying. I think they appreciated it.


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