Jarrett Brumett Guest Series Post #2: How Strength Training Helps You Recover

You just finished a week of your highest volume in the pool yet and you’re drooling over next week’s taper. The taper hits, but you’re still feeling like your limbs are lead. Not only that, but your coach has a dryland session planned for you later and you’re shaking in your Speedo just thinking about trying to lift later. One of two things are going to happen. #1 You hobble out of dryland feeling even worse than before and look for the nearest pillow to cry into. #2 You walk out feeling fresh and re-invigorated from the special methods that were thrown in to help your system recover. How do you accomplish #2? I’m glad you asked.

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How Dryland Can Help Your Recovery

We’re so used to thinking of dryland to increase our strength and explosiveness that we rarely look at other potential physiological benefits. Like how it can bring balance back to the autonomic nervous system, increase delivery of blood to recovering tissue, and provide a nice mental break from the repetitiveness of your competition season. There are several ways that this can all be accomplished, the key is to understand some of the physiology at play in order to best implement all of these benefits. 

There are two main physiological systems that I view as being able to be influenced in the weight room for recovery: The Autonomic Nervous System and the Circulatory (cardiovascular and lymphatic) System. Both of these are powerful influences in ensuring that you, the athlete, are fully recovered. They also directly play with your tissue quality, nutrient absorption, and inflammatory profiles. And both have specific ways to maximize their function for recovery.

Working with the Autonomic System

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is comprised of two parts: the sympathetic (think fight or flight) and parasympathetic (think rest and digest) systems. A common problem when you're over-worked is that you become stuck in a state of sympathetic dominance. Meaning, your parasympathetic system is not performing well and you're never tapping into a good recovery-driven state. The curious thing is that you can also have the sympathetic system be dampened so that you can’t tap into what you need to perform optimally. Or, you could even have it so that they both suck and everything is screwed. It’s never a black and white problem, and as more research comes out, we are starting to see just how complex everything is. One common theme that keeps getting driven home, however, is the need for balance and the importance of developing a good system solely meant to seek out this balance.

This can be done over time with good warm-up and cool-down protocols in every training session. But you need to 100% emphasize this element when creating a program that facilitates recovery. Creating an athlete that can easily turn up or tone down is crucial and can be done by programming with some of the following methods.  

Parasympthetic Coaxing

The 100% best way to improve the function of your parasympathetic nervous system is through breathing drills. In my last post I touched on their importance as well, so I’m not going to beat a dead horse. But starting your session with a postural-based breathing drill and ending it with a relaxing, decompressive breathing drill will go a long way. My personal favorite drill for ALL ATHLETES to perform at the end of their cooldown is Feather Breathing.

Another great way is to put an emphasis on low-threshold, somatic movement (easy and reflexive movement). Some light mobility drills can do this, but the key is that they need to be LIGHT. If the drill causes you to hold your breath, it’s not a good fit for this purpose. There should be no need for feed-forward tension, it should be reflexive and comfortable. I’ve actually found some drills of this style to be very useful for increasing mobility when done correctly, even though they don’t put anything on stretch. Your movement quality and fitness-level will highly influence what is right for you, but there are a few go-to’s that I use for everyone:

Sympathetic Coaxing

As I said earlier, sometimes the sympathetic system may be dampened and needs to be revved up. But, even if it doesn’t, revving it up enough just to stimulate the system can be a very powerful recovery tool. Either way, the key is to give it just enough stimulus without creating more metabolic stress. There are two different ways I like to perform this depending on where you are in your performance schedule and what my overall goal is for the session.

If the goal is still to create a training stimulus, it's best to use a form of dynamic-effort work, as it will still help improve force output. This means that none of your lifts will exceed ~70% of your max, and are done for lower reps and higher sets. This is commonly used in powerlifting circles to help with enhancing recruitment of muscles and rate of force development without adding stress to your system. It’s also good for working on motor patterns that need practice since all these movements are performed with very little fatigue. The trick is to find a total-body movement that is a beneficial for your specific sport, which in this case, is swimming. Personally, I use pushup and pull up variations, or a trap-bar deadlift for my swimmers. With athletes that don’t have true One-Rep-Maxes (in terms of lifting), it highlights the importance in recording training weights and knowing roughly how much weight an athlete can move at a particular rep range. I have found that in general, a resistance that they have previously done for a hard set of 8-10 reps will be about what they should use for dynamic effort. So if one of my teenage female athletes needs a band to perform 8 pullups, she will use that same banded assistance to knock out this method. And the same is true for the opposite end of the spectrum. If an athlete does pushups with 45lbs on their back for a hard set of 10, they will use that same weight for a dynamic effort day.

Programming this is simple, you want to do 6-10 sets of 1-3 reps with anywhere between :30 - :60 seconds rest. You then coach them to perform each rep with the tension and force as if it was a max effort lift.

The other method I will use to stimulate the system is High Resistance Intervals. Ideally this method is performed with a heart rate monitor, but can also be effective with a timed interval. For this method, you choose a ballistic-style movement that never reaches top velocity and also lacks any eccentric loading (read as the lengthening portion of the lift, as in the lowering into a squat).

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The eccentric portion of a lift is what is known to create the most micro-tears in the tissue. By removing this portion you are significantly lowering the stress of the movement. You perform that movement, at an intense pace for :08 - :10 seconds, then rest until the heart rate has reached an ideal, rested rate. This ideal will be different for each athlete, but 120 bpm is usually a safe bet for most. The other option is to perform “every minute on the minute,” in which you do your :08 - :10 seconds of work, then active recovery for the rest of the minute.

My personal favorite movement for this method is Rope Slams, as seen below, and then I use specific active recovery drills, as you will see in the next section.

Working with the Cardiovascular and Lymphatic Systems

In a simplified view, these systems work together to not only transport nutrients to your tissues, but also to transport byproducts from your tissue to be processed. So to maximize their influence on recovery, you ideally want to help mobilize nutrients/byproduct and increase fluid flow.

The simplest way to do this is to foam roll. And not even the hardcore foam rolling that everyone seems to think is needed to be effective (because yes, that can be pretty painful). Simply spending 30 seconds of some semi-gentle rolling can be enough to help get some blood into some of your tissue.

The next way that’s almost equally as simple is through dynamic mobility drills. I'm using the term mobility drills as I don’t necessarily mean just passive stretching. Passive stretching has it’s time and place, but I’d much rather see some active, dynamic mobility work. The pulsating tension in dynamic mobility movements has the potential to create a pumping mechanism for fluids and stimulate synovial movement in your joints. My two favorites for swimmers are the Adductor Rockback and the Quadruped Lat Mobility.

The final way to help get some fluid movement is through good ol’ fashioned, steady-state cardio. Keeping you heart rate around 130 bpm (again, this is athlete specific) for 30-60 minutes can be very rejuvenating on your system. At this heart rate, it should also be fast enough to create full expansion of the left ventricle and increase the overall stroke volume of the heart, which can also improve the your overall endurance.

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One trick I use with a lot of my swimmers that combines the last two sections is a method I call the Hybrid Cardiac Output Method. It’s pretty simple, you have the athlete keep up their heart rate to the desired BPM by doing dynamic mobility and medicine ball drills. So long as they don’t hold their breath on any of the drills, you will get the increased left ventricle expansion and you will also help to facilitate more blood flow into the tissues that you’re mobilizing. Win-win.

So, if your coach knows any of these methods, then rest assured, you’ll feel better leaving then when you came in. Not only that, you’ll leave a better athlete than when you came in. Next post I’m going to cover how we can maximize the direct performance benefits of strength training for swimmers. Stay tuned!