Dryland Training: Love it or hate it, you need it!

By: Maria Veen
Owner and Coach, The Mighty Grind Endurance Systems LLC
Certified Professional Triathlon Coach, ITCA
Certified Level 3 Masters Coach, USMS

We know we should make time for it but we don’t

As I work on stroke technique with my swimmers, I’ll often recommend dryland exercises pertinent to the errors in the strokes.  Most often I get reluctance rather than willingness;  the swimmer would rather swim, the runner hates the gym, and the triathlete can’t find the time to fit it in.

All professional athletes spend time working on strength and conditioning to help their performance.  Football teams always have a weight room.  Dara Torres spent more time doing functional training in the gym than in the pool in her Olympic comeback year.  Ryan Lochte made huge gains in his swimming prior to the Rio Olympics and he attributed it all to strength training.  Tiger Woods regularly hits the gym.  I even used to train with a PBA pro at the workout studio.  If you want to see huge improvements, you need to do more than just swim (or bike or run).

Benefits of Strength and Conditioning

There are three different ways that strength and conditioning training can help you.  First, you can more effectively build strength with targeted exercises on land.  You need resistance to build strength in the muscles and ligaments. Although we can do some sets to build strength in the pool like pulling, tombstone kick, or buckets, it’s not nearly as effective.  Using your body weight or adding dumbbells or medicine balls offers more resistance than we can achieve in the water.  Explosive movements such as plyometrics and balance are also much more effective in the gym than in the pool.

Second, for long term health, your body needs strength training to protect against aging. You need to stress the bones and ligaments under gravity to preserve bone density.  It is possible to get some of this running or walking due to the impact.  That stresses the bones, but it does not put the necessary stress on the ligaments which is also critical to your bone density & longevity.   Only by training under gravity can you stress them correctly.  Strengthening the stabilizer muscles around the joints is especially critical to protecting your joints as you age.  You are much less likely to fall and break a hip if your stabilizer muscles, bones, ligaments and tendons are kept in shape.

The third and final benefit of targeted strength training is that you can fix muscle or movement imbalances.  This cannot be done in a pool, on a bike or by running.  If you do have an imbalance, I highly suggest that you get with a good trainer or physical therapist to teach you targeted exercises for what you need.

Using Dryland to Improve Your Performance

Dryland exercises can correct specific aspects of your stroke that may need correction. You can improve your range of motion by stretching or doing targeted exercises.  Increasing your range of motion means less injury as well as improvement in your stroke.  Many triathletes have limited flexibility in their ankles and their feet cannot point like they should for a flutter kick. Dryland exercises to improve that flexibility outside the pool will lead to a better flutter kick and faster stroke in the pool.  Or, working on mobility of the shoulder joint will have a profound effect on all four strokes.

Second, dryland is a great way to learn specific movements to help your stroke.  It is hard for adults to learn motor skills as the neural pathways in the brain are already developed and programmed.  On dry land we can isolate the movement so you can get the repetition to reprogram your brain.  Breaststroke kick is a great one to learn or correct outside the pool.

Dryland warm-ups are a great addition to your program.  Before running races or swimming events, a few minutes of warm-up exercises will prepare the joints and help prevent injury.  For swimmers with shoulder impingement issues, warming up the shoulders can alleviate stress before you swim in the pool.  Runners with tight calves can warm them up before they pound on them.  At some large events, you are just limited in what you can do to warm up.  For example, at  USMS Spring Nationals the warm-up pools were extremely crowded.  For all my races, I only did dryland warm-ups, and I had great swims.  I also use dryland warm-ups before triathlons or open water races when it can sometimes be chilly on race day.  It not only allows me to warm-up, but also stay dry and warm.  Here is a link for a dryland warm-up routine:  http://o11.ac1.mywebsitetransfer.com/dry-land-dynamic-warm-up/

Why We Avoid Dryland

“But, coach, I don’t want to turn into a behemoth.”  The German women’s swim team from the 70s got huge because they were doping, not due to strength training.  Body builders get huge because they take supplements, have a lot of testosterone, eat a specific diet, lift 5 hours a day, and lift super heavy weights.  A good dryland training for the endurance training should not include any of those things and, therefore, won’t result in overbuilt musculature.

“But, Coach, I’m training 5 (or 6 or 7) days a week, and I don’t have time to add this in.”  I usually hear this from triathletes, but I have also heard it at the pool.  Make dryland a priority in your schedule just like all the other aspects of your training. Replace one day a week of aerobic workouts with a good functional training curriculum or cut fifteen minutes off three of your runs and replace it with core work.  Look at your training schedule and see where you can substitute strength and conditioning for the miles or yardage. Look at what else you do through the day and find opportunities to incorporate some conditioning.  You can stretch or do core work while watching TV, or take time to do some stretches at your desk during teleconferences.  You don’t have to just add to your schedule, but keep your current schedule and use it differently.

For many people there is the intimidation factor: showing up at the gym and not having a clue of what to do with all that equipment.  Maybe you want to try it at home, but don’t know where to start.  There are so many resources available to help you get started!  Hire a trainer for 3 or 4 sessions or go with an experienced friend and have them teach you.  Ask your coach. There are apps on the phone such as Aaptiv or FitOn that will lay out workouts and you just follow along.  Take a class or join a boutique gym like TruFit Fitness Studio or OrangeTheory that offers classes.  Borrow a workout DVD from a friend or find some on Amazon.  BeachBody Fitness has a ton of DVD programs that are great workouts. Ask your fitness friends for ideas; they will have suggestions and you may even find a workout partner.

The best part about dryland strength training is that it doesn’t have to cost you money.  You can train at home with a good (free) app and minimal equipment.  Body weight exercises are great and cost nothing.  Stretching doesn’t require equipment.  If you have access to a gym that is great, but if not, don’t let that stop you!

Dryland Recommendations

A good strength training program for swimmers and endurance athletes will incorporate more than just picking things up and putting them down.  Functional exercises, plyometrics, agility, range of motion, and flexibility work are all critical to improving your overall strength.

To get you started, below are the basic exercises that I recommend for athletes I coach to do three to four times a week.  They target the core, and build strength and stability.  No excuses – just do it!



  1. Plank
  • One line from head through heels
  • Keep butt down!
  • Hold for 0:30 – 2:00

Option: On elbows instead of hands.


  1. Hip Bridge (double or single leg)
  • One line from head through knees
  • Hold for 0:30 – 2:00


  • One-legged! Raise one foot up so it’s pointing to ceiling.
  • Resistance band around thighs just above knees


  1. Flutter kicks
  • Alternate legs, but they never touch the ground! “Kick” from the hips, not knees.
  • Perform for 0:30 – 2:00


  • Raise or lower height of your feet to make it easier or harder.


  1. Banded Squats (with or without weight)
  • Keep head up and back straight up.
  • Don’t BEND forward into the squat.
  • Go full Range of Motion!
  • Perform for 0:30 – 2:00


  • Do in front of a bench and touch your tush to the bench on each rep.
  • Add weight with a kettle bell or dumbell


  1. Plank + Leg Raise
  • One line from head through heel. Leg lift is NOT high, or you will pull your butt up. Keep butt down!!!
  • Perform for 0:30 – 2:00


  • On hands or on elbows
  • Add resistance band around shins


  1. Rotator Cuff Rotation with Band



  • Begin in a standing upright position with your elbow bent at 90 degrees and a towel roll tucked under your arm, holding a resistance band. The anchor point should be on the side furthest away from your bent arm.

B. Movement

  • Slowly rotate your arm out to the side.


  • Make sure to keep your hips and shoulders facing forward and maintain a gentle chin tuck throughout the exercise.



  • Begin in a standing upright position with your elbow bent at 90 degrees and a towel roll tucked under your arm, holding a resistance band. The anchor point should be on the side closest to your bent arm.


  • Slowly rotate your arm inward.


  • Make sure to keep your hips and shoulders facing forward and maintain a gentle chin tuck throughout the exercise.



  1. Bird Dogs
  • One line from head through heel.
  • HOLD each bird dog for 2-5 seconds.
  • Alternate legs.
  • Perform for 20-40 total repetitions.


  • Add a crunch before setting hand/knee back down (pull knee to elbow to crunch)