top of page

Living on the Edge

Without stress, there is no adaptation. Without challenge, there is no growth. In the first case, there is no physiological change, while in the second there is no change in belief.

At the same time, excessive stress or unconquerable challenges can be physically destructive and psychologically demoralizing.

An optimum exists, an edge where maximum progress happens. We learn and grow from both failure and success, so it becomes critical to experience both with some consistency. How often, and it what context, are the critical questions to answer.

When trying to discover the what the ‘edge’ might look like, it’s important to consider the different factors that comprise the total challenge.


Technical- To what extent can a swimmer maintain technical execution during the set? If technical skill is always falling apart, that’s not particularly productive. At the same time, if technique is never challenged as it will be in a race, the swimmer will be unprepared for competition. Consistently watching technical execution is the best way to clue into the degree of technical challenge.

Physiological- Within a given unit of time, an optimal amount of physical stress is appropriate for a desired physiological adaptation. Too much or too little will result in undesirable effects. Unfortunately, we have to prescribe this stress in a rather blunt manner through training sets in the hope that our set yields the appropriate stimulus for adaptation. Careful observation and monitoring remains the best way to manage this balance. If Suzy vomits after an aerobic endurance set, it was probably too challenging for the expected effect. Likewise, if Johnny is yawning between race specific repetitions, he’s probably not being challenged enough.

Psychological I- To what extent can the swimmer maintain engagement and focus during the entire set? To what extent are individuals under psychological duress? What’s the level of enthusiasm for training? These are clues as to how close an individual is to the edge of what is optimal.

Psychological II- Some individuals need a lot of evidence for confidence and some need very little. In the latter case, Stevie might fail every day and still believe in his abilities. In the former case, two successive ‘failures’ can crush David’s confidence for weeks.


Intensity- How difficult is the challenge relative to maximal capabilities?

Volume- How big is the challenge/how long is the challenge sustained relative to maximal capabilities?

Frequency- How often are challenges being presented?

These factors all interact on a sliding scale and changes in one area will affect what’s possible in another area. Some swimmers, can be challenged intensely and often, as long as the volume is low. Some swimmers can be successful with big, intense challenges, as long as they are infrequent. In the latter case, if you up the frequency, you may have to reduce the intensity.

Temporal Considerations

Unfortunately, these relationships are also shifting over time as swimmers continue to improve, as well as in the short term due to outside stressors. As swimmers improve, they should be able to tolerate more significant challenges. However, they may tolerate these challenges with less frequency. On a daily basis, changes in outside stressors can shift the balance one way or another.

During certain points of the year, the ratio of ‘success’ to ‘failure’ may change as well, and it may need to change. During particularly hard training periods, there will be greater challenges and consequently greater likelihood of failure. During a taper period, the opposite is true.


Clearly there are several questions to appreciate when considering the nature and the magnitude of the training challenge you plan to present to a group of swimmers.

  • What degree of failure are you willing to tolerate? What amount can the swimmer bounce back from?

  • What’s an appropriate amount of challenge relative to ability for a given swimmer, in general?

  • What’s an appropriate amount of challenge relative to ability for a given swimmer, TODAY?

  • What adjustments need to be made moving forward based upon what happened in the recent past?

  • How close are we to the edge, and more importantly, what are we going to do about it?

Coaches who can consistently manage these considerations, managing to live on the edge, will consistently produce swimmers who consistently swim fast and keep swimming faster.

Assigning tasks and training loads is simple, but it’s NOT easy.

bottom of page