It's All About The Finish
As training is a cumulative process, each practice is linked to the previous and subsequent practice. As coaches, we often overlook these links by failing to appreciate that how a training session concludes can greatly influence how the next practice begins.
These considerations are the fine details of the coaching process that make a dramatic difference in performance over time, beyond technical particulars or the nuances of energy system development.
Let’s explore how engineering a great finish to a practice can help facilitate a positive feedback cycle of success from both a psychological and physiological perspective.
The Peak-End Rule is a psychological concept where our memory of a defined experience is influenced primarily by the peak of the experience and the end of the experience. For swimmers, how they define practice will be dictated by the ‘peak’ of practice in addition to the end of practice. As the latter is an easier and more flexible point of leverage, I will focus my attention there.
By influencing how practice finishes, we can influence how swimmers perceive the entiretyof that practice.
Success and Progress
Especially as the competitive level increases, swimmers are motivated by progress. When swimmers experience success, they’re more confident about their ability to overcome challenges in the future.
The main (peak) training tasks of practice will necessarily be challenging and will push the limits of each swimmer’s ability, leading to a greater chance of perceived failure. That is reality and while we can do better or worse job of setting up for success, there is always a risk.
However, we do have control over the end of practice and we can plan tasks where swimmers have a much greater likelihood of success and progress. This will enhance the perception of success for the entire practice, regardless of what happened earlier.
By carrying that positive perception with them to the next practice, they’ll be more motivated and confident to take on the challenges that practice presents.
Swimming is a physically demanding sport. The training is long, hard, and consistent. The more swimmers perceive this to be the case, the more the season can wear them down. If we can alter training structure to reduce the perception or memory of the difficulty of training.
Keeping in mind the Peak-End Rule, we know that the hardest part of training will influence the overall perception of the practice. There is a little we can do to alter this reality short of making practice easier, which is not an option when considering long-term improvement.
However, we can manipulate practice design by ensuring that there is a buffer between the most difficult training and the conclusion of practice. This can help to ensure that the entirety of the practice is perceived as less grueling. While most coaches have a main training task in mind for each training session, they often have secondary or tertiary tasks they would like to accomplish as well. In many cases, these minor tasks are placed prior to the ‘main set’.
What if we placed some of these tasks at the end of practice, after the main body of work?
In many cases, these activities are lower in volume, intensity, and perceived difficulty. By taking advantage of the Peak-End Rule, we are positively influencing perception without changing training content, only changing the order of the training content. This doesn’t even have to be swimming. It could be something as simple as dryland of some type.
Importantly, I believe there needs to be a buffer between the main work and warming down. I don’t believe warming down can be considered part of the ‘end’ of practice from an effort standpoint. Warming down is not perceived to be part of practice. To take advantage of the peak-end rule, training of substance needs to be included to create some separation from the main work.
At some level, swimmers swim because they enjoy it. While we can coach from the perspective that ‘swimming fast is fun’, it makes little to sense to avoid opportunities to provide swimmers with opportunities to perform activities they actually enjoy whenever possible. By finish practice with something that swimmers like to do, they will perceive that training session as more enjoyable, which will increase their enthusiasm for subsequent practices.
Coaches need to consider the impact of their decisions on success, discomfort, and enjoyment simultaneously as any given training activity will influence all three aspects in different way. It is about finding the balance between all of these factors to create an environment that can move the training process forward.
Human beings are social creatures. For many athletes, the social aspect of sport is a primary, if not the primary reason for participation. For many, it is an opportunity to spend time with their friends. Unfortunately, the nature of the sport limits the amount social interaction that is possible during hard training.
Consistent, positive social interaction has consistently been linked to many aspects of mental and physical health, while a lack of interaction has been linked to poor health outcomes. Even short exposures to social situations can move individuals towards more positive states.
Following intense training, swimmers’ bodies are in a state of distress. One of the best ways to bring swimmers back to a state of recovery is to some sort of social activity where swimmers can relax, laugh, and enjoy time with their friends.
That could take the form of interactive, group warm downs, planned social time, or many other options limited only by our creativity. 5 minutes can make a huge difference with little to no cost in terms of time taken away from training. This social aspect also influenced by the peak-end rule as swimmers remember the time with their friends, not the thrill of jumping into a cold pool.
It will keep them coming back for more.
The body remembers most what it did last. Thus, it is important to consider how we are concluding practice and the effect that will be carried to through to the next practice.
From an adaptation perspective, it important not to send conflicting messages to the body at the end of practice. As an example, performing a race specific/lactate set, then concluding with a 3000m threshold set is probably going to compromise adaptation to the race specific set. Of course, this can be a good strategy to create aerobic adaptations, so it comes down to your goals for each session.
Further information about complementary training modalities can be found by reading the work of Vladimir Issurin, although it is important to appreciate that these are concepts, not absolutes.
Another consideration is concluding practice with some sort of fast swimming. This can serve to ‘get the body going again’ following longer sessions performed at lower velocities. These repetitions can be very short (25-50m) and don’t need to be done to fatigue. The specifics should depend on the group you are working with.
In addition to preparing for the following session, it can serve to allow for additional practice swimming at higher velocity, with little ‘cost’. Fortunately, these activities tend to be relatively ‘social’ and enjoyable, beneficial for the reasons described above.
After particularly challenging and fatiguing sets, spending time to re-set the strokes with any form of technically focused swimming can help to re-establish stroking patterns for the following practice. This is particularly important for multi-session meets involved high racing volumes. This type of work will also bring the body back to an appropriate physiological state.
By concluding practice in a way that moves the body towards a more desired state, we can increase the chances of being in that state at the beginning of the next practice.
Following the main body of work, we several considerations, and numerous options as to how to segue to the end of practice. The art of coaching lies in reading the situation and making the appropriate decision on any given day.
For every practice, coaches can-
Conclude practice with activities that swimmers find inherently enjoyable and can improve their skills.
Starts, turns, relay exchanges, breakouts
Plan ancillary training tasks of lower perceived intensity after the main body of work.
Kicking, pulling, use equipment lower intensity aerobic training
End with work that swimmers can be successful with, and make sure that success is concrete.
Move the most enjoyable activities towards the end of practice.
For each training group, give them a taste of what they do best at the end of practice.
Sprinters go fast, distance swimmers can pace
Add necessary volume to the end of a training session, as opposed to the beginning, and do so in a more moderate fashion.
This is especially valuable for distance swimmers
Schedule work at the end of practice that may be challenging, but still inherently enjoyable for most swimmers.
For sprint-based practices, use equipment at the end of practice to keep velocities high, reduce the pressure of real swimming, and let them have fun going really fast.
End practice with a novel training intervention that is unexpected.
Design a non-traditional set or use different training equipment or completely
Create games or social experiences to conclude practice.
Social warm downs, a quick game, a group ritual, an interactive meeting
Conclude longer training sessions with some short sprints to get the body ready to swim fast.
Ensure that stroke mechanics and distance per stroke are re-established after fatiguing training.
Re-set the body for the state you want tomorrow. Tone it down a bit after racing and speed it up a bit after longer work.
The important concept is to incorporate these ideas WITHOUT compromising the training plan AT ALL. These interventions should improve your training, not take away from it all.
This is not about making concessions to ‘kids these days’. It is about working with our human tendencies to make for a better training session. Done well, you can get all the required work done in a way that works with who we are psychologically, socially, and physiologically.
There are many different aspects to consider when choosing how to conclude training session. There may be conflicting between what may be best physically and psychologically.
We want to end with less intense training elements without compromising the intent of the main training outcomes while also preparing for tomorrow. This compromise is not inevitable and it is up to the coach to determine how to plan practices so that both outcomes can be effective accomplished. This is the art of coaching and making decisions based upon intuition, imperfect information.
The attitude and emotional states swimmers bring to practice will be dictate how that practice will go. The attitude and emotional states swimmers bring to practice will be dictated their experience in prior practices. The perception of their experience in prior practices will be dictated in large part by how practices end.
While ‘it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish’ may be a worn cliché, when it comes to swimmers’ perception of their training experience, it certainly matters. With that construct in mind, coaches can influence perception by planning the conclusion of practice to reduce the impact of ‘negative’ experiences and increasing the impact of ‘positive’ experiences.
Over time, this can enhance motivation and confidence, an effect which will perpetuate itself and ultimately lead to faster swimming.