The training process can be very confusing. Seemingly opposite approaches to training have produced equally impressive results across all event groups. How is this possible? I’d like to distill the goals of the training process and find the common ground to help facilitate an understanding of what really needs to happen in practice.
Regardless of how you view training, whether you favor intensity or volume, these three traits must be the outcomes of the training process. Swimmers must have the skills that create the platform to swim with speed and efficiency. They must have the ability to swim fast and the fitness to sustain these speeds.
You have to have great skills.
You have to be fast.
You have to be fit.
These are the required outcomes of training. What must be understood is that there are no RULES, you can do WHATEVER you want to get there, as long as you get there. There are many approaches that can be successful and many aspect of swimming training that can be useful. It is up to the coach to decide how to best create the above outcomes.
Let’s take a look at what these outcomes are, how context influences these definitions, as well as how to balance the interaction between these elements.
More than any other factor, skill determines success in swimming. A swimmer can never be too efficient. The quest to reduce drag and increase propulsion is never ending. Whether during free swimming, starts, turns, breakouts, or underwater kicking, opportunities to continue enhance skills are present. Improvements in these areas will directly contribute to performance across all distances. Improving skill should be a primary training task throughout all stages of a swimmer’s career. How skills are enhanced can changes throughout that career.
Everyone needs speed. The faster you are, these easier any submaximal speed is. If you’re best time is 59 in the 100m freestyle, you will not go under 15 minutes in the 1500m. Every event is a race and thus limited by speed. What is important is that training is structured to create the speed necessary to accomplish race goals. As speed limits performance in all events, in must be addressed consistently if swimmers hope to improve over the long-term.
Fitness has two elements. The first is simply the ability to express and sustain skill and speed throughout the duration of the race. If there is a significant technical breakdown or drop in velocity in the latter stages of a race, a lack of fitness is present. Fitness training to address this issue should be of relatively high intensity and relatively high volume and should have race-relevance, directly or indirectly.
The second type of fitness is that which supports the training process, aiding in recovery within and between training sessions. This type of training creates long-term changes in the cardiovascular, hormonal, immune, and autonomic nervous systems. These changes serve to increase the body’s resiliency and aid in the adaptive process. Once these adaptations are in place, further pursuing progress in this area is likely unproductive. Time is better spent developing race-specific fitness, skill, and speed. This type of training is typically low intensity and high volume.
These outcomes have different definitions dependent on the individual, as well as the targeted events. Training will look very different dependent on the targeted events. Training will look very different dependent on developmental level of each swimmer. Training will look very different dependent on individual characteristics of each swimmer.
Below are several examples of how this is generally demonstrated in practice. It is important to appreciate that I used words such as ‘more’ and ‘less’. These are relative descriptions, not absolute descriptions. The actual volumes and intensities used are very much subjective. It is about where you are and what needs to change to get where you want to go.
As swimmers develop, technical interventions shift from basic drill sequences to complex technical learning tasks.
As skill work needs to take place at competition intensity, it will be faster in sprinters and relatively slower in distance swimmers.
The specific nature of skill interventions should be adjusted based on how swimmers learn and what ultimately creates change for each individual swimmer.
As swimmers develop, speed training will become longer and more intense.
As swimmers develop, resisted sprint training can become more of a priority and take up a larger percentage of the training load.
As event distance shortens, sprint training will become shorter, more intense, and require longer recovery periods. The opposite is true for longer events.
As swimmers develop, fitness training will become more voluminous, and then more intense.
As event distance lengthens, fitness training will become more voluminous, and less intense in absolute terms.
As event distance shortens, fitness training will become less voluminous, and more intense in absolute terms.
Low intensity fitness training will always be a development priority for longer events, where is begins to serve a recovery function for sprint events.
All of these general guidelines are subject to change based upon the individual characteristics of any individuals. What matters is the outcome, not how you get there.
You can never really have enough skill, speed, or fitness. However, as training time and energy are limited, choices must be made. The relative priority must be mutually driven by the needs of the swimmer and the requirements of the race.
The shorter the race is, the more skill becomes important as fitness cannot compensate due to the shorter race duration.
The shorter the race is, the more speed becomes a limiting factor.
The shorter the race, the less important general fitness becomes.
The longer the race, the more fitness of both types will impact performance.
The longer the race, the less improvements in short speed will positively impact performance.
Determining the appropriate balance can be challenging. Where the training focus is placed should be driven by short-term goals within the context of long-term goals. The balance of training should be dictated by what limits swimmers in the short term, as well as what will limit them over the long term. Short-term solutions may impair long term results.
As an example, if swimmers are falling apart at the end of races, they may need more specific fitness, or they may need more focused skill work. The appropriate answer will depend on what the swimmer needs now and what the swimmer needs over time.
The three components of training interact with each other, both in a positive and negative manner.
Improvements in skill can directly enhance speed and endurance.
Improvements in speed can improve endurance.
Improvements in fitness can result in improved speed maintenance over shorter distances.
Improvements in fitness result can improve the ability to maintain skill.
Fatigue due to excessive fitness work can negatively impact speed and skill in the short term. Alleviating fatigue resolves the problem.
A key lesson is that if you are faced with a problem in one aspect of the trinity, the solution may be found in another. A perceived deficit in fitness may really be the result of poor skills or speed. The opposite can be true as well.
When considering these interactions, remember that problems in training don’t come from what you do, but what from what you don’t do. Endurance training doesn’t impair speed; not training for speed impairs speed. High volumes of speed work don’t impair fitness. Failing to adequately address fitness impairs fitness.
What about psychology? As described in Psychology Made Simple, confidence comes from preparation. Confidence comes from knowing you are skilled, fit, and fast. It is an emergent result of effective training. When swimmers are successful in training, confidence in their abilities will grow.
Coaches have three tasks in practice.
Help swimmers learn the skills needed to swim with speed and efficiency.
Create opportunities that allow swimmers to develop their ability to swim fast.
Ensure that swimmers possess the fitness to sustain their speed and skill throughout the duration of each race.
Coaches can use any strategy to facilitate these outcomes. As long as there is a consistent, long term approach to the process, there are no rules, just results.