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Loaded Up

As swimmer’s progress through their career, performance improvements become harder and harder to come by. To overcome this challenge, training load (roughly speaking the combination of volume and intensity) must continue to increase to facilitate further improvements.

To sustain the required high training load, swimmers must stay healthy. Unfortunately, one of the best predictors of injury is training load.

We have an interesting situation where training load is required for performance improvements, yet high training loads increase the risk of not being able to sustain those same training loads due to injury risk.

As such it’s important to have a general understanding of the factors that contribute to the total training load, as well as what we as coaches can do to maximize the benefits and mitigate the risk of training.

Understanding Load

Training load can be quantified in any number of ways. It is typically a composite of volume and intensity, values that can be measured in multiple ways. What’s important is that the load is computed consistently.

It’s also important to note that the load doesn’t always need to be strictly quantified. It’s important to understand what it represents conceptually. This is particularly crucial as swimmers often undertake a spectrum of physical activities (pool training, weight training, dryland training, etc…) that are often best quantified in different ways. As it can be difficult to ‘translate’ between different loads, we need to understand how load changes from a conceptual perspective.

Both the absolute training load and the relative training load must be considered when evaluating training load and injury risk.

The absolute training load is the total training. The absolute training load matters because, as humans, our physical structures have a common finite capacity to tolerate load. If the training load is close to the limit of what humans have historically tolerated, risk will be present even if the load has been previously tolerated.

The relative training load is the training load relative to what a given individual has performed in the past. We should consider the training load relative to what the individual has ever performed, as well as compared to what has been performed recently.

If the swimmer is undertaking a training load they have never experienced before, risk will be increased as well. Further if the training load has increased significantly relative to what has been performed recently, risk will be increased as well.

Low training loads can also be problematic as they may not adequately prepare individuals to withstand the rigors of upcoming training and competition. As an example, if training loads are LOW prior to an intense training camp or extended competition, this may increase the risk of injury as well.

Most coaches can appreciate how training loads can influence injury risk, however there are other aspects that can moderate the impact a given training load will have on injury risk.

Mitigating Factors

While an excessive training load relative to an individual’s capacities ultimately facilitates acute or chronic injury, there are several mitigating factors which can influence an individual’s capacity to tolerate load.

Technical Factors

Many coaches will often look to technical errors when injuries arise. Biomechanical ‘flaws’ don’t necessarily CAUSE injuries. However, technical factors can unnecessarily increase the stress on particular structures, thereby reducing the tolerable training load.

In this way, technical factors can influence injury risk by lowering the tolerable training load. If normal loads are imposed on tissues with limited tolerance, injury becomes more likely. However, it is still a loading issue and injuries will only arise if loading tolerances are not respected.

If the technical flaw is significant enough, tolerable training loads may be compromised to such an extent that technical modifications are absolutely required.

However, technical changes can potentially be problematic, even if these changes are considered positive ones. Whenever you change movement patterns, particularly major changes, you are introducing a large change in load to some tissues. This must be appreciated and a conservative approach with load moving forward is warranted. It is better to be cautious, then hurt.

Outside Stressors

Life can affect the tolerable training load. In college sports, it has been consistently demonstrated that injury rates go up during periods of academic stress. This includes the period when mid-term and final exams are given and this is a common reality for all collegiate programs. You can choose to move with the flow of this reality, or move against it.

On an individual level, any significant life event can greatly impact stress and reduce the ability to tolerate a given training load. This can range from problems with family members or significant others to concerns about potential job or career opportunities to any event that is perceivedas stressful.

While academic stressors are somewhat predictable, other life events can be much more difficult to predict. What’s important is to be aware of the impact these events can have, as well recognition that outside events matter, and it can be valuable to have some perspective on what may be going on in a swimmer’s life.

Previous Injury

Beyond training load, the greatest predictor of future injury is former injury. Be aware of a swimmer’s injury history and proceed with caution as warranted by the specific circumstances. Some individuals never have a secondary issue whereas others may struggle throughout the remainder of their career.

Social Support

The more social support an individual has, the less likely they are to become injured. It matters. Social support can come in many different forms. While we as coaches cannot create a family structure for a swimmer, we can ensure that our team and our culture is what that engenders social support. This is particularly true of swimmers who become injured. How can we continue to provide social support as opposed to creating a sense of isolation, which often happens to individuals who become injured?


High trait anxiety has been shown to be correlated to increased risk of injury. While psychological interventions are certainly outside of the expertise of a coach, being aware of this relationship can help coaches manage potential injury scenarios, as well as help at-risk or affected individuals seek appropriate care.

Acting Preemptively

As you can see there are several factors which can contribute to injury risk. Unfortunately, it is difficult to fully understand and appreciate the magnitude with which each factor impacts any specific situation, with or without expertise.

However, as coaches we have several options for action that can help us move training forward without unnecessarily increasing injury risk-

  • Understand the impact training loads have on injury risk conceptually, as well how different factors affect the ability tolerate training.

  • As we typically have full control over the training load, we can act conservatively, particularly when we are aware of the presence of aggravating factors

  • Watch for signs of problems and intervene by timely modifying training load in an appropriate manner.

  • Find out when academic loads increase. How can you plan around those time periods to ensure that training continues to move forward without increasing injury risk?

  • Have a plan for introducing training load. Consider both the total load, as well as the loads particular areas of the body.

  • Identify which structures are particularly loaded by what exercises or training sets and slowly increase the load to allow for load tolerance to be developed.

  • Identify individuals who have previous injuries and may need to move slower with certain training components.

  • How can you enhance social support on your team to help create a buffer against life stressors?

  • Identify body regions that are particularly susceptible to injury and determine how load tolerance can be enhanced in these specific areas. The challenge of course is that load is required to build load tolerance. How can this process be executed without having the opposite effect and increasing injury risk?

So, what can we do if injuries are popping up on our team?

If there are commonalities amongst the injuries (i.e. low backs, groins, shoulders, etc…) look for changes in the volume/intensity of exercises in and out of the pool that tend to load these structures. If there is a dramatic change in a given area, it would be prudent to remove the extra load, and if necessary, re-introduce it in a more conservative manner.

If injuries are dispersed, it’s possible that common outside stressors (academics) are the issue. In the future, training may need to be better managed so that conflicts are avoided. It may be worth considering planning strategies that allow for training load to moderated during problematic timeframes without compromising the training plan as a whole. While this might not seem particularly palatable, if injury occurs, training will be modified in a way that you can’t control.

Alternative Training

If injury does arise that compromises training options, it’s important to find alternatives that allow for training load to be maintained as much as possible. This will prevent a loss of fitness.

When alternative training loads are introduced, you are now introducing new loads to new tissues that are not used to the novel loading. As an example, if a swimmer has a shoulder issue limiting their time in the pool, it can be appropriate to introduce some sort of stationary biking to maintain fitness. However, if the swimmer starts biking for an hour every day, there may be a knee injury to accompany the shoulder injury.

The Reality

Coaches can wreck a season and a career. In a non-impact sport like swimming, the majorities injuries are the result of errors in training load management. As the primary managers of training load, it is we as coaches who are ultimately responsible for ensuring that our swimmers remain healthy. This is the tough reality.

Unfortunately, there are never concrete answers as to what will be an appropriate load at any given moment for any given individual. However, we can educate ourselves about the factors that affect injury risk, we can humbly admit that we can’t predict the impact of these factors, and we can choose to act conservatively to ensure we achieve our goals without the distraction and frustration of injury. If issues do arise, it is important to act immediately and conservatively, less a minor problem becomes a major one.

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