Improvements in training come from overload followed by recovery from that overload. This process results in an adaptive change* that improves performance. The nature of the overload determines the nature of the adaptation. If we want to manage the type of adaptations created, we have to manage the overloads we attempt to create through our training.
To facilitate improvement, coaches must provide stimuli that create overload. To do this effectively, coaches must carefully identify factors that limit performance, identify what specific training sets best target these factors, and modify these sets to create magnitude of overload appropriate to individuals and groups. With this process, we can better design training sessions that effectively challenge swimmers in a way that consistently improves performance.
Performance is the result of the integration multiple individual components. These components do not have to be physical in nature, as technical, psychological, and tactical components all influence performance. All of these components do not exist in isolation. While every component and subcomponent contributes to the whole, the interaction of these components also greatly influences performance. These performance components influence each other, as improvements in one area can create improvements in other areas.
As a quick example, the famous horse racing champion Secretariat had a heart 2.5 times larger than the average horse. While all things are never equal, this tremendous advantage within one individual component likely contributed to the horse’s dominance by drastically changing the horse’s entire physiology. The same can be said about Ian Thorpe’s giant feet, which created a tremendous biomechanical advantage, which beyond creating more propulsion with the legs, allowed for other technical traits such as a long patient catch that would be much less effective with ‘normal’ feet.
As the strength of individual components of performance can influence performance, stronger individual components can enhance overall performance. To create stronger components, we must create overload specific to these components. This article will explore thought processes and strategies that can effectively create overload.
*A quick note about humility. Coaches can’t precisely control the nature and magnitude of the adaptive response. We can only make educated guesses based on the accumulated evidence available through personal experience, the experience of peer coaches, research studies, and careful observation. As we become more skilled, we can more consistently manage training outcomes.
Knowing what you need to accomplish is the first step actually accomplishing it. What limits swimming performance, both in a general sense and specifically for your swimmers? What specific components of performance need to improve for competition results to improve?
The challenge here is that there are many reasonable and rational answers to this question. Coaches must identify the factors that are MOST important for improvement. There are many possible options, yet coaches must choose to focus their time and energy in specific areas.
A decision to address one limiting factor is a decision to NOT address another limiting factor.
Coaches must use their knowledge of performance requirements to identify what is most important to address now, that will allow for the most progress in the short term and the long term. Doing so requires thoughtful reflection upon the evidenced (anecdotal or otherwise) performance requirements balanced against careful observation of the needs of your swimmers.
The clearer coaches are about what they value in performance, and what they believe determines performance, the easier this process will be. With a small number of targets identified, resources can be focused to accomplish the goals. The fewer targets selected, the more likely any one limiting factor will be effectively addressed.
If we are to actually address limiting factors effectively, we have to be as specific as possible when describing the limiting factor. Let’s take the example of getting ‘stronger’.
Do you mean dryland strength? Which parts of the body? What types of movements? Which muscles? It is the ability to express strength over a brief period of time?
Do you mean strength in the water? The same series of questions applies. Again, what parts of the body? What parts of the stroke? Is it more of maximal expression of strength or the ability to sustain strength for long durations?
In many cases, the answer may be ‘all of the above’, and all may need to be addressed over time. However, what is the limiting factor right now. The answer is likely different for the mature male sprinter who can bench press 250 pounds, but is weak in the water, as compared to the 14 year who can’t yet do a push-up. The definition of ‘getting stronger’ will be quite different.
To reiterate the point, clearly define what needs to improve. With greater levels of clarity, the likelihood of improving the limiting factors increases.
Beyond the Physical
While the example above described a specific physical problem, limiting factors do not have to be physical in nature. They can also be technical, psychological, or even tactical. As with any physical problem, we must be specific in identifying the limiting factor.
If the issue is psychological, when does it show up? How does it show up? Is it a lack of focus? A lack of discipline? Are they excessively negative? The clearer your description of the process, the easier it will be to design interventions.
As with psychology, what is the real issue with technical problems? Where is the root cause of the problem? With a clear and accurate understanding of the problem, an effective solution is more likely.
By selectively and specifically identifying limiting factors, coaches can greatly enhance the efficacy of any program designed to overload these limiting factors in performance.
Once a limiting factor has been identified, we have to design interventions to overload the limiting factor so that an adaptive response is stimulated.
A simple strategy is to match the targeted limiting factor with a training task that is limited by the same factor.
The limiting factor for any given training exercise will be overloaded, so coaches should strive to design training tasks that are limited by the performance components they are working to improve. The more the limiting factor of a given exercise is the same as the targeted component, the greater the overload will be. Otherwise adaptation may not be optimized.
As an example, let’s consider a 200m freestyle who needs to improve the ability to sustain a strong kick throughout the duration of the race. During maximal effort swimming, the legs will be used heavily, but they may not be the primary limiting factor in performance. However, if we put DragSox on someone’s legs and ask for maximal effort, the legs will be much more of a limiting factor to performance. There will be overload. If we ask the swimmer to kick with a board with DragSox, the legs will become the limiting factor and there will be significant overload.
The limiting factor for total performance is the quality and sustainability of the kicking action. In both cases, training tasks are chosen that specifically overload the legs. As to which overloading strategy is ‘better’, it will depend on your goals, as well as consideration of another factor that will be explored below. Certainly, there are other strategies that are effective for this particular limiting factor.
Is this obvious? Yes. Do most coaches do this in some form? Yes.
However, I argue that by formalizing the process and specifically identifying the limiting factor and then looking to design training tasks to overload that factor, coaches can increase the likelihood of facilitating positive training outcomes.
The value of clearly identifying limiting factors becomes more evident when we move toward creating specific interventions. As an example, consider two different pulling sets that are limited by ‘upper body strength’ and thus ‘strengthen’ the upper body.
10*25@1 Pull with large paddles, buoy, and large parachute. Swim as fast as possible.
5*500 with 30 seconds rest; Pull with small paddles and buoy. Negative split each 500 and descend 1-5.
Both sets may work on upper body strength, but the context is very different. The first set is limited by the ability to create large forces with the upper body for a short period of time. The second set is limited by the ability to create moderate forces for a sustained amount of time. It follows that the first set will improve maximal expression of pulling strength, whereas the other will improve the ability to sustain pulling strength over time. In this example, knowing HOW you want to get stronger is instrumental in creating interventions that move swimmers closer to their goals.
Specificity Versus Overload
The most overload is not the best overload. To create more and more overload for a specific performance factor may require greater and greater isolation of the limiting factor. In this case, when we overload specific aspects of performance, it typically comes at a cost.
The more specific to racing contexts, the less overload there will be for any one component of performance. It follows that the further away you move racing contexts, the more you can overload specific subsystems of performance. The trade-off is that there is less specificity. This creates a spectrum where you have very specific tasks with less overload at one end, and less specific tasks with large potential for overload at the other end.
Ideally, we’d like to create very specific training tasks that provide a large degree of overload. However, this is not always possible. To overcome this challenge, coaches can create multiple tasks that effectively cover the specificity-overload spectrum, providing more emphasis on whatever portion of the spectrum they believe will most positively influence performance.
Let’s revisit the DragSox example from above. Kicking with DragSox will provide a greater, more isolated overload to the legs. However, the skill of coordinating the kicking action within the full stroke is removed. In contrast, swimming fast with DragSox will allow for swimmers to overload the legs will retain the skill of swimming, but the overload will not be as localized to the legs as compared to just kicking.
It is a trade-off, and it is up to the coach to decide what is more valuable for which swimmer at what timepoint. Further, it is not an either/or situation as both types of training can be used to get the benefits of both strategies.
In general, the more a limiting factor is addressed through strategies that isolate components of a stroke, the more opportunity there is to create a physiological overload. However, this comes at the cost of technical integration. The opposite is true when more and more of the technical elements are retained. There is more of a technical challenge, but the physiological load is less isolated.
Either approach can be more or less appropriate depending on the skill level of a swimmer. The more skilled a swimmer is, the more isolated physiological loads can be applied that will still enhance performance. However, with less skilled swimmers, improvements in more isolated loading tasks may not transfer as well because of a failure to use these improved physical abilities due to inadequate technical skill. They are limited by their skills, not their fitness.
As another generalization, it makes sense to emphasize isolated overloads earlier in the training season, shifting this emphasis over time towards more specific overloads. This allows for physical changes to occur early, and then these changes can be slowly integrated into technical skills over time with the inclusion of more technical training tasks. The relative proportion of the different exercise types will depend on the specific context. There are not necessarily ‘correct’ answers. It is the principle that is important.
In short, these two sets of swimmers may have different limiting factors (physical versus technical), resulting in differences in the effectiveness of two sets of approaches. At the same time, coaches can and should use multiple training tasks across the specificity-overload spectrum, manipulating the relative proportion dependent on the needs of the swimmers.
Once we have identified limiting factors, and we have identified the interventions that will overload these limiting factors, we have to identify the appropriate magnitude of stimulus that will create an overload. The appropriate magnitude of overload is specific to the individual and it is specific to the moment. Different individuals will be able to tolerate different amounts of load, and the same individual will be able to handle different amounts of load depending on a variety of factors.
How do we identify the appropriate magnitude of overload? I suggest coaches considering the following sources of information to create a flexible plan that effectively overloads limiting factors over time.
1. Coaching History
Coaches have been working with swimmers for over 100 years. In general, effective and neutral coaching strategies have survived and ineffective coaching strategies have not survived. In the context of the limiting factor you are looking to address, what coaching practices have survived? How have other coaches solved similar problems? What seems to be a reasonable amount of intensity and volume?
Looking at what others are doing or have done provides a good starting point for evaluating how much load is possible, and more importantly, how much load is effective.
2. Personal Coaching History
What has worked in the past for you? What are rough guidelines of volume and intensity you feel have been productive? What hasn’t been productive? Is this experience relevant to the current situation? If so, how useful is the information? Your own experience as a coach is a further level of information that can be useful for determining how much overload is appropriate. If you are implementing a novel strategy, it becomes more important to lean on the experience of others to establish a starting point.
3. Individual History
What is the training history of the individuals you are coaching? How much have they done in the past? How much have they done recently? What was effective in the past during similar situation? Is there any reason to believe that the current situation is markedly different? If so, how so?
It’s important to consider the long-term and the short-term training history. An individual’s training history gives an indication as to which strategies will be effective in the future. If there is no history with a specific type of training, it’s important to start slow. With novel training strategies, there is a greater possibility of making a mistake resulting in injury or poor outcomes. Further, much less overload is required with novel stimuli because the novelty is an overload in and of itself. Do less now, so you can do more later.
4. Observation and Communication
While the first three sources of information can help to create an initial plan, it is through careful observation and communication that the plan can be modified to more effectively create overload. Are swimmers making progress? Keep moving forward. Are swimmers making progress while accumulating fatigue? Be more cautious as adjustments may need to be made soon. Is no progress being made? The plan needs an overhaul.
Beyond observing the training process, effective communication can provide coaches with more information about how the process is going. A simple question, ‘How are you doing?’, can provide coaches with a lot of information about how the process is unfolding. If the answers to that question are becoming increasingly negative, it’s likely that the magnitude of overload is too high. If the answers are ALWAYS positive, the magnitude is likely insufficient. As implied in the name, overload requires an unaccustomed challenge that will likely result in fatigue. Some fatigue is required for performance improvement.
With these sources of information in mind, coaches can identify rough estimates of what is effective for a given group, and then using careful observation and communication, modify the process over time to enhance performance.
The examples I used above to describe overload both happen to refer to particularly body regions. Limiting factors are not limited to particular muscles or body regions. I simply included these examples because they are clear.
Limiting factors can be ANY aspect of performance that is holding an athlete back, can include, but is certainly not limited to any of the following aspects-
Different aspects of aerobic fitness
Different aspects of race-specific fitness
Torso strength and fitness
Upper body strength
Upper body muscular endurance
Recoverability between races
Recoverability between days during multi-day competition
ANY psychological components
ANY tactical/race strategy components
ANY technical components
ANY aspect of performance that you identify as a coach
By carefully considering ALL aspects of performance, coaches can identify which aspects of performance may be limiting their swimmers, thus creating the opportunity to design interventions to address these limitations.
Work still needs to be done to retain the physiological, technical, and psychological adaptations that do NOT currently limit performance. These aspects of performance must still be addressed over the course of the training process. It’s not that these aspects can be ignored, it’s just that they are less important AT THE MOMENT. Failure to still address these components will only result in developing new limiting factors due to neglect.
In summary, the following checklist identifies the process of creating effective overloads to enhance the probability of securing improvement that will result in faster racing.
Identify a skill or trait that is limiting performance. What needs to improve?
Consider how that skill can be overloaded in practice in a manner that is relevant to performance. What type of work or challenge will stress the required skill or trait?
Reflect on what magnitude of overload is required for improvement. How MUCH of an overload is required for each individual?
Plan for the logistics of implementing the training program. How can you create an optimal, or near optimal, practice session for as many of the swimmers as possible?
Having designed a strategy to improve specific limiting factors, how can a practice plan be organized to ensure other aspects of performance are maintained over time?
By carefully considering and planning what to overload, how to overload, and how much to overload, we can move closer to properly assigning training tasks that will ultimately improve performance. The skill of doing so requires observation and reflection with a focus on ensuring training goals, and racing goals, are being met through a process that is effective and efficient. For some coaches, this may require more work identifying limiting factors. For others, they may need to improve the process of creating specific overloads. Some coaches may need to improve their ability to correctly identify the magnitude of the stimulus needed to provide overload.
Once all of these skills have been developed, coaches will have much greater skill in creating training programs and practice sessions that effectively enhance competition performance over time.