Beyond the Base
One of the fundamental concepts of swimming training is the critical importance of developing a ‘base’. As the name implies, a great base is thought to be the foundation upon which current and future performances are build. A solid base is considered critical for short-term and long-term performance improvement.
Almost universally, this base is considered to be a base of aerobic fitness. While the specific beliefs as to what the work consists of, how long the development period should last, etc… may vary by coach, most agree that all swimmers need to possess a baseline level of aerobic fitness. Most coaches agree that this level of fitness becomes more and more important as the competition distance extends out.
Most coaches will also agree that the early part of a training career and a training season should be dedicated to developing this base. Again, while the duration of these time periods and the specific type of work employed may vary, the concepts remain the same.
Without a doubt, aerobic fitness is critical for all swimmers to facilitate recovery and the ability to train effectively. Further, it likely has a direct impact on race performance for distances beyond 50m, with that impact becoming more and more important as race distance extends.
Aerobic training is easily tolerated by most individuals at most points in a season and a career. Coupled with the relative ease at which the aerobic system adapts and improve, it’s silly to neglect the improvements that are possible in this area.
At the same time, I feel like we are overlooking other attributes upon which great performances are built. I’d like to draw attention to these attributes to help coaches consider how they can work to concurrently develop these other attributes to facilitate long-term performance improvements.
By carefully considering what truly forms the basis of long-term performance improvement, coaches can move toward creating training programs that best prepare their swimmers for future success. In many cases, some of these attributes are being addressed by coaches. In rare cases, all of these attributes being addressed within a single training program.
The hope is that a change in perspective can help coaches find new ways to help their swimmers continue to improve.
Put simply, slow swimmers are too slow to swim fast, regardless of their fitness. A failure to address speed will leave this issue unresolved. Unfortunately, speed takes a long time to develop. While it’s possible to see dramatic improvements in speed during ‘sharpening’ periods following fatiguing periods of training, this process is typically characterized by the re-establishment of speed that has been lost during prior training periods. This re-development of lost speed should not be confused with the development of new levels of speed.
To be effectively developed, speed needs to be addressed early and often, in small and manageable doses. It does NOT take a lot of work, and it does not take a lot of time. However, it must be addressed consistently throughout the training week, consistently throughout the training year, and consistently throughout a career.
Dedicating 15-20 minutes a week of true speed training, consisting of low volume and very high velocity, will provide the appropriate stimulus over time. There will not be big changes in performance from week to week, or even month to month, but these changes add up over the seasons and years. There must be a premium placed on velocity.
Slow swimmers will never swim fast, and if coaches want their swimmers to swim fast, they must create a plan for the development of that speed.
Superficial technical changes can appear to be facilitated relatively quickly in practice. However, as I’ve tried to reiterate in many of the posts on this blog, meaningful changes in skill that actually impact performance in competition take a long time to develop. And they only happen intentionally.
Technical skill differentiates champions swimmers. If coaches want to provide their swimmers with the best opportunity for long-term success, they must provide a program that provides a base of great technical skill, preferably across all strokes.
As opposed to creating a series of drill progressions, I would challenge coaches to consider how they can develop a training program and training environment in which the development of technical skill is intricately woven into every training task. The development of these skills must be oriented towards an application in racing environments, with exposure to increasing levels of speed and fatigue, as described previously.
For technical ability to provide a long-term platform for success, it must not be an afterthought, but an integral component of the practice and training schedule. As with the other bases of performance, skill acquisition is a long, slow process. To be effective, that process must be carried out with great consistency.
If swimmers lack the physical range of motion to achieve specific positions required for excellent skills, and they lack the strength to move effectively through these positions, any attempt at creating positive technical change will be ineffective. For swimmers to successfully execute a skill, they must have the physical ability to perform the skill. The necessary range of motion and strength must be in place prior to the ability to control movement through the necessary patterns.
For a variety of reasons, many swimmers will not possess the strength and mobility required to swim well. If these underlying issues are not addressed, performance potential will be compromised. As such, basic movement potential provides a base for the specific skills required in swimming.
Unfortunately, insufficient physical competencies are typically not resolved through swim training alone. Unless a concerted effort is made, typical dryland programs will also fail to address these issues. As described in previous articles, physical competencies required for effective swimming are numerous, and they must all be addressed to allow for swimmers to effectively create and sustain world-class technique.
This process takes a lot of time, particularly when the process has been delayed and significant change is required. When working with very young swimmers, they typically already possess much of the required range of motion. It becomes an issue of strength and control. However, range of motion is often not preserved and much time must be spent to restore it. By addressing physical readiness early in the developmental process, coaches can ensure that their swimmers have a strong foundation for future performances.
As physical readiness involves the conditioning of the many soft tissues of the body, this process takes time. As such, it must be addressed consistently if long-term changes are to be facilitated and maintained.
A Quick Recap
The attributes of aerobic fitness, technique, speed, and physical readiness all work together to form the base upon which great performances are built in the future. The greater degree to which these attributes can be developed, the greater ceiling exists on performance. With a solid, multi-faceted foundation, the impacts of race specific training will be magnified. At the same time, as racing is a skill in and out itself, time and energy must be provided for its development as well.
Application During A Season
For any season to be successful, the basic abilities required for future performance must be addressed. As most coaches will sufficiently address the aerobic component, my focus will be on the other performance prerequisites.
While most coaches address ‘technique’ early in the season with a cursory implementation of drills. Instead, a long-term technical plan should begin be implemented to effect the desired changes in skill. Both speed and fitness must be addressed from the start, and they must be addressed in conjunction with the desired technical outcome of the season. Fortunately, these processes can occur concurrently.
Aerobic development requires relatively low speeds sustained for long durations. This is the perfect opportunity to practice and establish technical skills through higher repetitions with minimal fatigue. At the same time, speed work requires short bursts of high velocity, also with minimal fatigue. This is the perfect opportunity to practice technical skills at speed. Fitness and speed development can coincide to stress and prepare the desired technical elements for the pressure of racing and the race-specific training to come.
When considering physical preparation, work must be done to ensure that the range of motion and postural strength needed to execute skills successfully are being developed. As this process continues, work to develop the strength required for effective propulsion can be implemented. Failure to improve physical readiness will ultimately limit the technical potential of swimmers as they simply can achieve the desired positions and outputs.
While everything can’t be fully developed simultaneously, all basic traits must be developed over time, with the emphasis shifting as appropriate. Finding the appropriate balance is the skill of coaching.
Application During A Career
Swimmers will swim fast later in life based upon the skills they develop at the introductory levels of the sport. The performance process must start with technique and technique must remain a focus throughout the career. While the focus may shift from learning new skills to solidifying established skills, this focus must remain.
For swimmers to swim fast, they need to practice swimming fast. This process needs to start from the beginning with a particular focus on executing skills well at speed. Speed can certainly be developed, especially if it is done so over time. By providing young swimmers with consistent exposures to speed development training, they will be at a distinct advantage later in their careers. By starting the process early, coaches can ensure that swimmers are consistently executing skills correctly and effectively from the beginning.
Physical development must be addressed from the start with a long-term focus on what swimmers should be able to do upon maturation. Most young swimmers possess adequate range of motion. It is only when this range of motion is not maintained that problems emerge. Coaches must focus on preserving this range of motion while slowly incorporating strength training that does not compromise this range of motion, but instead strengthens and preserves it. This process can occur patiently as consistently, looking toward long-term versus short-term development.
To swim fast, and to sustain high levels of performance, swimmers need a strong foundation for those performances. Traditionally, that foundation has been viewed exclusively from an aerobic perspective. While an aerobic base is important for both performance and health, it is insufficient as a complete foundation for long-term performance.
Swimmers must also have a strong base of technical skill, speed, and physical competency if they are to achieve the highest levels of performance they are capable of. Failure to continually address and develop these attributes will leave holes in a swimmer’s preparation. All areas must be addressed and maintained throughout the course of a training season and career, with a more directed focus as required.
The overwhelming theme for each area of performance is consistency. These changes take time and must be addressed consistently over time to expect long-term change. It is more important to do a little a lot than to do a lot a little.