Bleeding to Death Part II
As discussed in PART I, the effects of training can operate at divergent time scales, with the positive and negative impacts of a given intervention emerging at different times. We specifically looked at some common mistakes made with strength training and aerobic training, as well as strategies to overcome the challenges that many coaches often face. In this article, we’ll specifically address how the omission of speed and power training can compromise long-term performance development, as well as some simple solutions that can help coaches keep speed throughout the training year.
To get faster over time, swimmers need to get faster over time. Even the best distance swimmers are fast. All the fitness in the world is not going to allow swimmers to compete with others who are simply much faster than them.
As with all training elements, getting faster takes a systematic attempt to improve speed over time. It doesn’t happen by chance. Contrary to popular belief, speed and power take a very long time develop. As such, it needs to be consistently addressed over time. However, speed and power training is often neglected by coaches and swimmers.
Coaches tend to avoid dedicated speed/power training for the following reasons-
It is time consuming. Removing speed/power training can allow coaches to do more of other training elements, particularly during high volume phases.
It’s not that ‘hard’ in the moment. While there is strain and there is focus, there is not much metabolic challenge. It can be seen as a waste of time by some.
Speed and power training can actually cause fatigue, break people down, and impair speed, especially in the short term.
There is a lot of down time between repetitions required to recover enough to maintain sufficient intensity. The down time can be perceived as a waste of time.
Because prevents swimmers from achieving high volumes.
There is the perception that speed work should make swimmers fast quickly. As there is often little progress in the short-term, this lack of progress causes the perception that speed and power work is a waste of time.
Coaches and swimmers believe they need to get ‘fit’ prior to working on speed and power.
Because developing speed and power is a long-term process, consistent commitment to that process is critical to long-term success. The above perceptions work against the consistency required to improve over time. While this is less true when adequate training time and energy is available for training, speed and power training is often omitted when time and volume pressures arise. As these pressures often arise at similar points in the season, we can explore how to best implement training to ensure long-term speed and power development.
When working to develop the ‘aerobic base’, coaches often focus their efforts on accumulating volume, and rightfully so. As most coaches are locked into set training times, increasing the density of training is the only way to continue to increase training volumes. As effective speed and power training is characterized by low density, coaches often choose to remove this type of training to facilitate their volume objectives. While this strategy may facilitate the achievement of short-term goals, it comes at that the cost of long-term goals.
By removing speed and power training, speed and power are often decreased. This creates the false impression that aerobic training decreases speed. Aerobic doesn’t lead to losses in speed and power. NOT training speed and power lead to losses in speed and power. The transition out of a high-volume training phase will be much more effective if swimmers don’t have to re-establish speed and power attributes.
Fortunately, as with most attributes, speed and power can be maintained with a very small amount of work that requires little time. 10-20 minutes of training performed 1-3 times per week can make a significant difference. This time commitment can yield 5-20 efforts per session. Over time, this small investment will pay off. The time invested should reflect the speed and power needs of the swimmer. It makes sense for sprinters to allocate more time than distance swimmers. Sprinters can be on the high end or beyond, whereas distance swimmers can do the minimum. Some work will be beneficial to all.
The same situation occurs when training times are limited for whatever reason. In this case, coaches often attempt to maintain training volumes and aerobic fitness. However, swimming fast requires speed and even in a compromised program, speed needs to be addressed. The same options proposed for a high-volume phase exist. Small doses performed 1-3 times per week can make a difference. If these time constraints are prolonged, more work may be needed to actually develop, rather than maintain speed.
For those who have limited pool access but time available outside of the pool, the absolute minimums can be done in the pool. This work can be supplemented with power work performed outside of the pool. Creativity is the only obstacle to developing high power exercises that can be performed with little to no equipment. This same strategy can be used during high volume phases, these periods are also constrained by the amount of work swimmers can handle. At some point, enough is enough.
In both situations, the choice to include speed and power training is one coaches will ultimately have to make. However, I believe that finding a minimal dose will ultimately be most effective in helping swimmers achieve performance goals over the long term.
The management of speed and power loads must be considered in the tapering context. As speed and power are critical to performance, speed and power levels need to be sustained through the tapering process to preserve performance potential. While many coaches will maintain or even increase speed work, power work is often eliminated completely due to concerns about fatigue. Doing so can lead to losses in the same attributes that are required for performance. While the concerns about fatigue are warranted, it becomes a matter of load and volume. The effective strategy is to do less, not to do nothing. The total volume can be decreased, the amount of resistance can be lower, the repetition distance can be lowered, or the recovery period can be increased. All of these changes can allow for less fatigue to be accumulated.
When tapering speed and power loads, coaches need to also consider the long-term effects of their tapering choice. With minimal speed and power training, not only will speed and power losses directly affect short-term performance, but these gaps in training can affect future training cycles. A lack of training will lead to a loss of training adaptations. This requires that these lost adaptations be rebuilt to allow for continued performance improvement, which is an inefficient process. The optimal tapering strategy will allow for physical recovery, while also facilitating a smooth transition into the next training cycle. The minimal dose that accomplishes this objective will maximize recovery while retaining trainability.
Finally, as opposed to waiting to develop speed and power until fitness is developed. However, developing speed and power is a part of developing total fitness. By waiting several months to improve speed and power, coaches are not only missing out on 2-3 months of development, the attributes developed in the previous season are being de-trained. While HOW speed and power are developed may differ at different points of the season, the intent to develop these abilities should be present from the start if long-term progress is to be expected.
With change comes uncertainty. With more change comes more uncertainty. In coaching, we can get in the most trouble when a major change leads to a major improvement in performance, or a major loss of performance. Simply, we don’t know why because the information we have is unclear. We have what was done and we have what happened, but we don’t know why. In the presence of major change, there are often many seemingly valid explanations. Choosing the right explanation can greatly impact whether the right lesson is learned to enable continued improvement in the future.
This problem can also occur when swimmers switch coaches. There will typically be a major change in and that can result in major performance changes, both in the short-term and the long-term. It is very important to know what type of work was done previously to best evaluate the effects of the current training program. Has the change created long-term liabilities? Are certain performance components now being under- or over-addressed? Will it just take more time adjust?
When major performance improvements follow significant changes in training, it becomes challenging to determine why these improvements occurred. This is because the effects of fatigue and the effects of fitness may be operating a different timescale. Whenever you see a performance benefit from stopping any type of training, consider where that improvement came from.
Did the performances arise due to relief from the prior work which allowed for rest and recovery required to express these improvements? If so, this is a process you may want to repeat. An obvious example, is the reduction of weight training loads which allows most swimmers to better express their speed in the water.
Or was the explanation simpler and the wrong type of work was being used? In this, case it makes sense to remove that training element from future training cycles. For some sprinters, you certainly can do too much aerobic training and reducing that training element can definitely enhance performance. For some distance swimmers, inappropriate strength training will simply impair their ability to train effectively in the pool, with little tangible benefit.
The specific examples described above were used for the sake of clarity. As performance levels rise, it can become apparent that different training components within these broad categories can also operate in similar ways. With changes in the type of aerobic work, or the type of strength work, or the type of speed and power work, similar problems can emerge. As coaching expertise improves, coaches can become better and better at figuring out what needs to happen today to facilitate short-term and long-term improvements.
Beyond the specific strategies described above for specific situations, how can best manage the effects of change and training effects operating at different timescales?
Be conservative when making training adjustments. Major changes yield unpredictability and are less easily replicated. Smaller changes are more easily controlled and understood.
Look back to past seasons for patterns and a history of what has worked. If certain training changes at certain time points consistently yield positive changes, you can feel pretty good about what is likely to happen, even if you don’t know why.
Pay attention to what is happening when change is implemented. How are swimmers responding? How is the response changing over time? How do these changes match your expectations? It’s time to get curious when they don’t.
Over time, coaches can develop an intuitive sense of how training effects are operating the performances they see, which can inform better decisions that hopefully allow for more positive performance outcomes, consistently.