Slow Cook It
The impact of slow losses in critical training components was discussed previously in Bleeding to Death. I would like to shift the discussion towards the process of building (and hopefully not re-building) these same training components within the context of the entire training plan. In almost all cases, aerobic fitness, strength, and speed and power need to be developed over time. If training errors have been made, there may be a significant deficiency that is greatly limiting performance. How this long-term development is planned and executed can determine whether the process is a successful one, or not.
Suzy is out of shape. Johnny is just plain weak. Michael is SLOW. When obvious performance limitations present themselves, coaches have to decide how to address these limitations. How are these coaching challenges best resolved? What factors must be considered when choosing a strategy? Is an aggressive, focused plan best for addressing these weaknesses, or is a patient, conservative approach more appropriate?
While there is not necessarily a right or wrong answer, although my perspective will be readily apparent even if the article title didn’t give it away, it’s important to be aware of what dynamics may ultimately determine the best approach. We’ll examine these dynamics and come to some conclusions about how coaches can move forward with their planning.
Nothing is Ever Equal
Performance is the aggregate of multiple factors which influence speed. They all matter and they all interact with each other. If one factor is out of alignment, problems will emerge. Further, a change in one factor will almost always result in changes in other training elements, for better or worse.
When considering the importance of various training components, you will often hear arguments such as ‘all things being equal, the fitter/stronger/faster swimmer will win. Of course, this is true. Unfortunately, NOTHING is ever equal. There is a time and energy cost to developing any adaptation. The cost of developing any adaptation must be considered when deciding to place a large emphasis in a given area.
This is an argument put forth by individuals who typically favor a given approach that relies heavily on one factor above all else. The argument is often used to justify the single-minded pursuit of one performance component. As described above, changes in strength for example, will influence, speed, flexibility, endurance, etc…in ways that are not always positive. Nothing is ever equal.
Patience Above All Else
Endurance, strength, speed, and power adaptations require systemic structural changes. As with the process of building any structure, large amounts of time are required. Structural change is limited by the body’s ability to synthesize new tissue. This process can only move so fast. While the urgency with which structures will be created is related to the magnitude of the training stimulus, the relationship is not linear. Once structures are being built as fast as possible, further stimulus will not be effective. It will literally be a waste of time.
If you are aiming to create the systemic structural changes required for long-term performance, you must allow for enough time for these structures to be created. Patience is required. Rushing the process won’t allow for faster improvement, but it will likely cause disruptions in the balance of the training program.
Consistency Beats Load
As time is required to create significant adaptation, the required stimulus must be applied consistently over time. To create consistency, the training must be sustainable. Daily training sessions that always place swimmers at the limits of adaptability, or beyond, will not be sustainable.
If you decide that you need to address strength twice per week to create the changes you want, you need to develop a sustainable training program that allows for two effective strength stimuli per week.
When developing long-term training plans, it’s critical that that important physical qualities are able to be addressed consistently. Consistent exposure is more important than having several terrific training sessions or a month of great training. With consistency, performances will improve over time.
The added benefit of consistency is that you are always in the game with each training element. You know where the swimmers are at and little guessing is about performance potential. The major advantage is that problems become evident early, allowing for adjustments to be made before it is too later. Additionally, these adjustments can be relatively small because you have TIME for the effects to take place.
In many cases, large adjustments are less predictable and can introduce further uncertainty into the process. Unfortunately, large adjustments often make problems worse, requiring further large adjustments. Consistency allows coaches to stay calm, adjust early and conservatively, and NOT panic.
Think crockpot, not the broiler.
What’s Required NOW?
What will it take to keep or get the training process moving forward? This can inform the training elements that are most important to focus on. These limiting factors must be addressed in the short-term to allow for long-term improvement.
How much time do you have? If there is very little time, and long-term considerations are not relevant, an unbalanced approach may be more effective. If you have 6 months to prepare for a swimmer’s final competition of their career, it’s a different situation than someone who will be competing for four more years. The more time available, the more patient the approach can be.
What’s Required THEN?
Just as coaches must be aware of what is required for short-term performance improvements, coaches must always be mindful of what is required for long-term performance development. As many adaptations take a long time to develop, and consequently erode just as slowly, it can be tempting to remove certain elements to facilitate the development of other training components.
However, the long-term perspective, coupled with the importance of consistency, suggests that is it unwise to entirely remove training elements, even if doing so may facilitate short-term goals. As an example, swimmers may currently possess sufficient aerobic fitness and can get away with removing it in the short-term, but it’s likely going to matter during later stages of development. While short-term performance may be improved while doing so, it may compromise long-term performance. Thus, coaches need to consider this impact when choosing what to do in the short-term.
Balanced vs. Biased Programming
For novice swimmers, a simple, balanced training program will prove very effective as every training stimulus is novel. They are so untrained, that any training program. They can get better at all training qualities at the same time.
As swimmers mature, a shift in training emphasis over the course of season is almost required for improvement in any one area. Common sense dictates that a plan to simultaneously improve strength, aerobic fitness, speed, race specific fitness, etc…is a plan that is likely to fail.
If you look at the training content of almost coaches, certainly at the higher levels, you’ll see this reality reflected in the shifting of training content over the course of a season and year. While there are different approaches as to how content is shifted, it occurs in almost all cases. Even as training content is shifted, the majority of coaches retain all of the training components in some form. The training is balanced.
However, there are various degrees of balance within a training program. The more biased a training program is, the more emphasis is placed on one or two training elements, with correspondingly less emphasis in other areas. This is not good or bad, but appropriate for a given context. There is big difference between truly balanced programming, biased programming, and exclusionary programming, where certain elements are left out.
When there is a specific issue that needs to be addressed, strongly biased programming can be useful to address the specific issue. At the same time, when an obvious problem emerges, it took time to develop and it won’t be fixed quickly. Patience is warranted and the training program should still maintain some semblance of balance.
The correction, or over-correction, of any problem can make the problem worse, and subsequent interventions continue to escalate the issue. The further the programming deviates from a truly balanced one, the more uncertainty exists. The is particularly true if maintenance loading is not included.
The key point is that all training elements are still present; however, the degree to which they are present may differ drastically. There is a big difference between strength training three times per week, once every ten days, and not at all. The first case is a balanced approach, the second case is a biased approach that will likely allow for maintenance, and the third approach will not allow for maintenance.
Bleeding to Death
As discussed in Bleeding to Death, failing to maintain training loads for fundamental performance components will compromise long-term performance potential. When devoting more time and energy to other training components, there will be less resources available to for other training components. Outside of very short training periods, maintenance training loads must be included or future performances will likely be compromised.
Unfortunately, the consequences of failing to include maintenance loads are not always immediately relevant and coaches may believe they can ‘get away with it’. However, this strategy will ultimately fail more often than not. Remember, ‘things are never equal’. Improvements in one area with simultaneously losses in other areas will always be a zero-sum game, or worse. Further, the energy and time required to re-develop performance qualities is incredibly inefficient.
Imbalanced Training Programs Lead to Imbalanced Training Programs
When performance problems arise, there tends to be a desire to identify the problem and do everything possible to resolve the problem as soon as possible. Coaches want results now, and this can cause overreactions. This often leads to very biased programming.
As an example, say Johnny shows up to the first day of practice with an obvious lack of aerobic fitness. While this shortcoming needs to be addressed, the tendency is to over-emphasize aerobic fitness, ignoring speed, power, and strength qualities. Alternatively, consider Suzy the distance swimmer who can’t get out fast enough in her races to be competitive. In this case, coaches may focus on speed, while allowing to aerobic fitness to deteriorate
These imbalanced programs lead to further imbalanced programs down the road. Before you know it, Johnny has no speed or strength and Suzy has lost her aerobic fitness. You have to further correct new problems.
With this thought process, coaches will run into situations where the operation was a success, but the patient died. The ‘problem’ was addressed, but overall performance doesn’t improve, or gets worse, because the total performance package didn’t change. Coaches are back to same situation where weaknesses are present, just different weaknesses.
How you address perceived limitation affects the results achieved in the short-term and the long-term. Mistakes are often made worse by interventions, particularly significant interventions. When training problems arise, it’s important to resist the temptation to immediately solve the problem, resulting in imbalanced training programs. The patient approach works in the long-term.
If coaches choose to use an imbalanced, it’s important to understand that this a temporary strategy and an exit strategy will also be necessary to allow for a smooth transition back to business as usual. Not only must coaches consider what needs to be done to address the present issue, they need to consider what needs to have so that further unintended issues do not arise in the future.
Having taken some time to consider the potential issues coaches may encounter when addressing problems in the short-term while accounting for performance in the long-term, let’s look at what coaches can actually do to ensure that their plans are effective at both time scales.
Training is a cumulative, long-term process. As discussed above, as training adaptations cannot be forced, a more consistent, if less aggressive approach is warranted. How is today’s training preparing for tomorrow’s performances?
Doing a little bit less, a little more often will help maintain training consistency and help coaches pick up on training imbalances before they become an issue. Further, when issues do arise, a long-term approach to solving the problem will reduce the likely of overreactions and compounded training errors. A patient, consistent approach is superior for long-term improvement.
Create A Holistic Plan
All relevant training components must be addressed to the degree required for long-term performance enhancements, and they must be addressed on a consistent basis. This might not be every day, and it might not even be every other week, but the stimulus needs to be present.
While the required balance may be drastically different for different swimmers and different event groups, the same concepts apply. If performances are to improve over time, significant gaps in performance capability cannot be allowed to develop. The best way to ensure that this does not happen is to include all of the relevant training components in a holistic training program.
Do as Little as Necessary
Do what it takes to improve performance for a given training component, but no more. Why? The less load employed in any one area, the more can be employed in other areas. The allows for the development of more and maintenance of all training elements.
While doing more in one area may accelerate progress in that area in the short-term, it may come at a long-term cost to total performance due to neglect in other areas. By doing just enough, performance goals are advanced while still allowing for maintenance loading in other areas.
Include Maintenance Loads
When designing training, it’s critical to include maintenance loads for all of the training elements that are not being directly addressed. Failure to do so will create further limitations that will need to be corrected in the future. A frustrating cycle of continually re-building lost adaptations can develop. This can be avoided by making sure enough work is done to retain the improvements that have already occurred.
Extremely biased programs can work very well, IF sufficient work is done to ensure that all training components are maintained as much as required. As much as required may be different as much as possible. Excessive maintenance loads may detract from the primary focus, which is the whole point of creating a biased program. Further, excessive maintenance loads may simply make the total training load intolerable.
Too Much is Too Much
When it seems like there are a lot of areas that need to be addressed, it can be very tempting to including significant loads in all areas. Unfortunately, all swimmers have a limited ability to adapt to stress. If you try go for everything, you often get nothing. If swimmers are given a little less than they can handle, they’ll improve consistently, although at a slower right. If swimmers are given a little more than they can handle, they won’t improve at all.
Take the long-term approach and load conservatively, paying close to attention to how well swimmers are handling the training. At certain points, you can push the loading to see if they respond favorably. This can help you determine how much work is appropriate.
Use ‘Extra Money’ Where It’s Most Useful
Once you’ve assigned the required work for your training targets, as well as maintenance loading for the rest of the training components, you may have time and energy left over. You can choose to spend that money wherever best serves either short-term or long-term goals. You can choose to invest in the future, or try to facilitate a performance in the short-term. Either approach is appropriate, as long as you understand the choice being made.
Have an Exit Strategy
When planning a biased training program where more emphasis is given to several training components, how to you plan to transition to the next phase of training, which can either be balanced or biased in a different direction? Having an exit strategy before the initiation of the current training phase can help coaches anticipate the problems that may arise, as well as what needs to be done.
Biased training programs can work extremely well, and are largely necessary at the elite levels of performance. However, the skill in using this type of programming comes in the ability to smoothly transition from one phase to another. What needs to be done today to ensure that the skills and abilities required for subsequent phases are developed? What type of work is required for the next phase to be successful? How much work needs to be done?
The more that these questions are considered, the more likely coaches will be prepared for any unexpected events. It also allows for better reflection moving forward when evaluating what did happen. Coaching skill is driven by preparing swimmers for the next step. The exit strategies from one phase to another are a major component of this skill.
Correct Training Errors Patiently
If the previous training was imbalanced, resist the urge to correct the situation immediately. Using the same approach to solve the problem that created the problem won’t work. Instead, move towards a balanced program and let the necessary adaptations develop over time. Don’t double the mistake by over-correcting. By using a slightly biased training program, errors can be corrected over time. The long-term, patient approach will often get results faster because fewer errors are made.
A cautious, deliberate training process will typically yield the best results. When designing and assigning training loads, it can be very useful to consider the following questions.
What components do I want to improve? By choosing priorities, coaches can ensure that what needs to improve is improved. Having clear goals can make the process much more effective.
What is the minimal stimulus necessary to improve? Once you know what you want to improve, you have to decide how littleis necessary to improve. More can be done, but the minimal dose informs coaches what has to be done.
What components do I need to maintain? Whatever isn’t being targeted for improvement needs to be maintained at some level. Specifically identifying these components increases the likelihood that they’ll be maintained.
What is the minimal stimulus needed to maintain? As with training priorities, you need to know how little you need to do. This is especially true with maintenance as less work here allows for more work to be done when addressing priorities.
How often do you need to provide that stimulus per week? The rate of adaptation is linked to the rate of exposure. More frequent exposure, even in low doses, tends to allow for faster improvement. In contrast, maintenance loads can be included much less frequently.
What else can be done with the remaining time and energy? If more work can be placed in a given area, faster development may occur, assuming the time and energy exists for that training.
What does the next phase look like and how can I prepare for it best? By always looking to the future, coaches can ensure that swimmers are best prepared for future training demands.
By answering these questions with consideration toward long-term development, coaches are more likely to engage in a patient approach that is less likely to result in errors. Further, as these errors are typically smaller and caught early, they are more easily corrected when they do occur.