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Pre-Loading Part I

When a swimmer has been exposed to a particular type of training, that type of training loses it ‘training potential’. In short, the more you do it, the less it works. As such, coaches have constantly been working to create more effective, novel training techniques and strategies. These strategies become required to extend career and allow for continued improvement in performance.

Beyond creating ‘new’ training strategies, coaches also have the ability to organize existing strategies into novel arrangements, thereby creating a new stimulus for the experienced swimmer. I’d like to introduce such a strategy that combines existing training components in a potentially novel manner. I find the strategy particularly valuable in that it allows for great flexibility, and there are limitless options available to coaches with the only real limit being creativity.

I call it pre-loading.

This format can be applied to emphasize either physiological development or skill acquisition. I chose the word ‘emphasize’ because physiological development and skill acquisition will be occurring concurrently, even if the outcome is weighted towards one over the other.

The basic structure is as follows-

Physiological Development

1. Introduce a fatiguing element.

2. Race.

3. Active recovery.

4. Repeat as necessary or desired.

Skill Acquisition

1. Introduce a technique shaper.

2. Race.

3. Active recovery.

4. Repeat as necessary or desire.

Below, I’ll explore the purpose of each segment of the set, as well as the options you have to set up each component. Afterwards, I’ll provide some examples to provide some context to the concepts.

Physiological Development

Pre-loading is an effective strategy to simultaneously enhance physiological development while providing a novel stimulus to develop racing skills and race specific fitness. The basic premise is to introduce a block of challenging training of any type. Immediately after completing this training, the swimmers then transition into a maximal, racing effort of relatively brief duration. They have to learn how to finish.

The value comes in requiring swimmers to learn to race well and close races while managing a wide variety of physiological states. For instance, the race effort will be very different if executed following challenging kicking, pulling, aerobic work, hypoxic work, etc… Over time, swimmers can learn to race well under any conditions.

The relative emphasis on the two objectives will be determined by the relative volumes assigned to each component. Physiology can be emphasized by including a large volume of work prior to the racing efforts. As the racing component will be brief each round, racing can be focused on by keeping the fatiguing element brief and including many rounds. Generally speaking, there will be a shift in focus towards racing efforts if these sets are included throughout the training cycle.

Introduce a Fatiguing Element

The purpose of the fatiguing element is twofold, maintain or develop fitness and pre-fatigue swimmers prior to a racing effort. From the perspective of developing fitness, this aspect of the set should function like any other set designed to develop fitness. The only exception is that the set must allow for breaks where racing efforts can be performed.

The second consideration is the generation of enough fatigue to challenge swimmers upon commencing a racing effort. There should be a targeted attempt to fatigue particular physiological systems (i.e. aerobic, respiratory, neuromuscular) and body regions (i.e. upper body, lower body). The goal is for the swimmer to fatigue specific areas and then race successfully under the constrain of fatigue. When designing the set, a great question to ask is ‘how do I want the swimmers to struggle?’

The main idea is to simultaneously develop fitness while simultaneously using the fatigue generated to strategically challenging the ability to race in a broad spectrum of physical states. Deciding how to stress swimmers should be guided by the question, ‘what do you want to train and how to you want to use the fatiguing effects of this training to affect swimmer’s ability to race effectively?’


Once swimmers are tired, it’s time to race. ‘Race’ can mean a lot of different types of efforts to a lot of different swimmers. Typically, these should be done with maximal or near maximal effort in race relevant contexts. It should also be relevant to the training and performance needs of the swimmers performing the set. For the most part, the purpose is to target the final portion of races. It’s possible to use multiple repetitions if coaches want to create deeper inroads of fatigue, as long as the expected intensity is achieved.

The race distance, and the number of repetitions, should be reflective of the competition needs of the swimmers performing the set. As swimmers should be carrying a fair amount of fatigue going into this portion of the set, the volumes can be quite small. As the purpose of the set is not only to create unique race-specific training opportunities but to also allow for long-term physiological development, sufficient energy should remain for quality work on the initial portion of subsequent rounds.

This portion of the set is about QUALITY with volume being a very secondary consideration.

Active Recovery

This aspect of the set is much more discretionary. Coaches can use it to maintain volume, maintain or develop aerobic abilities, or simply allow for faster recovery between rounds. The assigned volumes and intensities can vary greatly to match the objectives, as long as swimmers are able to recover sufficiently to execute the subsequent round successfully.

When used extensively, longer active recovery periods can be a great way to maintain training volume with less intensive work, as well as re-lengthen and re-establish stroke length. There is also may be an additional physiological benefit that comes from ‘swimming out’ the effects of a race effort, in a manner similar to the active rest sets popularized by Jon Urbanchek.

This addition to the set is particularly useful for aerobically oriented swimmers for the reasons described above, as well as for all swimmers early in a training phase, where more emphasis is placed on developing aerobic fitness. This portion of the set is not required. Coaches can simply provide a passive rest of any duration after the race effort and then continue with the next round if they believe performance will be better.

Repeat as Necessary or Desired

Coaches can repeat the process as many times as they’d like. As long as quality is maintained, and coaches are getting what they expect, the volume can grow. At the same time, certain guidelines exist in that the higher the expected the intensity, the lower the achievable volume, and vice versa.

This guideline is not so much a reflection of preference, but simple reality. To achieve the targeted physiological development, a certain quality of work will be required. Only so much work can be done before work quality begins to drop beyond an acceptable standard. Further, a major aspect of the training stimulus is the ability to race well under fatigue. If fatigue accumulates to a certain level, swimmers will be unable to race effectively.

Getting Concrete

These examples are very simple. Coaches can change the set-up between rounds, add or delete repetitions, change intervals, etc… I have examples chosen were used to clearly illustrate the concept.

Set #1

4*75@1.30 Flutter Kick with a board; hold for fastest average

2*50@1 Swim with 7 strokes and 3 DK; as fast as possible

50@1 Race; Hit back half of 100

200@4 Kick; just make it while negative splitting the effort

4*50@1 Flutter Kick with a board; hold for fastest average; be better average than the 75s.

2*50@1 Swim with 6 strokes and 3 DK; as fast as possible; can you match the 7 stroke 50s?

50@1 Race; Hit back half of 100

200@5 Kick; just make it while negative splitting the effort

4*25@30 Flutter Kick with a board; hold for fastest average; be better average than the 50s.

2*50@1 Swim with 5 strokes and 3 DK; as fast as possible; can you match the 6 stroke 50s?

50@1 Race; Hit back half of 100

200@6 Kick; just make it while negative splitting the effort

50 Race; best of the day

The set is designed to for a 100 freestyle earlier in the training season. It is designed to develop the ability of the legs to repeatedly give high levels of effort. On the back of the kicking efforts, the swimmers must use their legs to drive the stroke while holding a lot of water to sustain a low stroke count and relatively high speed. Once the legs have thoroughly worked, the swimmers must find a way to hit race speed with fatigued legs.

Not only does this set provide a deep stimulus to the legs, it forces swimmers to maintain speed with failing legs, an experience they will see while racing 100m and certainly 200m. They finish each round with a flush out to aid in recovery while contributing to total volume.

Set #2

4 rounds through

4*25@45 Breaststroke swim with light dolphin kick; medium parachute; strong effort

3*50@1 Breaststroke swim with light dolphin kick; des 1-3 strong to strongest at the same stroke count

50@1 Breaststroke 200 pace or faster with stroke count constraints

200@5 25 Uptempo scull/25 cruise freestyle with maximal distance per stroke

Similar to the example above, the purpose is to exhaust the upper body prior to commencing a racing effort with a fatigued upper body. Swimmers have to learn how to hold their stroke timing, their stroke length, and their body position with failing arms. In addition, the pre-load presents a potent stimulus for the development of upper body strength and the prerequisites for distance per stroke, both of which can help swimmers finish strong as the physical abilities develop. Afterward, they can recover with moderate swimming.

Set #3

4 rounds through

8*25@35 Fast flutter kick in streamline position on the back; 20m underwater dolphin off of every wall

50@1 Backstroke swim 200 pace or faster; 15m underwater dolphin kick off of both walls

100@1.30 Cruise backstroke swim with 12.5m underwater each wall

100@2.30 Cruise backstroke swim with 12.5m underwater each wall

In this set, swimmers are accomplishing two tasks. They are working on their underwater dolphin kicking ability, training to sustain the kick PAST 15m, with the idea being that if you can go to 20m, 15m is that much easier. Over the course of the set, they’ll perform 32 high-level underwater efforts. On the back of this fatigue, the swimmers are exposed to a racing situation where they must learn to execute their underwater skills under the pressure of performance and fatigue. Afterwards, they must recover actively while still executing their dolphin kicking skills.

Set #4

600 Negative split; done aerobically

15 seconds rest

100 at mile pace; even split

15 seconds rest

500 Negative split; slightly faster than average pace for the 600

15 seconds rest

100 at mile pace; even split

15 seconds rest

400 Negative split; slightly faster than average pace for the 500

15 seconds rest

100 at mile pace; even split

15 seconds rest

300 Negative split; slightly faster than average pace for the 400

15 seconds rest

100 at mile pace; even split

15 seconds rest

200 Negative split; slightly faster than average pace for the 300

15 seconds rest

100 at mile pace; even split

15 seconds rest

100 Negative split; slightly faster than average pace for the 200

15 seconds rest

100 at mile pace; even split

15 seconds

100 steady aerobic effort to finish

This set is designed for the distance swimmer to accomplish a volume of controlled swimming, while having to switch gears into pacework. The focus is not necessarily going fast on the longer swims, but staying in control and ensuring the back half of each swim is faster. The swimmers can use the front half of the longer swims to recover slightly.

A set like this would be completed as an early introduction to pace work, where there is not that much pressure on the longer swims. As the season progressed, a similar version of the set could be introduced where more effort was placed in the aerobic portion of the set. While total volume can certainly go up, mid-set breaks may be required to sustain intensity.

Distance swimmers must learn not only how to hit pace, but to be able to hit pace in the middle of long swims. Alternative versions could include very hard efforts preceded by a ‘finishing kick’ where swimmers must learn how to race maximally following extended aerobic efforts.


This training complex is an effective way to simultaneously work toward long-term training goals while achieving exposure to racing opportunities. It’s an opportunity to achieve high volumes AND achieve high intensities. Many strategies focused on racing in practices fall short in either directly applying racing skills or allowing for a sufficient number of racing exposures. Pre-loading allows for a high number of race-relevant repetitions over time. Further, it allows for swimmers to learn how to race effectively under many different contexts, whether it’s with tired legs, tired arms, aerobic fatigue, etc…

As the options in terms of volume, intensities, and the type of work are limitless, coaches can use their creativity to solve the unique problems that represent the needs to of their swimmers.

In part II, we’ll discuss how to use these same principles to enhance skill acquisition tasks, while working to ensure that learned skills transfer to competitive performances.

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