Training to Race
She’s a racer.
It’s a compliment thrown around by swimmers to describe someone who steps up on the blocks and knows how to throw down. You always know these swimmers are going to race tough and bring it.
As with most compliments, there’s an implication that the trait is innate.
I question this implication.
Why can’t swimmers learn to become racers? With the right environment, the right approach, and the right opportunities, I believe most skills can be learned.
The ability to race tough consistently is no different.
It’s not unusual for a disconnect to exist between a swimmer’s training performance and their racing performance. You’ll hear comments like ‘He’s been training really well and the races just aren’t reflecting that. I just don’t get it. What’s going on?’
The coach has already answered the question. The swimmer has been trainingreally well. Training is not racing. Racing is a specific skill set that requires exposure to a different set of training tasks, those that require racing.
The purpose of this article is not to dismiss the importance of the training required to develop physiological systems. It is to help coaches consider how they can better prepare swimmers to race, and do so in a manner that does not sacrifice the physiological development that is already occurring.
The thought process behind this approach is twofold. In the first case, human beings will learn faster with frequent exposure to specific problems, high numbers of repetitions, and clear feedback about performance. To meet these criteria any training aimed at teaching racing must be race relevant, it must be possible to conduct these sets frequently, and swimmers must know what success looks like.
Unfortunately, racing is not the only skill required to achieve high levels of performance. The best race car driver will be a lot more effective driving a Ferrari as compared to a Prius. Swimmers must develop the physiological and technical abilities to have a better ‘car’ to race with. This is a second consideration. An emphasis on racing in training must allow for the inclusion of other types of work required to develop the full skillsets for performance.
With these considerations in mind, we’ll examine typical approaches to developing racing ability. Traditionally, race-specific work has taken three forms, pace work, broken swims, and lactate sets. I’ll go through why these sets have merit (they’ve survived for a reason), yet fall short in terms of optimally providing swimmers opportunities to learn to race.
Finally, I’ll provide a framework for how racing opportunities can be integrated to any training situation, without compromising the main goals of the training sessions. This framework can be applied to many different situations and many different contexts. It is not a specific type of set, but an approach that can be used to simultaneously develop foundational physiological attributes and technical skills concurrent to race development.
There is a lot of value in repeatedly swimming at speed. These benefits can include improving skills, improving speed/power, and developing various physiological systems. However, it must be recognized that this is not the same thing as racing. There is a big difference between repeatedly hitting a target time and actually racing.
Further, even though 100/200m (the majority of races of offered) definitely require some level of control in the front half of the race, there is not a whole lot of pacing going on. As performance levels continue to rise, swimmers must learn to go out strong and then find a way to bring it home.
Sets like 20x50@1 teach swimmers how to survive and to do as little as possible to meet the requirements of the set. In many cases, swimmers will ‘work their way’ into the set by slowly descending to where they need to be. Do this in a race and it’s over before it starts.
In actual races, the required skills are to be aggressive in the start of the race, stay strong through the middle, and find a way to fight home on the end. Typical pace sets don’t require these skills. Instead, swimmers do what’s required to hit the times, regardless of how it matches the dynamics of the race.
These considerations apply to approaches such as Ultra-Short Race Pace Training (USPRT). While this approach has brought interesting and useful ideas to the swimming world, it contains that same shortcomings as traditional pace work. Swimmers are repeating efforts at a given speed, as opposed to racing over a single or small number of efforts.
There is certainly value in practicing pace work, particularly over the longer distances. At the same time, this type of training does not sufficiently prepare swimmers for situations in which they must race. While traditional pace work may be sufficient for developing physiological systems, why not design sets that develop racing skills concurrently with physiology. It’s not either/or. It’s BOTH.
How can designing training sets that may require swimmers to hit specific times while racing as opposed to pacing to do so?
Broken swims are race repetition where swimmers race a distance with short breaks interspersed with brief 5-15 second rests. The goal is typically to swim faster than current competitions times or faster than season-ending goal times.
While these sets do have value in terms of matching race dynamics, they are limited in their ability to provide repetition, both in terms of the repetitions possible at practice and frequency of exposure. It’s tough to get more than 3 great efforts in a single practice and these sets typically won’t be implemented more than twice per week at the most. In addition, swimmers aren’t going to be willing or able to much else during these practices. As such, there is an opportunity cost relative to other types of work that could be completed.
Broken swims tend to be psychologically stressful in that swimmers place predictive value on their performances. This ‘pressure’ is difficult to withstand with consistency. A few bad broken swims can really weigh on swimmers, and if these swims are conducted with enough frequency, there will be bad swims in training.
So, while broken swims tend to meet the criteria for matching race dynamics, they suffer in terms of providing the frequent exposure necessary to really accelerate the learning process. The more learning exposures possible, the more swimmers can learn how to apply their technical skills and physiological attributes to racing situations. In addition, an overreliance on broken swims may compromise the ability to develop these skills and attributes in the first place.
Lactate sets such as 5*100m maximal effort with 4-5 minutes rest are a staple of what is considered ‘high quality training’. These sets undoubtedly have value in exposing swimmers to the fatigue they will experience at end of their races. Clearly, these sets have produced results for many swimmers and coaches. I’d like to offer some perspective of the potential problems of these sets so coaches can consider when they are appropriate, or not.
From an anecdotal perspective, when working with any group of swimmers, the slowest swimmers struggle the most with lactate sets, while the better swimmers handle these sets the best. Lesser swimmers simply can’t sustain the pace and they can’t sustain their skills. This is true both within and across different levels of performance. Depending on the skill level of the swimmer involved, lactate sets can be useful for physiological development, yet fall short in terms of allowing for skill and performance maintenance.
Lactate sets create large amounts of fatigue. As such, swimmers have two options from a performance perspective. Hold back (i.e. don’t race) on the first repetition to survive the set, or race the first effort and then be unable to complete the rest of the set with any kind of intensity. Despite lactate sets being considered race sets, neither of these performance options are particularly productive for long-term racing development. Because of these limitations, swimmers are actually experiencing very few repetitions that allow for useful racing development. As repetition is critical for learning, this present a significant problem.
Coaches have also noticed that lactate sets tend to exhaust swimmers more than just about any other type of training. If training is challenging the day prior to a lactate set, tired swimmers tend to execute poor lactate sets. The day following lactate sets can be a struggle for many swimmers to produce quality efforts. Regardless of their value, lactate sets come at a high cost.
So, while lactate sets can create a robust physiological adaptation, they may not be sufficient for teaching swimmers how to race and maintain their skills while fatigued. How can we get BOTH adaptations?
Race to Train
The central premise of providing effective racing practice is creating exposure to many racing opportunities that are relevant to competitive performance. Provide opportunities for swimmers to race over and over again with performance requirements and one shot to make it happen. The goal is to swim fast consistently and there must be stringent and clear performance requirements.
As described earlier, for racing practice to be effective, it must be relevant (specific) and frequent. To satisfy these requirements, the distances must be necessarily shortened to allow for velocity to be achieved and fatigue to be controlled enough to allow frequent repetitions both within a training session and across training sessions.
With frequent repetition, coaches have the opportunity to vary the racing situations they use. This allows to swimmers to learn how to race in many different situations and fatigue states. With frequent practice, swimmers can develop the skillset to handle racing in many situations. Possessing these skills removes the psychological fear of racing, as frequent exposure makes racing ‘not a big deal’ and confidence comes from KNOWING you can be successful by consistently experiencing success.
For long-term development, coaches must find a way to get the necessary technical and physiological training in while also incorporating consistent racing opportunities in practice.
What may make the following framework unique is that it has several unique characteristics. The inherent flexibility allows any physiological development to be tied to racing. This allows for unique fatigue states to be experienced as well as the opportunity to provide the full spectrum of physiological development. Additionally, it allows for a high number of race-relevant opportunities.
One major difference is that while the race efforts may be essentially at pace speed, a singular race effort is required to hit that speed. Swimmers are learning to race, not pace.
Let’s say that you’re doing a traditional kick set of 16x100m@2 minutes strong kick. What you could do is change the set to-
4 rounds through
2x100m@2 Kick strong
email@example.com Kick strong
50/75/100@2 Race swim (choose the distance the best matches the closing section of the races your training for)
The intervals are just suggestions and should be modified to match the intent of the set with the abilities of your swimmers. Get the legs tired, then race, then repeat. The race effort should be over a distance that allows swimmers to actually race effectively and achieve performance levels that are race relevant.
By creating sets like this, you are still able to target the physiological development you want, as well as incorporating racing skills in a situation where the legs are already really tired, just like they are in races. This same concept can be applied to any type of training.
You get the physiological development for the legs AND you’re working on teaching racing. With this type of approach, you can accumulate a lot of racing repetitions without creating massive amounts of fatigue that might accompany something like 5x100s from the blocks.
To target the front end of a race, the same set can be manipulated in a similar way. In this case, swimmers get a little extra rest prior towards a front-end effort, then they can move into whatever training emphasis you would like. Swimmers then have to deal with the consequences of taking a race out aggressively while creating a training effect for whatever physiological system or skillset you’re looking to target.
4 rounds through
firstname.lastname@example.org Race swim (choose the distance the best matches the opening section of the races your training)
2x100m@2 Kick strong
1x100m@3 Kick strong
The intervals are just suggestions and should be modified to match the intent of the set with the abilities of your swimmers. Take it out strong, then find a way to sustain effort, then repeat. Sprinters may require shorter repetition distances and more open intervals while distances swimmers require the opposite.
Beyond creating race efforts as a part of typical training sets, coaches can also simply incorporate single race relevant efforts at various points during practice. This was a strategy of Gennadi Touretski, former coach of Alex Popov and Michael Klim. He tried to get 100 race quality 50m and 100m swims over the course of each year. While some took place in competition, the majority took place during various point of practice. While full race efforts can be useful, particularly for sprinters, requiring swimmers to execute various portions of their races at any point of a training session can be quite useful as well. Instead of doing a standup 100m, you could simply stop practice, give swimmers 60 seconds, and expect a 50m at backend speed. With little preparation, they have to execute.
An underappreciated aspect of consistently including racing in practice is that you know where you are at. Because this type of work is specific, coaches can gain a pretty good sense of the readiness of each swimmer. There are less surprises on meet day and training adjustments can be made before it is too late. As these sets can be conducted with much greater frequency, coaches and swimmers both receive more consistent feedback about how training is progressing.
From another perspective, increasing the number of racing exposures in practice can help inoculate swimmers from the pressures of competitions. The more consistently swimmers are exposed to the stress and pressure of performance, the less anxiety that stressor will create. By exposing swimmers to racing consistently, actual racing can become a lot less stressful as swimmers gain confidence in their ability to execute their skills having had the opportunity to practice these skills. With preparation comes confidence.
All the racing in the world can’t replace physiological and technical development. At the same, there is a significant skill in actually learning to race. If this skill isn’t practiced in training, it won’t be fully expressed in competitions. It is not an either/or consideration as these two processes must coexist in tandem. To provide swimmers with the opportunities to fully develop their abilities, coaches would be well-served to learn to concurrently develop these abilities. While I have a provided a couple solutions, there are unlimited options which coaches can discover and innovate for themselves. With this framework in mind, coaches can develop their own strategies so that all their swimmers can learn to be racers.