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Improving Weaknesses Through Strength

To reach their potential, every swimmer is eventually going to need an individual approach to training. Every swimmer is going to present with unique strength and weaknesses that need to be addressed as part of a wholistic training program. How we choose to view these strengths and weaknesses, as well as how we choose to go about doing addresses these same characteristics, will determine our ability to help swimmers reach that potential.

This article will take a look at some of the choices coaches make about how to address strengths and weaknesses. In many cases, I feel coaches go about it backwards. We tend to focus on what is weak rather than focusing on what is strong. To me, this is backwards. Further, when we do choose to address weaknesses we do so in a manner that is counterproductive. We usually do the opposite of what will work best.

Let’s take a look at how to build upon what swimmers bring to the table, as well as some alternative strategies to marginalize weaknesses when the effort is warranted.

Some assumptions-

Swimmers win because of their strengths. Whether it’s unbelievable speed, terrific technique, or incredible endurance, swimmers win races because of their strengths. Their strengths are their weapons and they must be protected AT ALL costs. If you take away a swimmer’s strengths, they will not be the same athlete. All training decisions must be made within the context of how strengths will be affected.

Strength can be developed into super-strengths. While weaknesses have a limit to improvement, strengths often can be continually improved. Strengths can become super powers. Swimmers enjoy working on their strengths and history has shown that these strengths consistently respond well to training. That’s how they developed into strengths. Strengths are a great indicator of what has worked in the past, and will likely work in the future.

Swimmers lose because of their weaknesses. Once weaknesses become significant, they can cost swimmers races. The distance swimmer with unmatched endurance will lose if they can’t get out fast enough. The sprinter with blinding speed will be passed under the flags if they can’t finish the race. More so than anything else, weaknesses prevent strengths from being expressed.

Weaknesses will never become strengths. A swimmer that has really struggled to gain muscle mass is probably always going to struggle to gain muscle mass. The colossal investment in time and energy to address a weakness is not reciprocated with an equivalent degree of improvement. There is a limit to improvement and the magnitude is almost always going to be small.

Weaknesses aren’t created equally. Some weaknesses arise due to a lack of exposure. If you have a weak swimmer that has never done any form of strength training, that’s a VERY different situation than someone who has been strength training for years…and is still weak. The former is likely a situation that can be corrected with training, whereas the latter is a true weakness. These two situations are VERY different.

This is a critical distinction and greatly informs the appropriate approach needed going forward. If A LOT of time and energy have been spent on a given performance component, and it’s STILL a weakness, it will ALWAYS be a weakness. More time spent in this area will forever be wasted time, particularly if the same strategies are used. However, if it’s a weakness due to neglect or a conscious choice to avoid this type of training, significant improvement may be possible. Knowing the difference is CRITICAL to coaching success.

Confidence comes from success. Swimmers will gain confidence from improving the skills they are already good at. They relish turning what they are great at to what they are the best at. This is especially true as performance levels rise. In contrast, improving weaknesses does not provide the same confidence boost. Improving a skill or physical ability from terrible to mediocre isn’t going to change someone’s self-perception that much.

With those assumptions out of the way, let’s take a look at how we help swimmers improve using this framework and these assumptions. Let’s take a swimmer who has a performance weakness that is preventing competition success. This weakness has been addressed in the past, so it’s not simply a case of a lack of attention.

What do we do?

Beating a Dead Horse

It’s easy to get caught up in how bad someone at some aspect of training. We can get into the thought process of ‘if only Johnny could kick, imagine how fast he would be!’ Well, if it’s been 3 years of continually trying to improve Johnny’s kick, it’s probably not going to happen, especially if there has been a concentrated effort to do so. Accept reality, realize his kick is never going to be great, and move on. Figure out a different path.

That different path can be one of two options.

1. Bail. Accept that kicking (or whatever) will never improve. Move on. Focus on other aspects of performance. If you have a 50m specialist who is terrible at aerobic training, you probably don’t need to do it. Spending the vast majority of training time and energy on speed and power work is time and energy better spent.

2. Get Creative. Unfortunately, bailing isn’t usually an option. Most times our weaknesses are a critical piece of the performance puzzle. They need to improve. However, the traditional approaches aren’t going to work. They’ve been tried and weaknesses developed as a result. We need take a different approach. We need to get creative.

No Rules, Just Results

Swimmers will lose because of their weaknesses. They do need to be addressed. However, I feel that weaknesses are most easily minimized when tackled within the context of someone’s strengths. It’s going to take a different approach than might be used traditionally.

When working to improve someone’s strengths, many of the traditional strategies will work. Need to improve aerobic fitness? Swim longer, swim harder, or do both. Need to work on strength? Most typical strength training approaches will work.

It’s when these same issues are weaknesses that we need to get creative in finding solutions that will create change. We’ve established that these characteristics exist because traditional tactics HAVEN’T worked in the past. If the traditional or typical strategy worked, weaknesses wouldn’t have developed in the first place.

What’s the best indication of what approach will work to remediate a weakness? Look to the swimmer’s strengths. This type of training has worked in the past, allowing swimmers to improve. With some slight modifications, it can provide great insight into what will work in the future.

Let’s get practical with two examples that span the opposite end of the spectrum.

The Speed Demon

Consider a sprinter with great speed who the lacks endurance to finish a 100-meter race, as characterized by a significant drop-off during the 2nd 50. The same swimmer is terrible at aerobic training. However, the swimmer trains well over relatively short distances and loves land-based training.

Here are some options.

Option A- Do more aerobic training, progressing to make the training either longer, harder, or both.

Option B- Do short distance, repeat higher-end aerobic swimming with modest intervals and active rest periods between rounds. Something like 3 rounds of 6x50@50 at a strong effort with stroke count requirements. Perform an easy 200 between rounds. If more work is needed, simply do more repetitions or more rounds.

Option C- Create a mix of dryland training and pool swimming in a circuit style, using intense dryland exercise to elevate the heart rate and modest amounts of smooth swimming as active recovery. Go back and forth for an hour.

We KNOW option A isn’t going to work. Doing more of what has been already demonstrated to not work doesn’t sound like a game plan for success.

Option B uses the sprinters speed to create an energetic demand and allows them enough rest to repeat that demand with enough volume to create an adaptation. The distances are manageable, the recoveries are manageable, and there is a technical component with the stroke counts.

They get a psychological break between rounds during the easy swim which also has a metabolic benefit as the swimmers process the work performed during the 50s. The sets are aligned with their psyche. Further, their heart rate will be elevated for an extended period of time, and there will be metabolic stress throughout that period. Importantly, that stress will be relevant to the events they swim.

Option C can be a great change of pace for the swimmer who REALLY struggle with any sort of extended swimming. It allows the sprinter to train strength and elevate create a metabolic demand, and then swim off that stress during the easy portion. A lot of sprinters like to go to town on dryland and can create a lot of stress. While his type of work might not be able to entirely replace aerobic swimming, it can be a great addition for some swimmers. It also allows these swimmers to further fortify their best attributes, muscular strength and fitness.

With option A, we’re working AGAINST the swimmer’s strengths. It’s not going to work. In options B and C, we’re capitalizing on the swimmers’ strength to address their weaknesses. We’re using their speed and their abilities on land to create an energetic demand that will develop fitness WITHOUT compromising their strengths.

What’s important to appreciate is that options B and C are NOT good strategies for improving endurance for distance swimmers. It’s an alternative solution to an unusual situation. If ‘normal’ training works, roll with it. If it doesn’t, we need a different solution.

The Energizer Bunny

Let’s take a look at the opposite example. Now we have a distance swimmer with a ton of endurance and NO speed. They dominate long aerobic training sets and really struggle with long rest, short distance swimming. Here are some options. The two options are VERY different. True distance swimmers live on rhythm, finding a groove, and keeping it rolling. They also like to keep their heart rate up. A little fatigue helps them stay feel what they’re doing.

Option A- Perform traditional speed training with very short distances and very open recoveries. Something like 12x25@2 minutes, maximal effort.

Option B- Alternatively, we could do 8x125@2:30. The first 75 is build, then take 15 seconds rest, then 50 fast.

With Option A, there is no chance to get into a groove. It’s blast and then rest before there’s any opportunity to find a rhythm. The distance is simply too short for many of these swimmers to lock in. Without a rhythm, these swimmers can often swim SLOWER when they try to sprint. Distance swimmers also respond to repetition, preferably densely packed repetition. With the extended rest periods, the swimmer simply gets cold and they get out of the groove.

In contrast, Option B allows the swimmer to find a rhythm. By building into each 75, they can feel out their stroke and slowly gear up. They don’t have to rush it and they can start to hit the gas when it starts to click. Then, they get a short break to re-charge the battery and then hit. The idea is to apply the rhythm they felt during the build at full speed. By performing the sprint over 50m, there is enough time to find the groove again, yet the distance is short enough to prevent much fatigue from developing, especially for a distance swimmer.

Additionally, the relatively tight rest periods (for ‘speed work’ anyway) prevent the swimmers from getting too far out of the groove. At the same time, there is enough rest to allow for good speed. With all training, the rest periods can be adjusted based upon what you see happening in the pool.

By keeping the rest periods short, the swimmer’s metabolic systems keep on rolling and their heart rate and respiration stay elevated, letting them find their rhythm. Is this speed work? Not really in a classical sense, but it might help a distance swimmer develop their speed in a manner that can be applied to their races, either on the front end or while bringing it home during the finish.

In both examples, we’re looking to the swimmers’ strength to develop their weaknesses. Their strengths inform us about the training strategies that have been effective in the past, and will likely be effective in the future. Further, these strategies are ALTERNATIVE solutions to unusual problems. They do not apply to all, which is the whole point of this article.

Turning It Up to Eleven

When it comes to winning, we need to maximize strengths. Instead of maintaining strengths, double down on them. A great anecdote is that of 3-time Olympic Champion Brooke Bennett. Brook swam the distance events with a very high rate and relatively short stroke. Conventional wisdom would be to work on stroke length to improve performance. Her coach decided to use a tempo trainer to INCREASE her stroke rate, even if it meant shorter strokes. The result? Olympic titles.

This is a simple example of how we can solve problems by relying on strengths to either further develop strengths, or make weaknesses irrelevant. While the above example was technical in nature, the same approach could be applied to training. Got a sprinter with great speed and no endurance? Make them so fast that they’ll be so far ahead, it doesn’t matter if they fade. Got a great underwater kicker that struggles on the surface? Develop unbelievable speed underwater and learn how to hold it for 15m every wall. Make the surface swimming irrelevant.

Getting Better

Coaches have a fascination with eliminating weaknesses. ‘If only Johnny could finish a race…’ Unfortunately, Johnny probably isn’t going to miraculously turn it around. If we want to improve performance, we’re going to need to approach ‘weaknesses’ with a different perspective and different strategies.

While weaknesses can certainly be opportunities for improvement, they’re typically dead ends for significant long-term progress. On the other hand, strengths are VERY responsive to training, and often have unlimited opportunity to improvement. History proves this. Strengths developed for a reason. The work done in the past WORKED. In many cases, it makes sense to double down on strengths and fully commit to maximally develop these strengths.

If we do choose to address weaknesses, HOW we choose to do so can greatly impact the progress our swimmers make. What’s the path to make better decisions? All the insight you need can be gathered by looking toward a swimmer’s strengths. This is the type of training that the swimmer responds to. How can you adjust that training to address the weaknesses that are presented? Does the swimmer respond to intensity, density, volume, frequency, repetition…? The clues are right there.

Not only will taking this approach more likely improve weaknesses, it will also do so in a manner that is less likely to compromise the swimmer’s strengths. After all, marginal improvement in one area isn’t going to mean much if it takes away from the other areas that swimmers rely on to win.

We win because of our strengths, and our strengths are strengths for a reason. Do everything you can to keep it that way.

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