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Bite the Bullet or Graded Exposure? Part II

When faced with performance limitations, we have to determine how to solve them. In part I, we explored the aggressive approach, with all of its benefits, as well as its limitations. In this article, we’ll explore the aggressive approach.

Graded Exposure

This is the conservative approach. Instead of attacking a performance goal with single-minded focus, we’re going to chip away at it over time. The process starts with a very moderate introduction of new stimuli, or slight shifts towards increased loading in the desired direction. This approach is everything that biting the bullet is not. It takes patience and its lower risk.

The Benefits

In many ways, the benefits of graded exposure reflect the drawbacks of biting the bullet. All of the risks are moved. It’s lower risk approach that can get similar results in the long-term.

Course Correction

Because the patient approach takes longer, we have more opportunity to intervene and steer the approach towards better outcomes. It’s a lot more nuanced and there is more feedback due to the elongated intervention time. Because the total approach is more balanced, there are more levers to pull amongst the different training components as well. Finally, with a less aggressive approach, trends develop over time as opposed to coming on rapidly. This gives us more time to act and make an effective decision.

Lowered Injury Risk

With more time, and less aggressive loading, the risk of injury is diminished. If issues do arise, they tend to come on more gradually and there is a larger period where an effective intervention can take place. Additionally, if issues come up, the more patient approaches allow for an adjustment to made while retaining the whole intention of the program. With an aggressive approach, there aren’t many options beyond bailing once an injury develops.

Psychologically Tolerable

Dramatic shifts in training are typically accompanied by a lot of fatigue. They usually involve high volumes of load and they’re typically a shifted towards training swimmers don’t really enjoy. In contrast, a more graded approach minimizes the fatigue that comes with a big shift, while also limiting the amount of training swimmers will be performing that they really don’t enjoy.

Because we’re addressing a weakness, confidence can also be an issue. By using a graded approach that is manageable in the beginning, we can create a situation where swimmers experience success from the start. This can help to bolster confidence that change is possible, as well as improve self-efficacy which will be required as the challenge begins to mount.

Long-Term Progress

Because there is much less risk in derailing the process, long-term progress is often better with graded exposure. Development happens with consistency and consistency is only possible with healthy, solid training. By eliminating many of the risky approaches, the patient approach provides a better environment for consistent, sustainable success. The small amounts of progress begin to accumulate into something very significant. It just takes more time.

The Drawbacks


This approach takes time. We all want our problems solved yesterday, and we’re not always willing to wait to make it happen. In some circumstances, we can’t wait to make it happen. There may be a qualifying competition, or a championship competition, and we have to act now with short-term priorities in mind. The gradual approach might not be the right one here. In other cases, swimmers are nearing the end of their career and the long-term approach simply isn’t possible. It’s now or never and the risks are acceptable because doing nothing is a guaranteed failure.

If patience isn’t an option, or we simply refuse to be patience, graded exposure isn’t going to work.

Less Dramatic Change

While the graded exposure has less risk, it very well be less effective. Creating massive change may require the introduction of massive change. With a graded approach, there can be an insufficient stimulus for significant change. There may be improvement, but not to the degree that is required. If we are too patient, we may realize that the change is not enough until it’s too late.

Concentrated approaches can result in major shifts in performance, and these shifts can be larger than with a more conservative approach.


Because there is much less focus on creating immediate change, it’s possible that none occurs. Sometimes a blitzkrieg approach is required to make change. By spreading out the exposure and being patient, we can create a training plan and program that just doesn’t work. Unless you’re staying on top of progress and consistently re-evaluating, it’s possible that the lack of focus could result in no progress in the intended direction.

The saying ‘the biggest risk is the one you don’t take’ can apply in this situation. There has to be enough work to create change. We can’t be TOO patient as we need to create a stimulus for getting better.

Mitigating the Risks

Again, we’re trying to maximize exposure to the benefits while minimizing exposure to the drawbacks. While risk mitigation took the form of controlled loading, risk mitigation in this case takes the form of ensuring sufficient loading. The biggest risk is not doing enough. To ensure that loading is adequate, there needs to be regular checks on progress. As long as performance is being monitored through the training program, you should be okay. If progress is insufficient or not happening, something needs to be done differently.

Evaluate consistently. Make your training your testing. Know where you’re at and stay focused on where you want to go. As this specific change is part of a holistic program, it’s easy to get distracted. Make sure you are aware of what is happening and that can keep you focused on change.

Have benchmarks. Where do you want to be by what time? Have a goal and work towards it. This will help keep you honest about the efforts. If you’re hitting benchmarks, you’re on track. If you’re not, you know something needs to change. Because the approach is conservative, it likely means more work is required in this area, even if it comes at the expense of other areas. Total loading volumes could be a problem as well. The specifics are for you to figure out. Having benchmarks creates awareness that there is a problem to resolve.


We’ve taken a look aggressive and conservative approaches to creating change. In part III, we’ll further explore the considerations for making a choice between the two.

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