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Bite the Bullet or Graded Exposure? Part III

In part I and part II, we explored two potential solutions for addressing performance limitations. At either extreme, we can take an aggressive approach or a conservative approach, each with respective benefits and drawbacks. In this article, we’ll discuss how to make a choice.

Making a Choice

We’ve explored the differences between the two approaches. So, what do we do? When it comes to deciding, it often comes down to the contextual factors that must be considered. Slight changes in these factors can make a big difference in the decision that is ultimately made.

What’s the time frame? How much time do you have to create change? If you have a lot of time, it often makes sense to take the patient approach. There is a lot less risk and there is no rush. However, if there is very little time, you may not have options beside going for it. While it can sometimes feel like there is little time, it’s important to remember that there is always another meet. If it’s the Olympics, it’s one thing. If it’s an age group state meet, that something else.

What are the ‘risks’ of the training intervention? Some types of training are inherently riskier in terms of the prevalence of negative consequences, as well as the severity of those consequences. These two attributes are not the same. For instance, some interventions may have a relatively high prevalence of causing fatigue. However, that fatigue is relatively easily managed and reversible. Increased aerobic training volume would be an example of this.

On the other hand, some types of training may result in lesser frequency of injury, but more significant consequences if an injury does occur. If there is a major increase in strength training, a major injury becomes more possible, especially relative to swimming training. If an injury does occur, the consequences are more severe.

What’s the nature of the change required? For some attributes, changes can happen fast. For others, they take time. Strength can often be improved pretty rapidly, yet building a significant amount of new muscle can take time, and this process really can’t be rushed. Similarly, some aspects of endurance performance can be improved quickly, yet structural adaptation is required for some improvements. These structural changes take time to be realized. When changes CAN be quickly facilitated, an aggressive approach makes sense. When they are time-limited, it makes more sense to be a little more patient.

How big of a change is required? If it’s a small change, you could just get it out of the way with an aggressive approach, OR just be patient because the change isn’t significant. If a big change is required, a big stimulus may be necessary, or you can choose to chip away over time. As you can see, both options are viable in both circumstances. However, the size of the change required can tilt your decision in one direction versus the other when considering the other factors explored below.

Who tends to respond to what? ‘Talented’ swimmers tend to respond to biting the bullet. They can go for it. They handle stress with more resilience, they have a more robust response to stress, and they hold up better under pressure. With challenging training, they experience more upside and less downside. There is much less risk involved with these swimmers. Further, their more efficient strokes allow them to handle greater loads because the cost of doing so is less, and there’s less stress on their joints. For these individuals, going for it makes sense. This is one reason an aggressive approach is common in elite swimming.

Understanding that being ‘talented’ is a spectrum and it’s all relative, swimmers of lesser ‘talent’ do not respond to aggressive approaches with the same robustness. They tend to have less significant adaptation responses and higher rates of negative reactions, be it injury, performance crashes, or illness. For these individuals, a more cautious approach is warranted where progress is ‘coaxed’ versus ‘forced’. Patience is of the utmost importance.

IF you can make it work, you can make a lot of change quickly by making big changes in one area. However, it’s a risky strategy and some individuals may be particularly prone to responding very well or very poorly to this approach.

What’s your tolerance to risk? Would you rather ‘go for it’ in the hopes of getting the extra small improvements, or do you prefer to have healthy and ‘slightly undertrained’ swimmers that you know will be able to perform? Are you patient, or would you prefer that problems be addressed immediately? Is it acceptable to have injured athletes? There really isn’t a ‘right’ answer as it’s more about personal preference and how well you tolerate the negative aspects of each approach.

What’s your exit strategy? How do you plan to move on once the desired changes have been accomplished? Are you skilled in transitioning back? The more of a shift that occurs, the more of a shift will be required to get back to ‘normal’. This needs to be thought out as thoroughly as the plan to facilitate change in the first place. It’s especially important to consider where the transition back will take place relative to the competitive schedule. In general, you’d like stability going into important competitions. Having a plan, and the nature of the plan, can affect the choices you make.

What’s more effective? I really don’t know. It probably depends a lot on each individual’s adaptational characteristics. Some swimmers will respond very well to significant changes. They can handle a big shift in stress with a robust response. For those that handles stress really well, a big shift can make a big difference. Other swimmers will respond to the same situation with a negative stress reaction. You’ll get all of the negative responses with none of the positive responses.

If you provide a graded exposure to some swimmers, they simply won’t respond. It will be a waste of time. Others are very sensitive to stress and DO require graded exposure for their bodies to handle change. It’s about matching the appropriate training to the individual to elicit the desired response. However, if you push either group for too long, the negative consequences will accumulate. ‘Effective’ is going to be relative to each individual.

The Best Solution

Don’t put yourself in the situation in the first place.

As has been addressed in Slow Cooking and Bleeding to Death, ensuring that you are addressing all of the foundational performance needs over time in a patient manner is critical to retaining a balanced performance profile. If swimmers are addressing all of the performance components over time, there is less of a need to significant interventions. While this takes some foresight and planning, the result is that you’re not forced to make difficult choices.


As coaches, we are constantly faced with a lot of choices and these choices aren’t simple and we don’t always have clear answers. When significant change is needed, we can choose to make these changes abruptly, or we can initiate these changes over time. As we’ve discussed, the appropriate choice is going to be determined by a host of contextual factors.

Regardless of the information we have, we still have to make educated decisions and then carefully observe the impact of those decisions, adjusting as needed. It’s an iterative approach that takes time and patience. As our coaching skill grows, we can better at making decisions, as well as managing those decisions over time. Whether we choose to bite the bullet or take a graded approach, the same fundamental skills of assessment and observation will determine our success as coaches.

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