Lose the Battle, Win the War
In sport, there is often a focus on the immediate future, and swimming is no exception. How do we get results now, and what do we need to do to make that happen?
For the most part, the focus should be on the immediate future, as that is all that can be controlled. However, there is typically a bias towards trying to maximize daily performances, and ironically, this focus on achieving maximal performances makes it less likely for long-term goals to be realized.
The accomplishment of long-term goals is built upon training well consistently. By constantly looking for the breakthrough and maximal performances on a daily basis, we may make it more difficult to achieve this objective as swimmers are consistently in a state of fatigue. The end result is often injury, overtraining, or performance stagnation.
This is the product of the daily attempt to win the battle, without consideration for how each battle fits into the context of the entire war.
Instead, the focus should be doing on what is required to training well with consistency, not what is possible on any given day.
Another way to consider the concept is the idea that we never ruin tomorrow for today.
Competition performances are typically the reflection of the average performance level in training. While there are exceptions on either side of the spectrum, you typically get what you expect. That magic training session where everything came together is not reflective of what can be expected in competition.
Yet there seems to be a daily attempt to be spectacular. A spectacular training session may feel good in the moment, but it doesn’t always mean much. This is especially true when these spectacular training sessions are preceded by and succeeded by mediocre training sessions.
While consistency is a skill, it also arises from the approach coaches implement. The most significant obstacle to long performance improvement is a lack of consistency in training. The major barriers to consistency are injury, illness, or fatigue-induced performance loss. The cause of this performance-cratering trifecta is the same. Too much work- either volume, intensity, or a combination of the two.
The irony is that the spectacular performances arise when you don’t chase after them. They come from good, consistent, yet unspectacular training sessions. Great performances arise from consistent training.
Swimmers and coaches can be greedy. They want performances today, and this can manifest itself in training approaches that are excessive and rushed. Unfortunately, you can’t rush physiological adaptation as structural change takes time.
This may mean doing ‘enough’, even when more is possible. For any type of training, there will be a combination of training volume and training intensity that is simply too much to recover from over any extended period of time. Sometimes less today means more in the future.
In this respect, it’s often appropriate to lose the battle to win the war.
This is a mindset and a strategic decision that is focused on long-term performance improvements. A central concept is that if you perform slightly less than what’s possible, you’ll improve, but not as fast possible. If you do slightly more than what’s possible, you won’t improve at all. As touched upon in Slow Cook It, a conservative and consistent approach to training is critical to long term success.
Below are some simple ideas that can be used as part of long-term strategy to make sure you win the war, even if you have to lose a battle or two along the way. It’s about being good enough, consistently.
The key to long-term training improvement is to do enough to improve, not what’s possible for swimmers to complete. The difference can be significant. What’s enough? While commonly accepted training volumes and intensities can serve as a good baseline, this is only a starting point. Those numbers may or may not be valid for how you are organizing training, as well as the context in which you are coaching.
Unfortunately, the ability to know what ‘enough’ looks like comes over time. It comes more quickly if you learn to pay attention. 'Enough' typically looks like swimmers who were challenged and leave the training session feeling like they accomplished something. They’ll likely be tired, yet happy. They shouldn’t consistently feel empty or exhausted.
It’s okay, and even warranted, to go beyond what’s ‘enough’ for brief periods of time as an overload. However, the critical point is that these periods are brief and they are surrounded by periods of recovery both before and after the overload.
The best way to discover the appropriate amount of training is to watch, watch closely, watch often. The answers are in front of you if you are willing to look.
Are swimmers training well?
Do they look like they are able to consistently thrive, as opposed to survive?
Are they relatively happy?
Do they feel like they are improving?
When asked, do they usually feel like they had a good practice?
Are the swimmers more lethargic prior to training?
Does it take longer to warm up than usual?
It’s important to watch for issues with individuals, as well as with the group. While there will be days that aren’t as others, you’re looking for downward trends. If these questions yield negative answers for several days in a row, that might be a sign that something is going on.
If your concern is limited to one individual, the issue may be specific to that person. They may have an acute spike in stress external to swimming. If one individual continues to have problems, there may be life stress issues, or the applied stress may simply be too much for them. Find a way to create safety valves within their swimming.
If the group struggles as a whole, and you know there isn’t some common acute stress (i.e. finals/mid-terms), it’s likely that your programming is the result. If it’s acute, pay attention to where the stress may have arisen from. Short-term overloads can be a positive stimulus for adaptation: you just have to better anticipate and prepare for the effects in the future. If the perceived problems are chronic, you’ve likely crossed the line of what ‘enough’ is, and adjustments are necessary.
Be smart and ACT on the information you’re presented with!
Create Safety Valves
Even the most vigilant coaches are limited in their ability to pay attention and do so effectively. Further, all coaches make mistakes and most will err on the side of too much rather than too little. One way to ensure that you’re providing a workload that allows for optimal long-term progress is to create safety valves. Safety valves are training sessions and training weeks were the volume or intensity is modified so that there is less pressure on performance.
They don’t have to be ‘recovery’ workouts, just lowered levels of stress, psychologically or physically. This could be a simple as slightly reducing the volume and assigning training tasks where the performances have no meaning. Thus swimmers aren’t, and you aren’t, able to compare previous performances levels.
There can still be high intensity, there can still be high volume. However, there should be a perception on the part of the swimmer that the training session somehow was ‘manageable’. These safety valves can help swimmers catch back up if they are starting to accumulate an inappropriate amount of fatigue.
Back It Off
Design your training. Take an hour or two, then come back to it. Do a little bit less. Our first instinct is always to do a little more than we probably need to. This is especially true when working in the realm of high intensity work. It typically takes much less very high intensity work than we believe is required. There is little benefit to doing more than required, and the costs can be significant.
As you get better at assigning training loads, you’ll need to adjust less and less.
If you underdo it a bit, that just means they’ll swim faster in practice today. That’s usually not a bad problem to have. Secondly, if the training isn’t quite hard enough, that means they’ll be more recovered tomorrow. That means they’re going to train well tomorrow. This also is not a bad problem to have.
As long as you’re always asking for and receiving great effort, a lighter day will almost always be rewarded in a better day tomorrow.
Strive for Consistency
The whole point is that ensuring consistent training at a ‘good’ level will lead to spectacular performances down the road. The question then becomes, what type of training set up and what type of training loads allow for consistently good training sessions?
As mentioned above, long-term performance improvements are a reflection of the average level of training performance. Establishing a rhythm to the training process that allows for the highest average level of training performance is going to allow for long-term success. This may be best accomplished by good, yet unspectacular training sessions that happen on an almost daily basis. Consistent success also builds training momentum, further facilitating long-term performances.
Performance improvement is a long-term process that requires a long-term strategy for success. While it can be tempting to focusing on success in the immediate future, the approach is ultimately counterproductive. An effective long-term strategy is one that allows swimmers to training productively that vast majority of the time. They should have good, if unspectacular training sessions on a daily basis where they feel like they made progress toward their goals.
From a training perspective, coaches should focus on what is enough, not necessarily what is possible. By focusing on doing what is required, coaches are more likely to create a training program that is sustainable and allows for consistent progress on a daily and weekly basis. Lastly, coaches can protect their swimmer from their coaching by creating safety valves in their training to account for the likelihood that they’ll make an error.