All 4 Years Part II
Previous articles in this series are linked below.
Having explored some of the reasons why swimmers fail to consistently improve following maturation, as well as introduced the concept of training potential, this article will explore the two major reasons that training potential is not preserved. When training potential is not preserved, coaches run out of effective options, and simply resort to either repeating the same process or introducing novel, yet ineffective stimuli.
The two major reasons training potential is not maintained are training potential mismanagement and a lack of ingenuity. By understanding how the process can go wrong, we can better understand how to better implement training to provide greater improvement.
Training Potential Mismanagement
Training potential can be lost prematurely through mismanagement of training potential. The biggest mistake coaches can make is using training options that are more advanced than necessary. Let’s use an analogy to explore this concept.
Every novel stimulus is a bullet. When you use that bullet, it’s gone and you can’t use it again. You only have a set number of bullets in your gun, let’s say 6, just as you only have a limited number of training options.
Now imagine you’re walking in the woods and you see a spider. You can shoot the spider, or you can just step on it. In both cases, the spider is dead. If you shoot it with the gun, the spider is still dead, but you have 1 less bullet. If you see 6 spiders and shoot them all, what do you do when run into the bear? You can’t shoot it.
The same concept applies for training. You want to use the option with the LEAST training potential now (stepping on the spider), so you can use the options with the MOST training potential (the bullets) later when you NEED them (when you meet the bear).
Let’s go back to our bench press example. If you want to improve upper body pressing strength, you have a lot of options. From weight training to bodyweight training to the use of bands, all methods can provide an appropriate stimulus at some point. For young swimmers, let’s consider the choice between elevated push-ups and maximal effort bench pressing.
For age group swimmers with little exposure to strength training, BOTH options will improve pressing strength and likely do so to the same degree. However, maximal effort bench pressing is a much more intense training tool, and there are not many options that are more intensive.
In this case, instead of performing maximum bench presses, use pushup progressions UNTIL THEY STOP WORKING. When a swimmer can do 50 pushups, maybe it’s time to introduce weight training. When basic weight training doesn’t work, use a more intensive weight training approach. When you need to shoot the bear, you still have the option of using maximum effort bench pressing, but only if you still have the bullets left. The same analogy can be applied to ANY aspect of swim training
While it’s a simply concept, it takes A LOT of foresight to plan ahead to preserve training potential. It takes MORE patience to actually execute this plan. It is particularly challenging when considering that new swimmers enter training programs with very different training backgrounds, as well as the logistical challenge of managing training within a confined space. We’ll explore some potential options later in the series.
You don’t need to shoot a spider. Use a strategy with less training potential. Use the least effective tool that still gets the job done.
Lack of Ingenuity
While training potential can be mismanaged, we may simply run out of novel training stimuli at some point. Fortunately, coaches are effective and creative problem solvers. The problem to solve is how to create a novel way to train in terms of the exercises performed, how they are performed, or how they are organized over time. The idea is to find ways to create novel exposures to stress so that opportunities for adaptation are provided to swimmers.
Coaches can create novel exposures by designing new exercises, create new ways to perform pre-existing exercises, or by creating new ways to exercises in time. Below, we’ll explore what this looks like and take a look a few specific examples. There isn’t necessarily a best way to maintain training potential. You can use any of the three approaches at the same time, separately or in conjunction. In many cases, logistics will make decisions for you as some options just won’t be on the table.
I use the term ‘exercise’ to imply a new way of moving. As an example, I would consider swimming against a power tower and swimming against a parachute to be two different exercises. For swimmers, who have never performed one or either of these exercises.
While we are somewhat limited in how we can create relevant novel exercises, there is definitely opportunity to introduce new stimuli. The primary ways to do so are through the use of training gear and through the use of drills.
In regards to training equipment, using tools that provide resistance or assistance can provide a strength or overspeed stimulus, respectively. Paddles, fins, cords, parachutes, power towers, etc… can all be used to serve both of these purposes.
When designed these exercises, it’s important to consider how the given exercise provides a novel and relevant stimulus that also provides an overload of some type, and/or the opportunity to enhance learning outcomes. The most valuable aspect of using training gear is to provide either a strength or overspeed stimulus. This can allow for the enhancement of specific strength and speed. As such, it makes sense to use these when they’re needed. Premature introduction of these tools is an example of training potential mismanagement.
I’ve discussed the use of drills in the past HERE and HERE. When used while keeping in mind the considerations described in the articles above, novel drills can introduce productive learning experiences that coaches can use to develop skills, improve physical qualities, or improve the ability sustain skills under pressure.
From my perspective, the most useful ‘novel’ exercises are those that incorporate a physical overload of some sort, either speed or strength. If there is not much of an overload, the exercise might be novel, but it’s probably not useful. The idea is to create BETTER, rather than just different.
Beyond introducing novel exercises, we can introduce novel ways of performing the same exercises. Generally speaking, ‘novel’ is synonymous with ‘harder; in this context. We can increase any of the following variables-
Intensity (swim faster)
Volume (swim more)
Density (do the same amount of work in less time)
Repetition Length (do longer repetitions at the same speed)
Resistance (add resistance or add more resistance)
Any combination of the above factors can increase the challenge
The idea is to use training sets that creates an overload to the body that has not been experienced before. This provides a stimulus for adaptation. Clearly, there is a limit to how far we can push all of these variables. Thus, there is limited training potential, and that training potential must be preserved to sustain long-term development. The takeaway- GO SLOW AND SPACE IT OUT!
It’s really tempting to increase all of these variables at the same time, and to do so rapidly. Remember to save your bullets for when you need them, because you will.
There is also specificity to consider. For a distance swimmer, trying to swim faster and faster may not be as useful as increasing volume or density. Conversely, doing more might not help a sprinter as much as increasing intensity. At the same time, doing more can help you go faster later, and vice versa. Strategically manipulating these variables can help to extend training potential, respecting the need to use the option that is LEAST effective. While there are never absolutes, specificity must still be appreciated in line with novelty.
Realistically, there is a limit to how much effective work can be done within a training set, or a training session. Swimmers can only swim so much, so fast within a practice. You can’t do more, you can’t go faster, intervals can’t get tighter. You’ve run out of viable new exercises and you’ve maximized how those exercises are performed.
What can we do?
We can introduce novel ways of organizing training in time, commonly known as periodization. Coaches and researchers have been looking into this issue for decades. In the resources section of this website, several popular theorists have provided their take on this problem.
I’d like to get away from the concept of periodization, as there are a lot of connotations that come with. Rather, I’d like to consider the principle of how we can increase training potential by organizing training in time. To start this process, consider the impact of doing the exact same training week, but changing which days which type of training is performed.
Consolidation and Dispersion
Let’s say you typically alternate a day of aerobic training with a day of race-pace training. How would the stimulus change if you performed three days of aerobic training followed by three days of race-pace training, or vice versa? The DENSITY of the aerobic stimulus would be MUCH stronger. If you can only perform so much aerobic training in a given practice, performing multiple challenging sessions in a row would allow for a deeper stimulus, stacking each individual stimulus on top of the previous one. This creates an overload through condensing exposures to a given stimulus in time.
The same process of consolidation can be applied across different timescales. For instance, if you have 3 hard workouts in 1 week, you could perform them all in a row to increase training potential. Over the course of a week, there would be a large fluctuation in training stress. The same concept could be applied for multiple weeks, or even for a month or months. The consolidation of training increases the training potential, while the recovery afterwards allows for the stimulus to be ‘processed.
The example above was with a short time scale. Let’s consider a larger timescale. A 6-month, college training season could be set up where the first 2 months are focused on strength and land work, the 2nd two months are focused on volume and aerobic training, and the last 2 months are focused on more race specific work. This is in contrast to evenly dispersing these training elements across the 6 months. This allows for the impact of each component to be more significant.
This is all done without changing the total volume. The overload is purely due to a change in timing, as consolidation allows for a greater impact with the same total volume, by creating an ‘artificial’ increase in volume due to higher density.
In contrast, we can greater opportunities for intensifying training by spreading training sessions apart. Let’s consider the adjustment made above where 3 race-pace practices are performed in a row. If those sessions are performed every other day, with relatively light training between each practice, the possible intensity during those session will be higher due to better recovery. In this case, an intensity overload is applied through faster swimming, with this increased intensity only being possible through increased rest.
Coaches can also alter training frequency to introduce different challenges. A more frequent, smaller stimulus will allow swimmers to work on specific skills and physical traits daily. This can allow for higher quality work to be done more frequently. In contrast, coaches can implement bigger, more intensive training sessions with less frequency. This can create a big stimulus that may be novel for a swimmer.
For a distance swimmer, a higher frequency approach could be swimming volumes of ~10,000 yards per day. A less frequent approach could include alternating between 14,000 and 6,000 yards per day. Even more extreme example could be a day of 20,000 yards followed by two days of 5,000 yards.
Further, performing multiple training sessions per day where the daily volume is divided amongst practices can allow for more intensity during a given practice. In contrast, performing extended single sessions may lower the intensity slightly, yet allow for a much more significant overload to the body within a concentrated time period.
There isn’t a ‘right’ or ‘better’ approach. It’s more about be willing to look for new ways to challenge swimmers, being open to a spectrum of possibilities. While some options may be more or less feasible from a logistical perspective, the process of identifying potential options typically yields novel results.
There are no real rules for modifying training organization. The idea is to find new ways to challenge swimmers by considering training on a scale larger than individual training sessions. When we need new stimuli, we have to look toward how training is organized in time as an option to manipulate.
An important caveat with training potential. An important component to training is not just novelty, but relevance or specificity. 20-mile bike rides may be a novel stimulus to most swimmers, but it’s not particularly relevant to your 50 freestyle. It WILL create a change in the physiology of the swimmer. However, that change has no utility. This is the great challenge of maintaining training potential. It becomes harder and harder to devise new stimuli that are ALSO specific to the needs of a given swimmer.
Training potential mismanagement, or using inappropriate training tools at the wrong time, and a lack of ingenuity are the two primary reasons training potential is lost in swimmers. By carefully applying stimuli when they are needed, and not just when it’s possible to use them, we can prolong the utility of the training options we already have.
Through creatively assessing what needs to get done, as well as what tools we have, we can also expand our toolbox to create more options for expanding potential. While creating new exercises and new ways to perform those exercises is a terrific option, a third option is to consider how we can organize the options we do have differently in TIME, thereby creating a new stimulus. This is often unexplored and a terrific way to advance training, particularly in advanced athletes.
While this might all sound great, it’s important to make these ideas concrete and applicable. We’ll start that process in the next section, where we examine what can actually be done to help facilitate long-term development.