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All 4 Years Part V

Previous articles in this series are linked below.

In the previous article, we explored how to use a bucket system to group swimmers based upon their individual needs. Now, we need to have a process for giving those swimmers what they need, when they need it, in a manner that allows for consistent, long term improvement. This requires a carefully thought out progression plan that provides a roadmap for how to create overload over time.

Having progressions isn’t about rigid planning. It’s about knowing your options and scaling those options so that the right stimulus is provided at the right time.

Actively Build in Progression

As discussed in previous sections, a key component of continued development is the maintenance of training potential. We need to be able to apply greater and greater amounts of specific overload over time. However, as there is a limit to how much training can reasonably be tolerated, as well as a limit on the number of novel exercises that can be used, there is a need to be judicious in how each stimuli is a applied.

There needs to be a plan as to how stimuli will be applied. The purpose of the plan is not to create rigid rules, but provide a pathway that coaches can use as a guide. It simply helps with decision making in the moment, by considering the consequences of those decisions without need to act immediately.

Know Your Options

What are your options for novel stimuli?

How can you create overload that is specific to the needs of swimmers and specific to the needs of the swimmers you coach?

The only way to REALLY know is to write it all down. Consider the different exercises you can do (equipment, drills, strokes, resistance, etc..), consider how you can perform those exercises (different speeds, different distances, different volumes, different densities, combinations of these, etc…), and how training can be organized in time (daily cycles, weekly cycles, monthly cycles, etc…).

Once you have most of your options, try to rank those options based upon the challenge they present. It doesn’t have to be exact, just a general framework of what’s a greater stimulus. Let’s consider in-water resistance training. It may be tough to determine if a heavy chute is ‘harder’ than a power rack. Most likely, they’re just ‘different’. However, it’s pretty obvious that incorporating small paddles during free swimming is a lot less strenuous than maximum effort swims on a heavy power tower.

2,000-meter aerobic sets are less challenging than 5,000-meter aerobic sets. 200-meter pace training is more intensive than 1500-meter pace training. Use your intuition and common sense. It’s likely more to be right than not. If there’s any doubt, there’s probably not much separation in terms of challenge; the two stimuli are just different.

When in Doubt, Do Less

Once you know your options, it’s time to use them. The first step to maintaining training potential is simply to start with less.

By starting with less, you retain the ability to do more, which preserves training potential. Fortunately, there are rarely consequences for doing an insufficient amount of work. You can always do more. Undertraining is an easy problem to fix. Just do more. On the other hand, overtraining is not. Not only can overtraining potentially worsen performance, it can unnecessarily waste training potential.

We all have our instincts as to what is an appropriate amount of work. What’s required is probably less, especially to start. Remember, you can always do more! If you are committed to overload, and you should be(!), you will end up in the same spot eventually, regardless of where you start. Over 4 years of a college career, there is plenty of time to progress to the expected intensity and volume.

Have Somewhere to Go

Knowing your options gives you a sense of ‘where you can go’ with training. Having ‘somewhere to go’ is about having options left on the table. It’s an extension of doing less, and is a primary consequence of doing less. Coaches should always strive to have ‘somewhere to go’ with their training. You want to always have more bullets. This could be more volume, more intensity, different exercises, different training organization, or any combination of the above. If you have more stimuli that can be applied, the opportunity for further improvement still exists.

Once you know what your options are, you need to decide which options you’re going to hold back. There always needs to be another training stimulus that you can use. If we fail to consider how the process might unfold over 4 years, we’ll run out of training potential much too soon.

Always keep in mind ‘what is the next step?’, as well as ‘what is the next step after that?’. When you always have answer for these questions, it means you have somewhere to go. If you start to run out of answers, you may be moving down the path of too much, too soon, leaving no options for the future.

Have a Plan Based Upon Year in School

Knowing that you have four years to work with swimmers, it makes sense to have a general idea of how you will create overload over those 4 years. If you throw everything at them at once (dryland, strength work, volume, intensity, in water resistance, etc…), what will you do with them once after that? Creating a long-term plan, with a careful progression in the exposure to novel training stimuli, will create the best opportunity for the continued development of faster and faster performances.

While a plan may imply a rigid, fixed schedule, the opposite is actually true. It is simply a guideline that can be used to guide decision making on an individual basis. Every year will be different and every individual will be different. Coaches must be flexible with how they apply those guidelines considered each case as its own unique circumstance.

The value in creating a plan is not in setting a concrete pathway, but in forcing coaches to consider how they will make decisions moving forward. The plan that emerges is reflective of HOW decisions will be made, not reflective of WHAT decisions will actually be made.

The plan should be based on yearly progressions that are based upon how long a swimmer has been a part of the program. The individual differences emerge when we considered how an individual enters the system. As discussed above, different swimmers will have had very different exposures and responses to training, and the buckets you create should guide you.

There is no right or wrong way to build progressions. It is entirely dependent on how each individual chooses to coach, as well as what they value in training. If a given coach drives performances through overload in volume, then progressions should mostly be driven by volume. The same could be said for strength training, intensity in the pool, or the resistance training in the pool. Any and all progressions are appropriate if you believe that it is critical for long-term performance enhancement.

If you do all of these things, and most coaches will to some extent, you’ll need to decide HOW to favor different progression means. For instance, the first year could be focused on building volume, the second year on improving strength training, etc. Alternatively, these progressions can be alternated on a more frequently basis, every month or even every week.

The best way to build these progressions is to ensure that they align with your values as a coach. If they do, you will be able to effectively manipulate those progressions, as well as flexibly apply those progressions on a case by case basis.

Create ‘Rules’ and Stick to Them

Force yourself to create rules about how overload can be applied and be conservative. In the moment, it’s easy to make the emotional decision and it’s VERY easy to do ‘just one more’. Remove the emotion from the process and by creating rules for progression ahead of time.

These rules could take any form that make sense to you and how you implement your training program. When you find yourself wanting to make a change, remember the rules exist for a reason. If you need to change the rules, that’s fine. However, make sure that change is appropriate enough to be applied uniformly.

Be Flexible

The challenge of coaching is the nuance and learning to make ambiguous decisions. I just suggested the importance of creating guidelines for creating progressions and sticking to them, and now I’d like to suggest that you be flexible when applying those rules.

When you have more formal rules, you can make exceptions to those rules as necessary. The key difference is that when making those exceptions, you’re much more aware of the potential consequences of making that exception, both positive and negative. The rules are a formal reflection of your thought process about what makes sense. The value in doing so is in reflecting on the consequences before you need to make immediate decisions.

When in the moment, you’ve already thought through what can happen, and that allows for the making of contextual decisions without a great deal of deliberation. It actually leads to a MORE intuitive process because you are freed to simply observe what you see, fully aware of the options for intervention that exist.

Avoid Every Year is Harder

A simple solution is to just make it harder every year. This is problematic for two reasons. The first is that you simply can’t do this forever. There is only so much work you can do, and the limit on the productive amount of work is even less. At some point, more of anything is simply not possible.

The second issue is that continuing to make the training harder widens the gap between newcomers and returners. The profile of the incomers is not necessarily improving, yet the expectations continue to grow. Not only is this a recipe for injury and stalled performances, it makes the problem of maintaining training potential even worse.

The idea of making training harder each year is completely correct. However, that process needs to happen on an individual basis, not as blanket approach for the team.


Creating progressions is about creating a road map to get from point A to point B. The main value of the road map is the thought process required to create the plan, not simply the plan itself. It forces coaches to carefully consider all of the factors that influence and allow for progressions to be effective.

It’s not about creating an iron-clad system. It’s about fully understanding what your options are, and how they relate to each other. The planning process helps to develop this understanding and that is what we’re after. With a deeper understanding, we actually have MORE flexibility, not less, and that is the true value of creating progressions.

Have established the training needs of our swimmers and created training progressions to meet those needs over time, we actually have to make it all happen by creating training sessions and effectively administering them to swimmers. As you can imagine, there are a lot of moving pieces and we have to be ready to pull it off. We’ll explore some ideas about how to do so in the following section.


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