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Bleeding to Death Part I

One of the biggest challenges in coaching is managing training over long time scales. In other words, the effects of your decisions today aren’t always evident immediately, and often only become apparent months down the road. This is further complicated when short-term effects are the OPPOSITE of long-term effects.

As coaches ultimately base their evaluations of the training process based upon performance, it can become very difficult to appreciate what is happening at these different timescales due natural fluctuations in performance. Specifically. the same types of training that allow for long-term performance development, can also impair short-term performance. As a quick example we’ll explore in more detail later, strength training can dramatically impair performance in subsequent training sessions. At the same time, long-term strength gains can be critical for long-term performance improve.

There are two potential problems that can occur due to this mismatch in the effect of certain types of training over different time scales. In the first case, coaches can overreact and allow for such dramatic short-term performance losses, knowing that it’s money in the bank, that they bury someone and they never come out of it. Even if there is a long-term benefit, there is only so much that swimmers can handle in the short-term. The idea of ‘just wait until we taper’ can get coaches and swimmers into trouble.

At the other end of the spectrum, a potential problem is that the removal of fatiguing, but critical training elements typically improves performance in the short-term. So, using our strength training example above, coaches remove strength training for a short period for whatever reason, and swimmers start going FAST. Unfortunately, the positive feedback of the fast swimming can reinforce the wrong decision. Performance potential is actually eroding over time, and performances slowly bleed to death. The real problem is that this process is so subtle that you only realize you have a problem when it’s too late.

It’s this latter problem, that I’d like to address. I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of delayed training effects, where the benefits of the work you do today don’t show up until weeks, months, or even years later. These effects are real and they are very challenging for coaches to manage because the feedback loop is so long, and the short-term feedback can suggest that the current approach is wrong.

In this article, I’ll address the most common situations where long-term effects need to weighed against short-term priorities, as well as some of the considerations coaches should be aware of.

Bleeding to Death

A discussed above, some training decisions can lead to short-term performances gains, and long-term performance losses. There are many types of training that take a long time to develop. At the same time, the adaptations that take a long time to develop also take a long time to deteriorate. And that’s where the problems start.

Because developing these adaptations requires a lot of work, that process also incurs a lot of fatigue, which can hurt performance acutely. When that work is reduced, the fatigue dissipates quickly, while the training adaptations last for longer. Then you have a window, where performance is high as fatigue is low and the adaptations are present. Unfortunately, that window is slowly closing.

Coaches may remove a training element for whatever reason. It could be injury, pool time, or a change in philosophy. At first, performance often improves because you retain the enhanced fitness and remove the fatigue associated with the development of fitness. When performances improve, it validates the decision and coaches continue along the path. Then 6 months later, training and performance falls apart.

Over times, the developed physiological adaptations are literally physically disappearing, and with it, so does performance potential.

With this concept in mind, we’ll explore three specific examples of training elements that operate on a longer time scale, and the potential errors that can occur. The primary elements that are typically removed are strength training, aerobic training, and speed/power training. These three elements must be consistently developed over time for almost all swimmers, and when these elements are not the focus of the training program, they must be maintained in some form.

In this context, CONSISTENCY is the key and creating strategies that allow for short-term performance expression (i.e. tapering) that all for consistency of training are critical.

Strength Training

The major challenge with implementing and sticking to an effective strength training program is that the benefits take a long time to develop and they often come at a short-term cost. Some of those costs include-

Coaches can be hesitant to include sufficient strength training in their programs for any or all of the following reasons-

  • It harms short-term performance, potentially dramatically if done poorly.

  • It takes a long time to transfer to performance.

  • A lot of swimmers simply don’t like to do it.

  • They get sore. Nothing impairs short-term performance more than strength training.

However, as swimming becomes more and more of a speed game where even distance swimmers are FAST (Katie Ledecky split 52+ in the 100 free), strength training is an investment most coaches and swimmers will need to make. This will look different for different swimmers, but some is likely necessary. While swimmers don’t need to squat 400 pounds, performance is likely being left in the pool if they can’t do a legitimate pushup and pull-up. Ask Allison Schmidt.

Above all else, developing strength comes through consistency. It is a relatively slow process that responds best to relatively small, consistent doses applied over time. Major periods with little to no strength training will not only halt strength gains, it will make all of the above drawbacks more readily apparent. Inconsistent strength programs are often most associated with the problems above. Consistency is more important than volume, intensity, or exercise selection. This informs the appropriate strategies when addressing the potentially problematic situations addressed below.

As maintaining consistency is critical, not maintaining consistency is where coaches run into trouble. Tapering is a major opportunity to maintain consistency, or not. How strength training is managed through the taper is not only important for performance for that specific competition, but also the transition in the next training cycle. I feel swimmers should maintain some sort of strength training for as long as possible, especially with abbreviated tapers. This is NOT necessarily to maintain strength, but to maintain continuity of training.

When selecting tapering loads, coaches must not only consider what is required to maintain strength while reducing fatigue, but what best allows for a seamless transition into the next training cycle. If swimmers stop lifting for 2-3 weeks then take 2 weeks off, it’s been 5 weeks since any strength training has been performed, it will be much more difficult to smoothly transition back to strength work. The more continuity within the process, the better the long-term improvement and the more conservative the strength program can be, which minimizes the impact of soreness and fatigue on work done in the pool.

Another situation where swimmers and coaches can get in trouble is when time becomes a premium. Strength training is often perceived to require a separate facility. The perception also exists that a strength training session requires 1 hour, as this seems to be the default in the collegiate setting. Because of these perceptions, strength training is often the first thing to go when there is limited time for whatever reason. This is a mistake.

Strength training can take place on deck if required and A LOT of work can be done in 10-15 minutes for 2-3 times per week. All that is required is a little ingenuity and persistence. Finding a way to make it happen helps maintain consistency until ‘normal’ training can be resumed, whether this is 1 week, 1 month, 1 season, or 1 year. Failure to do so will result in slow strength losses that aren’t evident until it’s too late.

While training consistency is generally a problem over the summer for a lot of college swimmers with competing demands (internships/jobs/life), strength training is particularly problematic. Upon returning home, many swimmers will have access to consistent training with their club team. However, most swimmers will have much less accountability and access to solid strength training resources, even if provided with a home program. For those with competing time demands, strength training is often the first type of training to be dropped. As described above, this is a mistake, and an avoidable one. It takes minimal work completed with minimal frequency to maintain strength. By foreseeing this challenge, coaches can work with their strength and conditioning coaches to provide ‘best case’ and ‘worst case’ programming so that swimmers have options regardless of the situation. Bodyweight and minimal equipment options can be performed during any 10-15 minutes block of time throughout the day.

As mentioned above, it is consistency not aggressive loading that matters for strength training. However, when strength training is introduced or escalated inappropriately or excessively all of the drawbacks of strength training become readily apparent. Performances start to tank. Coaches and swimmers then bail on the strength training program after a few months. As it’s been long enough to develop significant strength, performances explode when the rest comes. This reinforces the idea the strength training impairs performance. As a result, swimmers and coaches bail on strength training as an effective training tool, failing to make the short-term sacrifice for long-term progress.

Aerobic Training

To be clear, I am considering ‘aerobic training’ to mean any lower intensity training component that supports the training process. The longer the event, the more this type of work directly impacts performance. While the practical implementation can be very different for specific teams and individuals, the principles remain the same.

Coaches have all coaches, seen or heard of the team or individual that dramatically reduced the volume of aerobic training by choice or circumstance and proceeded to have an amazing season. The real question is what happens during the NEXT season. This particularly true when that next season is long course. The removal of short-term fatigue allowed for the expression of long-term training improvement. However, those aerobic benefits slowly eroded over time and the magic window of performance evaporates.

It’s easy to think this strategy is a long-term solution instead of a short term one, and many swimmers and coaches want to believe it’s a long-term solution. Some coaches and swimmers tend to avoid aerobic training for the following reasons-

  • It’s boring.

  • It takes a lot of time.

  • It takes a long time to improve (years!).

  • It causes fatigue.

  • It’s not always race specific.

  • It may not always be conducive to technical development.

  • Swimmers don’t see the connection between training and competition.

  • The benefits are often seen in the future, not immediately.

While these reasons may have merit for avoiding aerobic training in certain circumstances, aerobic training in some form, appropriate to the situation, is critical for long-term improvement. At a minimum, you have to be fit enough to train. At the other extreme, aerobic training is the performance determinant for certain events.

In the short-term, it can be tempting to move away from aerobic training. However, this often comes at long-term cost. As such, coaches must be mindful of how the choices they make now affect performance months down the road. While it can be very tempting to chase short-term performance objectives, long-term performances are what will determine whether swimmers and coaches are ultimately satisfied with the process.

As with strength training, aerobic training is most valuable when it is done consistently. Consistency allows for patience, consistency allows for long-term progress, and consistency allows coaches to maintain balanced programs. The challenge is how to maintain consistency during periods where fatigue needs to be minimized, as well as when there are extended periods of reducing training time.

When shifting to more high intensity training, there instinct is to reduce the volume of aerobic training to allow for more energy to be available for performing and recovering from high intensity work. While this is certainly an effective strategy for this purpose, aerobic training adaptations are related to the volume of training. Over time, dropping volume can cause a loss of these adaptations. For distance swimmers, even a short period of reduced volume can be problematic. Likewise, more speed-based swimmers who conduct a much longer phase of high intensity training can run into the same problems over time.

Another solution exists that can better maintain these adaptations. As opposed to dropping the volume, drop the intensity of much of the aerobic training. This will allow for a reduction in fatigue while better maintaining the necessary training adaptations. Further, upon resuming ‘normal’ training, it will be much easier to transition smoothly if volume has been kept as normal as possible.

These same principles apply to tapering periods as well. How can aerobic training volume be maintained as long as possible while incurring as little physiological cost as possible? That is the challenge. Please note that the volume is relative to what you are doing. It is not an absolute concept. It is the change in volume, not how much you are doing in absolute terms that matters.

This strategy has been used successfully by those who have excelled in the World Cup Circuit, racing fast and MAINTAINING those performances throughout the entire circuit. They then backed this up with performances at the major meet of the summer. Chad Le Clos has successfully used this strategy on multiple occasions.

Coaches and swimmers can often be placed in situation where there is very limited time due to pool constraints, life constraints, injury constraints, or something else. In this situation, finding ways to stay in touch with aerobic training is critical. It is about maintaining consistency as much as possible, so you can pick up where you left off when returning to normal.

Some options for accomplishing this goal, more or less appropriate for a given situation. With limited time, reduce the time for ‘warm-up’ and make the warm-ups aerobically challenging, even for brief periods of time. These brief but intense exposures can help to maintain aerobic fitness, while allowing for other types of training to be addressed. If water time is the limitation, but not overall time, coaches can perform the majority of warm-up activities on land to allow for all water time to be of very high quality.

Again, if the limitation is just pool time, coaches can find ways to maintain elevated heart rates on land for extended periods of time. While this is certainly not an optimal way to maintain aerobic fitness in the pool, it can certainly supplement the work that it is being done in the water. The idea is to make the best of the situation, and land-based aerobic training can be an effective tool. Any work that uses all of the muscles of the body and elevates the heart is potentially useful.

A final strategy is to use the other strategies and then really emphasize aerobic training 1-2 times per week. A major stimulus applied once per week, in conjunction with the other ‘micro-dosing’ strategies will greatly aid in the attempt to maintain aerobic fitness as much as possible. A ‘major stimulus’ will be relative to what swimmers are used to. As an example, coaches could warm the swimmers up on land and then train aggressively for an hour. In a worst-case situation of only 1 hour of pool time, a lot of aerobic training can be accomplished that will keep swimmers moving forward. Using this strategy can allow for swimmers to maintain fitness for an extended period of time, particularly for those who train over shorter distances.

When sub-optimal situations arise, doing something is infinitely better than nothing and will allow for the transition back to regular training to be so much smoother. Over time, smoother transitions that allow for consistent progress forward add up over time.

These same strategies can be applied for coaches who are deliberately moving away from aerobic training to focus on other training elements. The majority of aerobic training related performance improvements can be maintained for an extended period of time using the following strategies.

  • Minimize warm requirements by addressing warm-up on land.

  • Micro-dose aerobic training by including challenging aerobic work during the warm up.

  • Perform aerobic training on land.

  • Pick one day per week were aerobic training is aggressively pursued.

  • Lower the intensity, but not volume, of the aerobic training.

This is likely not a sufficient strategy indefinitely, although it can be for some swimmers. Performances can definitely be maintained with reduced training volume, although at some point, a more focused period of aerobic training will likely be necessary.

Moving Forward

Hopefully, this article has stimulated some reflection about how importance maintenance loading can be particularly, for strength and aerobic training. In the next article, we’ll explore the dangers of removing speed and power training from various points of the training year, as well as wrap up with some general conclusions about to avoid bleeding to death.

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