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Bulletproof Skills Part I

Skills win races. Faster swimmers are better swimmers.

It makes sense to work to improve these skills in training. Coaches often take this to mean to the implementation of technical drills they see described and referenced in coaching books or coaching conferences.

However, there is a big difference between executing a skill in the sterile environment of a controlled drill as compared to the last 25 of a championship race, where the swimmer is in contention for the win.

Executing in the former situation is easy. Just about ANYONE can do it.

Executing in the latter situation is hard. VERY hard. Only those with bulletproof skills can find a way to get it done.

Fortunately, while there are certainly those with a natural inclination to swim well at all times, bulletproofing a swimmer’s skill is possible for all coaches. However, it is not going to happen by chance. It’s going to happen as the result of a directed attempt to get a specific result.

In this article, we’ll explore how.


What’s the difference between executing a skill in a simple, sterile environment as opposed to a complex, chaotic one?


In stressful situations, learned skills are under pressure. These skills are being stressed depending on whether the swimmer has the physical resources to execute their skills, as well as the psychological ability to focus on the necessary components of those skills. Swimmers must train to withstand the pressure, and learn what to focus on, and how to maintain that focus.

If swimmers can do this through exposure to the appropriate learning environments, they will be bulletproof to the inevitable stress of racing.

Physiological Pressure

When individuals get tired, regardless of what is creating that fatigue, it becomes more and more difficult to execute any skill. However, the ability to continue to execute is a skill in and of itself that can be improved. That improvement comes when swimmers are exposed to physiological pressure and expected to execute their skills to a very high standard. With consistent exposure and high-performance standards, swimmers can reduce the impact of fatigue on their ability to swim well.

Critically, the impact of physiological pressure is not consistent. Different stressors will impact swimmers differently, and the ability to retain skilled movement does not always transfer from one setting to another. For instance, executing skills under aerobic fatigue is not the same as executing skills during racing contexts. Executing skills when the legs are completely fatigued is not the same as when the arms are completely fatigued.

Regardless of which type of physiological pressure is more ‘specific’ to racing, they ALL have merit as training tools. As we’ll explore later when discussing bulletproofing strategies, becoming more robust in ANY situation is very effective for developing the ability to become more robust in any ONE situation.

Beyond the direct physical challenges associated with fatigue, pain distracts. A huge aspect of maintaining skilled execution is retaining focus. It is really hard to retain focus when every warning system in the body is screaming to stop with the insanity. Physical sensation is a distraction, and swimmers must learn how to overcome that distraction.

Physical sensations are also unique in that managing them is different. It is very different to be able to execute skills when very out of breath due to aerobic challenge as compared to when the legs lock up at the end of a sprint as opposed to when there is a lack of oxygen due to restricted breathing.

All of these situations are different and effective execution in one does not necessarily assure effective execution in another. Take the example of the hardened trainer that consistently pushes the envelope during challenging endurance and sprint sets. Expose that swimmer to challenging hypoxic training sets, particularly those executing with high intensity as well, and they well struggle. While some of this is purely physiological, it is also about the ability to manage the novel distraction.

Swimmers must be ready for all of them.

Psychological Pressure

In many ways, a better description than psychological pressure would be panic. When the stakes are high, swimmers lose the ability to focus on what is important (their skills). Instead, they focus on results (times, winning, etc.) and the implications of those results (status, money, etc.). The more uncertain the outcome, and the more uncertain swimmers are about their ability to achieve that outcome, the more likely there will be a loss of focus.

While managing pressure and retaining focus are an important aspect of the preparation problem described HERE and HERE, the solution can be linked to KNOWING that the required skills can be executed in just about any situation. This creates a greater level of certainty.

Where does this confidence come from? It comes from ACTUALLY executing the required skills over and over again in training in just about any situation possible. This happens when there is a plan to create bulletproof skills, rather than just training.

Beyond the confidence that comes from executing under pressure, swimmers must possess the skill to actually know what to focus on. This must be learned. As a race progresses and swimmers begin to fatigue, they will need to focus on DIFFERENT parts of their skills. They may need to shift to their tempo, or their body position, or something else.

There’s not a ‘right’ answer here, as it will likely differ for each person. However, there will be consistent strategies that work for any one person. Fortunately, these strategies can be learned by experiencing the environments that necessitate them in training. With exposure, swimmers learn WHAT to focus on.

Strategies for Becoming Bulletproof

Having explored the pressure swimmers face during racing, and the pressure they must overcome to execute their skills, let’s take a look at the strategies that can be employed to bulletproof the critical skills swimmers must execute.

A critical note.

Skilled execution is not always the end goal. It is the ATTEMPT to execute skills well that matters most. We are not looking for perfection. Instead we are looking for the struggle for perfection. If swimmers are consistently executing their skills extremely well, the challenge is not sufficient and needs to be increased. There should be some failure, as well as some fatigue.

While there’s not a magic ratio, both do need to be present. If there is too much failure, dial it down. If there isn’t enough, dial it up. How do you know what’s appropriate? There should be a sense of challenge paired with a belief that success if possible. If there’s no challenge, it’s not enough. If swimmers don’t believe success is possible, it’s too much.

Again, the focus needs to be on STRIVING to execute the desired skills. This is where learning takes place, not necessarily successfully executing skills on every attempt. It is the struggle that results in learning.


Swimmers get tired in races and this impairs their ability to execute skills. Impaired skill execution creates more fatigue and the situation gets worse and worse. To finish races as well as possible, swimmers need to be able to execute their skills in the face of mounting fatigue.

While we could simply perform race efforts over and over to expose swimmers to situations where they must execute their skills, this is not a particularly efficient or effective strategy. We can be more targeted. Instead we can create any desired type of fatigue and ensure that skills are executed well in that state.

As we’ll see later, there is some value in any fatigue stimulus. However, we can be even more targeted to address specific issues. For example, if swimmers consistently fail to stay underwater on their last wall of a 100 backstroke, you can design sets that challenge the ability to hold one’s breath and then do race efforts. Or you can fatigue their legs and then do race efforts. In both cases, it’s critical to execute the desired skills on the racing efforts. If a swimmer struggled more with the hypoxic component rather than leg fatigue component, you could spend more time with that type of work. Vice versa if the opposite was true.

This same approach can be used with any type of fatigue. The key aspect of this strategy is that swimmers must be focused on executing their skills as well as possible under the circumstances. They must be relentless with their attempts at execution.

Types of Fatigue

Making swimmers tired in different ways provides different opportunities for them to learn how to execute their skills under pressure. It prepares them to be resilient in those specific situations, while also improving their ability to execute their skills in any situation. Understanding some of the different options for creating fatigue can help expand our ability to provide learning opportunities to swimmers.

While some of the categories do overlap, they are presented as such because they can each create a different perspective on which to view the process. That change in perspective can be useful for designing different sets that can help swimmers learn.

Local Fatigue

With local fatigue, we’re targeting specific areas of the body. The stress is localized. Pulling and kicking are good examples. Using those tools, we can preferentially create fatigue the upper or lower body, THEN expect swimmers to execute their skills in those compromised conditions.

In race situations, either the arms or the legs will fatigue to the point where executing skills is compromised, sometimes catastrophically. Swimmers must be ready.

Beyond the straightforward example of using kicking or pulling sets, coaches could also use sculling sets to fatigue the compromise the ability of the forearm and hand to easily interact with the water. When those muscles are greatly fatigued, it becomes challenging to ‘feel’ the water. Similarly, breaststrokers could perform various activities to greatly fatigue the muscles of the shins, and then work to sustain an effective kicking action within their stroke. These are further examples of creating local fatigue.

These fatiguing activities do not necessarily need to take place in the water. It can be just as effective to use land exercises to create local fatigue. A set of pushups followed by breaststroke swimming is certainly going to impact the ability to hold water. The same exercises would greatly compromise a swimmer’s ability to smoothly recover the arms in butterfly and retain stroking rhythm. In both cases, they need to figure it out. Doing so, helps bulletproof those skills

Global Fatigue

While local fatigue, has a very specific effect, global fatigue has a much broader effect. The entire body is fatigued and swimmers must learn to execute their skills in that context. Rather than targeting a specific area of the body, the purpose is to just get tired. This can take place in multiple contexts.

Executing skills in the context of hard aerobic efforts is different than executing skills in the context of hard racing efforts, yet in both situations the associated fatigue is global rather than local in nature. While the two situations are different, they both have value. In both situations, the expectation should be on skilled execution. The ability to perform the desired skills to a high standard, regardless of the situation, is part of the bulletproofing process.

Almost any swimming set involving full stroke swimming is going to fall into the category of global fatigue. Rather than just training physiology, each set is an opportunity to bulletproof skills, particularly when the set gets hard. The stress is not in any one area. It’s everywhere.

Respiratory Fatigue

The typical human response to running out of air is panic. This is not a situation that is conducive to skilled execution. Respiratory fatigue can take the form of the inability to get enough oxygen due to high heart rates and respiratory rates. It can also be the result of simply not breathing due to staying under water or restricting breathing to go faster. Swimmers need to be ready.

We can create great learning environments to deal with this stress by restricting breathing in some form, or by using training options that create very high respiratory demands. The more swimmers learn to execute their skills in these contexts, the more robust they will be to the effects of compromised breathing in races. Any and all sets that create these contexts are potentially effective for creating the required learning.

Muscular Fatigue

While the need for oxygen is a primal drive that can certainly get a swimmer’s attention, it is the muscles that are doing the work when racing. If the ability of those muscles to do that work is compromised, and it will be, it is going to be a challenge to execute skills. If a swimmer is in a situation where their heart rate is not elevated, yet any or all of their muscles are significantly fatigued, this is just as problematic a situation. Prepare for it.

Preferentially fatiguing the muscles, whether globally or locally, is another strategy for providing learning opportunities. This creates a novel learning environment for executing skills, as well as helps swimmers learn to manage the inevitable muscular fatigue that occurs at the end of races. These sets can take the place of normal training sets, or these sets paired with racing efforts.

Not all types of muscular fatigue are created equally. It’s very different trying to execute skills at the end of a sprint, or at the end of a 3,000-meter swim. In both cases, the muscles are fatiguing, yet in a different manner. It’s also very different if the muscles are fatigue by a land-based activity. In all situations, learning to execute skills in these environments has a lot of value.

High Force Fatigue

High force fatigue is created following sprint efforts. It is particularly beneficial to use resistance during these efforts as the resistance will overload the force requirements and accelerate fatigue. Swimmers can perform prolonged efforts (i.e. 50m fast with a parachute) or repeated short efforts (i.e. 6x20m with 15 seconds rest). Both have value and both create slightly different challenges. In both situations, multiple repeats are appropriate.

An added benefit of using resistance is that performance times are much less relevant, and swimmers will worry less about the speeds they’re swimming. As such, they can focus on execution while being less concerned with outcomes.

Another effective strategy is creating fatigue on land through bodyweight exercises and then going right into race efforts. An example would be a set of 15 pushups right into a 50m butterfly. A similar strategy could be used to preferentially target the legs. Swimmers must learn how to swim well when their muscles feel like rubber. This presents a novel stimulus and environment that most swimmers are not familiar with.

When swimmers are able to consistently execute their skills under the pressure of significant muscular fatigue that results from high intensity efforts, they are more likely to be able to successfully hold it together at the end of a race. In any of the above situations, it’s not enough to simply execute these swims with high effort. There must be a specific intent to execute desired skills as well as possible.

Low Force Fatigue

There is a different between feeling like the muscles are exhausted as the result of high effort levels and the feeling like the muscles are just DEAD as a result of prolonged efforts. This difference creates a novel environment for learning how to execute skills under pressure.

In its simplest form, such can include sustained swims of the desired stroke. Additionally, it can consist of prolonged pull, kick, or swim efforts of a different stroke, immediately succeeded by race efforts of the targeted stroke. This provides a situation where the muscles are fatigue by prolonged efforts, and then swimmers are expected to manage that fatigue while executing their skills.


The ability to execute skills at the end of a race is what wins races. The more bulletproof a swimmer’s skills are, the more they’ll be able to execute those skills under pressure. This is a skill, and it can be learned by any swimmer.

To successfully execute their skills, swimmers must have the physical resources to perform the required actions, and they must have the tools to focus their attention in the appropriate areas. The best way to develop both of these traits is exposure to compromised situations where they are forced produce results.

In this article, we looked at how coaches can use various approaches to create fatiguing situation that spur learning. In part II, we’ll look at the use of resistance training to develop the ‘strength’ to hold skills together, as well as examine practical examples for all of these strategies.


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