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Bulletproof Skills Part II

In Part I, we introduced the idea of bulletproof skills. Winning races comes down to executing skills when physical and psychological pressure is at its highest. Fatigue is making it more and more difficult to swim well, and the pain of fatigue is distracting swimmers from doing what they need to do.

The best way to develop the physical ability to resist fatigue and the psychological focus to ignore it is exposure to situations where swimmers must perform under pressure.

In Part I, we looked at some strategies that create this learning environment, using various forms of fatigue. In Part II, we’ll look at how to use various forms of resisted swimming to ‘strengthen’ skills, as well as look at example sets that illustrate the strategies discussed.


By training skills with equipment that overloads force production, we can create more resilient skills. As distinct from the fatiguing strategies described above, the purpose here is to develop the ‘strength’ to hold skills together.

The concept is to create a buffer or reserve between the force production that is possible and the force production that is required to sustain the necessary skills. The greater the buffer and the greater the reserve, the longer and more effectively swimmers will be able to sustain their skills.

In fatiguing situations, we use fatigue to build resiliency against the loss of function when swimmers get tired. When using resistance to build strength, we’re aiming to train so that fatigue doesn’t occur in the first place. We’re building a buffer that works against resistance.

In general, the focus here should be on AVOIDING fatigue, creating a high volume of quality repetitions performed against resistance. The purpose here is to develop strength. That’s going to happen most effectively when there is a lot of quality worked performed over time.

While the strategy of simply swimming against resistance in the form of a parachute or power tower will be effective in providing many of these benefits, we can further target our efforts to create resiliency in specific areas. There are multiple strategies that can be used to create the effect.

One of the key aspects of implementation is appropriate loading. We want to challenge the desired skills without overwhelming the desired skills. The amount of resistance used should make it difficult to swim well, yet allow for swimmers to swim well with regularity. Every rep doesn’t need to be perfect, nor should it be perfect. However, swimmers need to experience success.

Overload the Limbs

We can overload specific areas of the body to create more stress in a given area. If we’re looking to develop the ability to maintain or sustain a kicking action, you can use DragSox on the feet or use fins while swimming against resistance such as a parachute. This will specifically challenge the capabilities of the legs.

If we’re looking to overload some aspect of the pulling pattern, we can swim against resistance while using paddles of some type, or by performing these efforts with a pull buoy and band. This requires swimmers to maintain effective force production.

If we want to challenge the ability to maintain stroking rhythm through the arm recoveries, we can place small weights on the hands, wrists, or elbows to increase the challenge.

In every case, swimmers are developing strength in the actual skills they need to use, while also learning to execute their skills in slightly different contexts. For both reasons, these strategies will increase the ability to maintained skilled movement.

Overload Body Position

As with overloading the limbs, we can apply directed pressure to the torso to improve the ability to maintain body position while swimming fast. Most resistance strategies will cause the hips to sink. Some of this effect is due to the resistance actually pulling the hips down. This is particularly true of weight belts, but also true of parachutes, power towers, and DragSox.

A second effect is simply due to resistance training slowing swimmers down. When swimmers move slower through the water, they need to ride lower, increasing the inclination of the body. The resistance also makes maintaining rhythm more difficult, which has similar consequences.

By practicing in these situations, and developing the strength to overcome these challenges, swimmers will be more prepared to manage their body position throughout racing situations. They’ll have the strength and control to create change, and they’ll have the experience of regularly practicing these skills to make it happen when it matters.

Overload Skills

While this strategy overlaps to some extent with the strategies above, it differs in its intent and approach. When overloading the limbs or body position, we’re creating effects at specific locations as a primary focus. How these effects impact the desired skills is secondary. It is what it is.

In contrast, overloading skills starts with the skill in question, and then specific designing the implementation of resistance to create a specific effect. As an example, if a swimmer tends to lose their butterfly rhythm and body position at the end of their races by ‘going vertical’, we can use a weight belt or a parachute to exaggerate this flaw.

The swimmer must then work to overcompensate for this loss of body position. When performed with controlled parameters, appropriate loading, and given enough time, the swimmer can learn to develop the strength to hold their positions when the resistance is removed. This same thought process can be applied to any skill. It is simply a matter of identifying what skill is important, and how can it be loaded with resistance to make it more robust.

Combinations and Variety

We learn in situations of novelty. Once we have the answer, we need to change the questions. As swimmers begin the process of bulletproofing their skills, they will begin to find answers to the training questions that we pose them. To continue to provide novel learning environments, we’ll need to be creative in coming up with new challenges.

While we only explored two general categories of training stimuli, the creation of fatigue and the use of resistance, there are many subcategories that can be explored. More importantly, we can combine those strategies in an almost infinite number of ways. This allows us to provide an unending number of learning environments that can be used to help swimmers learn how to execute their skills under pressure.

There is a lot of value in being very directed in creating specific contexts that preferentially challenge the skills that swimmers are working to make more robust. Creating environments that place a lot of pressure at a desired point can help to create change fast.

For instance, if a swimmer really struggles to sustain their kicking action at the end of a 100 freestyle, performing challenging sets with DragSox where there is a lot of pressure on that skill, both kicking and swimming, can be very effective in creating change. When these sets are performed at a high intensity, this creates a very relevant stimulus for change.

However, there is a lot of value in learning to execute the desired skills in many different contexts, even those that are not ‘race-specific’. Using our 100-freestyle example, while sustaining an effective leg action during aerobically-oriented sets might not be as ‘specific’, the ability to do so in under aerobic challenge is going to reinforce the ability to sustain the leg action NO MATTER WHAT.

In these situations, the focus is not necessarily on achieving certain performances, although this can and should be incorporated. The focus is on sustaining the kicking action in all contexts. Not only does this create a behavioral habit, it helps create the physiological ability to do so, as well as the psychological focus to execute under pressure.

The same concept applies to all skills. When skills are consistently challenged and hardened in MANY contexts, they become bulletproof in ANY context.

Designing Sets

When designing training sets, we have two primary options. We can use a direct approach or a complex approach. The direct approach is simply putting swimmers in a challenging context and letting them figure it out, regardless of whether that context is race-specific or not. We’re allowing that environment to facilitate learning. In the complex approach, we’re combining the designed environment with race specific efforts. Here, we’re creating a challenge and then requiring execution in very race-relevant situations.

Let’s take a look at both options in more detail.

Direct Approach

With these sets, we’re simply using the tools of fatigue and resistance, or any combination of the two, to facilitate learning. There is less concern for achieving race speeds. The focus is simply on creating challenging situations that require swimmers to execute their skills, and then repeating those situations.

The sets below are simple to illustrate the primary concept. They can and should be altered with varying challenges to provide better learning environments.

10x100@20 seconds rest; 25 fast scull/25 breaststroke + light dolphin kick/25 fast scull/25 breaststroke

Here, we’re creating a lot of work with the forearms and then requiring swimmers to swim breaststroke with that fatigue. As the rest periods are pretty short, and it’s a lot of forearm work, the fatigue will begin to accumulate. This set can be made more challenging by requiring swimmers to stick to an individually determined stroke count for each breaststroke segment.

We’re creating local fatigue in the forearms, and challenging swimmers to maintain their skills in that environment. There are many ways to progress this set, including adding resistance, further reducing stroke counts, or placing speed requirements on any segment of the set.

10x200@20 seconds rest; single paddle pull with band and buoy; alternating paddle by 200;

One less stroke per 50 within each 200

Aerobic des in pairs

The focus here is maintaining control of distance per stroke regardless of which hand the paddle is on. Further, the band and buoy prevent any contribution of the legs, so swimmers must maintain the propulsive efficiency of the arms in spite of mounting fatigue in the upper body. As the set is extended and there is little rest, that fatigue will accumulate. Further swimmers are expected to swim faster as the set goes on, while retaining the same stroke count.

To navigate this set successfully, swimmers must execute their skills and swim efficiently. They must do so with effective upper body mechanics. The requirement for skilled movement is higher at the end of the set than at the beginning, in spite of accumulating fatigue. Swimmers must learn how to swim well when tired, and they will receive objective feedback as to whether they are doing so or not.

3 rounds through

8x25@45 Butterfly; breathing every other stroke; performed with a resistive parachute; Fast

100 EZ between round

The goal here is to work on the breathing action in a resistive context. The swimmer is expected to maintain the same stroking rhythm and body position whether breathing or not. That is the objective. Their body position shouldn’t change when the breathe and their stroke rate should remain constant.

The challenge is performing these skills against the added resistance of the parachute. As the distances are short and the rest periods are relatively open, swimmers should be able to maintain a high level of performance. Over time, a set such as this will ‘strengthen’ that skill, making it more robust to challenges, whether due to speed or fatigue.

3 rounds through

6x25@1:15 Backstroke; swim with DragSox; Fast

100 EZ between round

This set is similar in set up and intention to the butterfly set above. It differs in how resistance is used to create a learning environment. With this set, the focus is on maintaining a really strong leg action, and developing the strength to do so. The DragSox preferentially stress the legs, making it more difficult to create and sustain the kick.

Over time, the required strength to maintain that skill will be developed. As the legs can tend to fatigue more quickly and more significantly than the upper body, it is often prudent to provide more rest to allow the focus to be on developing strength versus creating fatigue. This tactic is reflected in the slightly lower volume and extended rest periods.

8x50@1:30 Backstroke with DragSox; fastest possible average

This set is using the same tool as the set above, yet doing so with a very different purpose. Whereas the previous set was using DragSox to develop strength, this set is using DragSox to accelerate and deepen muscular fatigue. When repetition distances extend, fatigue tends to accelerate much more than without resistance.

In this set, there will be multiple opportunities, and extended periods of time, where swimmers are experiencing significant muscular fatigue yet must still sustain their skills, in this case a strong kicking action. As the kicking action is foundational for an effective rhythm, it’s critical that swimmers are able to sustain it in spite of tremendous fatigue of the muscles. This set places them in that context and allows them to figure out how to do so, while also developing the required physiological resources.

3 rounds through 2x25@40 15m fast underwater dolphin kick plus 2 breakout cycles

2x25@35 15m fast underwater dolphin kick plus 2 breakout cycles

2x25@30 15m fast underwater dolphin kick plus 2 breakout cycles

2x25@25 15m fast underwater dolphin kick plus 2 breakout cycles

2x25@20 15m fast underwater dolphin kick plus 2 breakout cycles

100 EZ

Here we’re challenging the ability to sustain dolphin kicks and breakouts at high volume with decreasing rest. As the same kickout component remains, and there is no access to oxygen, the ability to manage respiratory challenge is going to be stressed. Further, as there is progressively less rest between high efforts, the heart rate is going to be higher prior to the hypoxic challenge, making it more difficult to control the breathing.

There are many different ways to combine reduced breathing and high heart rates to challenge breath-holding ability, and the ability to execute skills under these conditions. For safety reasons, it makes a lot of sense to ensure that these efforts are short in duration and conservative in nature. Swimmer can be challenged by in safe ways be keeping the efforts brief. Focus on getting the heart rate elevated and then creating a slight hypoxic challenge allows for shorter stressors.

Complex Approach

With this strategy, we’re combining any of above approaches (resistance, fatigue, etc.) with race efforts. So, we’re putting the skills under pressure with fatigue or resistance, and then asking for race efforts. The major difference between the direct and complex approach is the inclusion of race-specific work.

With the direct approach, swimmers must execute their skills in a compromised, yet less specific context. With the complex approach, they must do both. Swimmers ultimately need to be able to execute their skills at race speeds under race fatigue. As such, it makes sense that we create that practice environment as often as possible, in as many varied ways as possible.

3 rounds through

4x25@40 Fast kick on a board with a parachute

50@1 100m Back end speed with racing stroke counts

50@3 EZ recovery

In this situation, we’re preferentially fatiguing the legs, and doing so in a way that challenges force production. When moving into the 50-m swim, swimmers must execute this racing effort with compromised legs that are unable to create as much force as normal. This is a situation they’ll face in a race.

Regardless of this disadvantage, they must execute whatever skill is of importance. It may be simply sustaining the legs, it may be executing a certain breathing pattern, establishing a desired rhythm, or breathing in a typical manner. It’s whatever skills that you and the swimmer determine are limiting performance. Execute them under a specific type of pressure.

Let’s contrast the above set with a similar set, yet one that places the stress in a slightly different area.

3 rounds through

3x50@1 Fast kick on a board

50@1 100m Back end speed with racing stroke counts

50@3 EZ recovery

In this set, the legs are still going to be fatigued and this fatigue must be managed by the swimmer. However, whereas the previous example focused more on a higher force challenge, this situation is creating more metabolic fatigue that the swimmer must manage. It is SIMILAR, yet it is still DIFFERENT. Learning to execute the desired skills in both of these situations will make these skills more resilient to stress.

3 rounds through

4x25@40 Fast swim with DragSox

50@1 100m Back end speed with racing stroke counts

50@3 EZ recovery

Now we’re working on skills during the resistance work, while also preferentially fatiguing. This differs from the prior set where you are creating fatigue and THEN working on the skill. This set has a similar impact, yet puts more emphasis on skill practice over fatigue. The legs are being hit while still working on the desired swimming skill. As with the previous example, the swimmer will then go into the regular fast swimming to put it all together.

These same concepts can be applied to any strategy. The initial portion of the set can use any type of fatigue stimulus, any type of resistance stimulus, or any combination of the two, using unlimited variety. All volumes and intensities are fair game as well provided they serve the purpose you intend. Further, any subsequent race efforts can be used appropriately, provided the focus is on executing the desired skills. It is all about decided how you want to apply stress, and then doing so in a manner that accomplishes whatever goal you have set forth.


If swimmers want to win close races, they must be able to execute their skills at a high level. Better swimmers are better able to maintain a high standard of execution. Their skills are bulletproof to the effects of fatigue and pain. While there are some that have a natural inclination towards doing so, it is ultimately a skilled that can be learned by any swimmer.

Bulletproofing skills is ultimately the result of exposure to learning environments that demand a high standard of skilled execution, while under significant pressure. These learning environments can rely on large amounts of fatigue, or significant physical resistance to skillful execution. In both cases, successful execution and the ATTEMPTED successful execution of these skills will help swimmers learn how to perform under pressure.

When designed well, these sets will facilitate the necessary physical adaptations while concurrently helping swimmers learn how to do what they need to do, when they need to do it. That is the definition of preparation.

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