There was a Russian scientist by the name of Pyotr Anokhin and he had an idea about how systems in the body worked. He called it the Theory of Functional Systems. He believed that the body possessed goal-directed systems that accomplished goals based upon the capabilities of the systems involved.
The goal of the system dictated the outcome that needed to be achieved, and the capacities of the components of the system dictated how, and if, the goal was to be achieved. If the involved components did not have the required capacities, the goal was not going to be achieved, and the system would be limited in its effective action.
To strengthen the system, the components of the system, particularly the limiting component, would need to be strengthened. Whether I am describing the ideas correctly and whether I am applying them correctly is secondary to the influence it has had on my conception of one way how to design training.
In swimming, we have a goal to swim fast, and the body will use whatever resources available to accomplish that goal. Based upon these concepts and applying them to training swimmers, we have two essential tasks.
1. Build the components
2. Learn to use them effectively
Building the Components
To create improvement, we must provide overload. In swimming, we tend to get a little wrapped up in physiology. Not only do we not really understand which adaptations are actually taking place, most coaches have no real way to assess whether they are occurring in the first place.
Every bodily system will be affected by training. From the nervous system to the muscular system to the immune system to the cardiovascular system to the endocrine system to the metabolic systems to the…it’s impossible to accurately characterize or track these changes. Regardless, they represent the inputs, not the outputs. It’s important to appreciate that we DON’T necessarily need to know the ACTUAL systems being overloaded.
With training, we are getting better at a specific activity and the important concept is to understand how that activity relates to the races we are targeting. We can always track PERFORMANCE. We want to improve what our swimmers can DO. If we focus on the outputs (performance), the inputs (physiology) should fall in line.
This is not to say that monitoring and measuring these inputs cannot be valuable. However, there are two points that must be considered. The majority of coaches don’t have the ability to measure these changes with any level of accuracy. In addition, it’s possible to significantly change the inputs with NO change in performance. However, if you improve the outputs, the required inputs will necessarily have improved.
What happens in the body as a result of training is secondary to what swimmers become able to do as a result of that training.
Here are some of the common overloads swimmers will experience in training, as well as how to create them.
When we move away from extremely race specific work, we begin to place more stress on different physiological systems. Let’s take a 400m freestyle swimmer as an example. Swimming a maximal effort 400m freestyle will stress certain physiological systems, some more so than others.
If we have that swimmers perform 6x400m freestyle swims with 30 seconds rest as fast as possible, we will preferentially stress different physiological systems than those used during the single 400m race. These systems are being overloaded by the new training stimulus. Similarly, we could have the 400m swimmer perform 16x50@1 at maximal effort. This too will create a physiological overload on the systems that are preferentially stressed.
Both of these sets stress some component(s) of our physiology to a greater extent that simply racing a 400m effort.
While the specific adaptations are being explored and understood over time, they’re less relevant than the concept of how overload occurs. We tend to get a little wrapped up in what’s happening physiologically, when the focus should be on what training allows us to DO.
Using the example above, if the swimmer improves the ability to swim 6x400m with 30 seconds rest as fast as possible, what can we conclude about their physical abilities, and the potential to swim fast for a single 400m? Being able to confidently answer that question is FAR more relevant than understanding what changes occurred in the heart, the muscles, etc…
Whenever you ask a swimmer to perform a challenging set, there is overload of some physiological system responsible for directly or indirectly creating energy. If you need more endurance, overload these characteristics by swimming longer at whatever speeds you choose. A combination will likely be needed. If you need more speed, spend more time swimming faster at whatever distances you choose. A combination will likely be needed.
Putting it into practice- Swimming longer or faster than race requirements is going to overload some physiological system. Using a 400m swimmer as an example, a 200m race set will require FASTER physiological activation, and thus provide an overload. For the same swimmer, a 1500m set will require LONGER physiological activation, and thus provide an overload.
This challenge can come from a combination of volume and intensity. Performing a 10 kilometer training set will provide an aerobic overload to any pool swimmer, regardless of the intensity. You could perform it at either fast or slow speeds and still create an overload. However, those two sets would likely overload slightly different physiological systems.
Force Production Overload
When we train with increased resistance, whether inside the pool or out, we are increasing the load on the bodily systems responsible for creating force. While there are likely changes in the muscular system, nervous system, and more as a result of this training, this is of secondary concern if performance is improving in the designed training.
All swimmers need to create force to move forward. Relationships between force production and performance have been demonstrated across multiple distances, not just the sprints. These relationships have been demonstrated with land-based exercises as well as different forms of resisted swimming. In general, the relationships are stronger when strength is measured in the pool.
Due to these relationships, most swimmers will benefit from some sort of strength training program, both on land and in the water. Work performed on land has the potential to create greater overload, while work in the water is more specific. For those individuals with greater strength deficits may wish to focus more on land work, whereas already ‘strong’ individuals may be better served with more water-based training.
Putting it into practice- ANY training set, on land or in the water, that requires swimmers to create more force than they create while racing is providing a force overload. The more force they create, the more the overload.
Whenever we ask swimmers to move at speeds that are faster than they are required to race at, we are overloading the systems required for swimming fast, whatever they may be. For ALL swimmers, there can never be too much speed. The best distance swimmers have world class speed or very nearly world class speed over 100 meters. All the fitness in the world is irrelevant if there is no speed, just as all the speed in the world is meaningless without the fitness to sustain a high percentage of that speed.
In shorter events, speed clearly dictates the outcome, and while speed overloads become harder to achieve, they are even more important to allow for continued performance progress.
The only way to ENSURE that speed is improving is to consistently swim at speeds that are faster than those required. The faster swimmers swim relative to their race requirements, the more overload there will be on speed, although that comes with less race specificity.
Putting it into practice- ANY training set that allows swimmers to swim faster than race speed is providing a speed overload. The faster they go, the more the overload.
Range of Motion Overload
Effective swimming requires a certain range of motion through each of the joints. Every swimmer is going to have a range of motion that THEY move through. Swimmers will use more or less range of motion compared to their peers. Whenever swimmers are required to move their limbs through range of motions that exceed the range of motions they typically use while swimming, they are experiencing a range of motion overload. This overload can create a stimulus for improved range of motion.
While this movement can be active or passive, active movement is going to create more overload, particularly when performed against resistance, even if that resistance is simply the weight of the limbs. Range of motion overloads can take place in the pool through specifically designed swimming motions, or they can take place on land through dryland sessions.
For swimmers who possess all the range of motion required for effective technique, range of motion overloads can create a reserve or a buffer to ensure that the required mobility can be accessed easily. For swimmers with impaired technique due to insufficient range of motion (think too stiff to streamline well), range of motion overloads can serve to help swimmers access the mobility they need to improve their technique. Any attempts to learn better skills will be thwarted if swimmers can’t get into the required positions.
Putting it into practice- ANY training set that requires swimmers to achieve ranges of motion that they do not achieve during their normal swimming skills is creating an overload. These overloads can take place in or out of the pool. More on that HERE.
Confidence sometimes there is value in performing training sets that might not be totally relevant, but they reinforce a swimmer’s self-belief, self-concept, or self-efficacy.
‘I just did [something they didn’t think they could do]. I can do ANYTHING.’
Ideally, these overloads would be something particularly relevant to what they actually need to do in competition, but it doesn’t have to be, especially if they are accumulating many small psychological boosts over time. Sometimes accomplishments in non-specific tasks instill the confidence required to be successful in specific tasks.
We often fail to consider the psychological challenge presented to swimmer, as well as the consequences of these challenges, both positive and negative.
Putting it into practice- ANY training set that challenges swimmer’s ability to focus, execute skills, and overcome challenges is creating a psychological overload. These do not have to take the form of massive challenges. Any challenge that is a perceived victory represents a successfully overcome psychological overload.
Local overload occurs when we focus one area of the body, regardless of the nature of the training. It could apply to any of the areas above, the only requirement is that a limited area of the body is targeted. The more limited the area, the more significant the impact on that one area. In the pool, kicking and pulling would be common examples. Outside of the pool, any exercise targeting a limited group of muscles or joints would qualify.
When considered from a cardiovascular standpoint, the legs can do more work and process more oxygen when they are trained independently of the arms. This is likely because more of the total blood supply can be accessed by the legs when the arms are not in use. This creates a local overload on the legs from a cardiovascular and metabolic standpoint. The specific physiological overload achieved will be dependent on the nature of the set, as described previously.
Similarly, performing a strength training movement using just the legs, or to a greater extent just the quadriceps, is going to create a much stronger effect than performing a strength exercise that utilizes the whole body. Because the force must be created by only this one group of muscles, they bear a much greater load. In addition, it’s much easier to direct focus to one area than it is when that focus is spread out.
The more localized the training effect, the more overload is presented to those specific areas. When the training effect is localized, you can create pretty substantial changes in a small amount of time, as the training effect is quite concentrated.
However, the tradeoff is that the more localized the training effect, the less integrated it becomes and the less likely those adaptations are to lead to improved performance. The more localized training you perform, the better you need to be about ensuring there is adequate reintegration. Swimmers must learn to use those improvements effectively.
Putting it into practice- ANY training set that presents more stress to a given body region than would normally be experienced during full stroke swimming represents a local overload.
Learn to Use Them
If the components are not effectively integrated into goal-directed action, their use will not be optimized. All the physiological development in the world will not be effectively put to use if swimmers do not practice using those improvements in practice with some regularity. There must be some training that is extremely race relevant, and it needs to be performed regularly.
I feel that it is not the VOLUME of this type of work, but the consistency and frequency of application that is key. It must be performed over the course of the season on weekly basis. If we are building better components, it makes sense to learn how to use them as they change, rather than trying to figure it out after major changes have taken place. This is a skill and it must be practiced.
This aspect of training is pretty straight forward for coaches. Design race specific sets. More information is available on this site by clicking HERE.
However, as noted above, we can only optimize so far. At some point we need bigger resources and stronger components to optimize with.
‘Capacity vs. Utilization’
For those familiar with Bob Bowman’s ‘Capacity vs. Utilization’ concept, you will notice the similarities as this is a similar idea originating from a different perspective, yet yielding similar applications. However, that framework incorrectly tends to be translated to ‘Endurance vs. Speed’, which greatly diminishes the concept of the idea.
Using Anokhin’s concepts, we can establish a little more nuance and apply the ideas to establish a role for all types of training, allowing us to focus ‘building capacity’ in areas less frequently associated with doing so. ANY and ALL components that comprise performance must be developed to strengthen the entire system, regardless of the nature of these components.
The further we move away from our specific race or race specific activities, the more we target and overload SOME component required for race performance. In some way, we are building stronger components because we are requiring performances that create a stronger stimulus than the stimulus required by swimming a race.
We can obviously move in a lot of different directions to target different components (speed, different types of endurance, strength, etc.), and the key is to know which direction to move for specific individuals. If someone is lacking in a certain area, spending more time there is going to strengthen that component. The more overload you create, the greater potential change.
It’s critical to understand that the more overload you create, the less specificity you’ll have. A high effort 10-kilometer swim is going to overload aerobic components for a 400m swimmer more so than a high effort 1500m swim. However, it’s going to be less specific, and vice versa.
Similarly, weighted pull-ups will create more of a strength overload than resisted swimming. However, it also comes at the cost of lower specificity. One is not ‘better’ than the other, just more appropriate for certain individuals at a certain time.
If there is insufficient overload on the systems required for swimming our target races in training, our swimmers will fail to make progress. At the other extreme, if there is insufficient specificity in our training, those overloads become less relevant and any changes created won’t improve performance. We could be strengthening performance requirements that aren’t required. As an extreme example, we could spend a lot of time and energy training a swimmer’s neck like a football player. Tremendous overload with zero specificity equals no change in performance.
Further, there must be sufficient practice for swimmers to learn how to ‘use’ any improved components. Just like getting a car tuned, it may take some time to learn how to take advantage of the car’s upgraded capabilities. Doing so requires practice, sometimes A LOT of practice.
The more training that training resides in the ‘overload’ section of the spectrum, and the further along the spectrum it exists, the more time that will be required learning to use these new abilities. More race specific work will be required later.
For more, this topic is addressed in the book Strength Training and Coordination.
Complementary Training Tasks
The idea here is to provide a framework for understanding how to decide which types of training will be beneficial for swimmers to perform. There tends to be a narrative where certain types of training are ‘good’ and other types of training are ‘bad’. When looking at the history of coaching trends, you can see this dynamic play out in the common training practices of a given era, as well as the recommendation coaches make at clinics and in writing.
Just about ALL types of training have value for most swimmers. In many ways, different types of training are complementary not contradictory. The question is what value and when. When looking to advance performance, and decide what to do, we can ask the following questions using the framework described above.
Where is overload required? What are the weak components? These areas need to be targeted to ensure continued progress.
What type of overload is required? Once targeted components have been identified, the type of training that will be required will need to be identified. There are often multiple ways to accomplish a single goal, and the ‘best’ option will likely depend on your specific context.
How much time and energy will be required to learn to use these components? A period of time will be required to learn to use these new skills and integrate them into the upgraded ‘system’. How much work is going to be required? This process can and should be performed concurrently with the development individual training components. While they can be separated in time, this doesn’t always work quite as well as everyone would hope.
It’s really easy to get lost in physiology. While it can be useful, it’s important to stay grounded in outcomes. It’s particularly useful to remember the following-
What happens in the body as a result of training is secondary to what swimmers become able to do as a result of training.
While the former can be nice to know, the latter is the bottom line- performance.
When creating a set, it’s important to consider WHAT you are overloading, not from a physiological perspective, but from the perspective of what they will be able to DO as a result.
Will they be able sustain higher intensities for longer?
Will they be able to create more force in the pool?
Will they be able to achieve higher speeds?
Will they gain more confidence and be able to focus for longer?
Will they be able to achieve greater joint range of motion?
Will certain areas of the body be able perform more work?
If we can consistently improve swimmers’ ability to perform relevant tasks in training, they will swim faster, regardless of what is happening physiologically.
It requires two simple questions-
What do swimmers need to do to go fast?
Am I giving them the opportunity to address those abilities?
If the first question is answered successfully, and the answer to the second question is yes, fast swimming is undoubtedly in the near future.