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Easy As 123

As has been touched upon before, coaches are constantly engaged in identifying, engaging with, and solving complex problems. To combat this complexity, it is useful to have simple, yet accurate models of how the coaching and performance improvement processes work. While I have presented some models in previous posts here, here, and here, I’d like to introduce another that may be valuable to you.

As models are ultimately simplifications that only partially represent reality, it is particularly useful to have multiple models that can be more or less useful in different situations. In the model described below, the underlying assumption is that performance improvements are driven by technical improvements. This perspective may be appropriate for some or all of your swimmers, or not, and that may change with time.

Regardless, it provides an option as to how to view coaching that can be an effective strategy to help swimmers learn skills and swim fast. Hopefully, this explanation of the training process will provide utility at some point.

3 Steps to Success

When coaches and swimmers think about ‘training’, they usually consider the physical work being performed and the physiological adaptations that are being targeted. In contrast, a key assumption of the model proposed below is that if you train to perform skills well, perform skills fast, and then to perform these skills under pressure, the requisite physiological adaptations will take place along the way.

However, the opposite is not necessarily true. As physical training obviously requires movement, how swimmers move is also being trained, for better or for worse. As much as physiology is being trained, skills are being trained with every lap. Failure to consider how these skills are being trained can result in the development of sub-optimal skills. Without the proper emphasis and attention, physiological changes can take place without the required technical improvements.

The basis of this model is that skills determine performance. To show up in competition, skills need to be practiced at speed and under fatigue. If this happens to a sufficient degree, the physiology will take care of itself. Once the desired technical changes or the targeted skillsets are identified, those skills need to be trained. That process is simple.

1. Do it right.

2. Do it fast.

3. Do it under pressure.

Let’s explore how those different phases show up in practice.

1. Do It Right

Simple. If you can’t do something once, you can’t do it twice. Likewise, before you can execute a skill fast, you have to be able to do it slow. If you can’t do it in a state free of fatigue, you can’t do it while deeply fatigued. It then follows that if you can’t execute a skill well, the first task is to learn how to do it in the first place, regardless of what it takes to execute that skill. There is no sense in training what can’t be performed in the first place.

Prior to starting a season, coaches need to understand what they want ‘right’ to be. With that goal in mind, they can develop a plan to make it happen. This will require the creation of a variety of learning opportunities that allow swimmers to gain an appreciation of what skills need to be executed and what they need to do to make it happen.

The key task for coaches during this stage is to make sure swimmers can feel what needs to be felt, so they have a baseline understanding of what needs to happen during full stroke swimming performed at speed. This creates a common language for dialogue between coach and swimmer that will be necessary as they navigate the challenges presented by the higher speeds and fatigue that will come later in the season.

Fortunately, this process requires a lot of repetitions and slow speeds. When compared to a traditional training approach, the type of work is actually relatively similar. The key difference is that instead of designing practice to train physiological systems, the goal is to train and develop specific skillsets. The aerobic benefits will develop as well.

2. Do It Fast

The sport of swimming is about racing. One of biggest myths is that drills and skill work performed slowly will transfer to competitive performance. Skills practiced slowly won’t show up in competition. To show up in a race, skills need to be practiced fast, with the intent not just to swim fast, but swim well at high speeds.

Initially, swimmers can practice swimming fast over very short distances, with those distances being determined by the ability to execute skills effectively. As swimmers improve the resiliency of their skills, they can continue to push velocities, as well as extend the distance over which these swims occur.

The key coaching skill during this phase is to be able to correctly identify how resilient each swimmer’s skills are to the pressure of speed. If speed is too high, recovery periods are too short, or distances are too long, swimmers will either be unable to sustain their skills or their speed. Correctly assigning sets will allow swimmers to challenge their ability to execute their skills at speed, while minimizing the risk of excessive technical breakdown.

While technical breakdown can be problematic, it can be productive as well. Throughout the process, coaches must be focused on ensuring that their swimmers are focused on executing their skills, beyond simply swimming as fast as possible. If swimmers are focus on executing their skills well, they will learn from the process of failure, by learning how to adjust following mistakes.

Swimmers can and should begin to execute their skills at speed from day one. As speed and repetition distances increase over time, the physiological adaptations (power, lactate production, etc…) required to swim fast and sustain that speed will be developed.

Once the desired skills can be performed at an acceptable level (optimal is not required), it’s time to start swimming fast. Great skills must be performed at high speed and maximal effort for swimmers to race effectively, and it takes a long time to develop the ability to do so.

3. Do It Under Pressure

Once swimmers can execute their skills at a high level at high speed it’s time to start making those skills resilient and robust to the stress of racing. All the skill in the world and all the speed in the world isn’t much use if swimmers can’t sustain that speed and skill for the duration of their races. At some point, the focus needs to shift to consolidating whatever speed and skill have been developed, and ensuring those developed abilities show up in competition.

When considered from a traditional training paradigm, this is the more race specific training that is typically performed in the latter stages of a training season or cycle. The key difference is that the primary purpose of the training is to develop the ability to sustain technical skills under fatigue, as opposed to developing physiological adaptations. The practices that are implemented are then designed with this perspective in mind.

When designing training tasks, coaches have two primary challenges. They must design sets that are relevant to swimmers’ racing efforts and appropriate to swimmers’ ability levels. In the first case, swimmers must learn how to maintain their skills in conditions that are relevant, yet not always necessarily ‘specific’ to their racing demands.

Let’s consider the 200m freestyler. While 200m specific sets are certainly relevant, threshold-type sets, 100m, 400m, and even components of 800m specific sets can help to develop the total fitness required to race effectively over 200m. Swimmers must be exposed to the spectrum of training tasks they require for successful racing. While this may be varied on an individual basis, it is relatively straightforward.

The real challenge is designing sets that provide an appropriate and significant, yet not excessive challenge to each swimmer’s skillset. Swimmers must be able to sustain their skills the majority of the time, while appreciating that some failure is not only acceptable, but valuable.

If coaches provide too much of a challenge, swimmers won’t be able to sustain their skills and will actually be training suboptimal technique. At the same time, if the challenge is insufficient, swimmers won’t develop the technical and physical resiliency to withstand the stress of racing. This is one of the great skills in coaching, knowing what each swimmer is capable of, and helping them achieve that level of excellence. It starts with great training design.

Failure to effectively design sets on either front will result in suboptimal results, with swimmers lacking the racing relevant fitness to sustain their skills.

Interaction

The three stages of the training process are separated and described above for the purpose of clarity. In reality, they do not exist in isolation, but in harmony. Swimmers should always be learning new skills and enhancing current skills, while testing those skills against the pressures of speed and fatigue. What differs is the amount of time and energy spent in any one area.

Planning

Just as with traditional planning or periodization, there is a shift in emphasis over the course of a season. Everything is happening at the same time; it is the volumes and intensities that change. This gradual shift in emphasis, as opposed to clear cut changes in training, is important for two reasons.

It takes a long time to develop speed and fatigue resistance. Developing speed and developing fitness take a long time. They must be addressed from the start of the season, even as swimmers are learning the desired skills. The key difference in this training model is that the degree to which speed and fitness is emphasized is always determined by the swimmers’ ability to execute their skills. Further, this speed and fitness work is skill work under the pressure of speed and fatigue.

You have to be ready for the next step. The transitions between each stage should be smooth. Swimmers won’t adjust well to large changes in training. Dramatic changes in training content can disrupt the training process and potentially result in injury. Good training is the result of balance of many factors. Introducing large changes can easily upset that balance in unpredictable ways, leaving swimmers with sudden and unexplained losses of form.

For the transitions to be smooth, there needs to be a continued presence of speed and fitness training throughout the process so that swimmers can prepare for what is to come. By ensuring the continued presence of speed and fitness training, changes in loading will be much less abrupt, reducing the likelihood of training errors, and catching those that do occur before they become substantial.

Learning

Beyond this consideration for smooth transitions, speed and fitness work are actually a critical part of the learning process. As opposed to separating the three phases into distinct blocks of focus, it’s critical to include speed work and skill work under fatigue throughout the process because it actually enhances skill acquisition.

Speed. When swimmers are stuck with a specific skill, or stuck while executing that skills at a particular speed, going even faster can help swimmers figure out how whatever isn’t working quite right. The faster speeds create novel inputs and novel sensations.

Exposure to speed helps create contrast, and upon returning to slower speeds, movement tends to slow down and swimmers perceive that they have more time to act. Skills become more patient and relaxed. I like to call this the ‘highway effect’ similar to how coming off the highway driving 40 mph can feel like you’re crawling as compared to driving 70 mph.

Consider a swimmer who is struggling to find their breaststroke rhythm while swimming at a speed of 30 seconds per 50. By asking the swimmer to perform a repetition at 28 or 29 second speed, the coach creates the opportunity to come back to the 30 second pace, with the swimmer feeling a relative increase in sense of control or awareness. Time seems to slow down.

It doesn’t always work immediately, but graded, carefully controlled exposure to overspeed swimming on a consistent basis (relative to current velocities), can help push swimmers along during the skill acquisition process. This approach is different than the progressive exposure to speed required to enhance performance over time. It is an acute intervention that can help swimmers solve technical problems.

Moving speed forward and then backward in an oscillatory manner can help swimmer get faster over time, while consolidating skills during the periods where speed requirements are a little slower.

An often overlooked and underappreciated aspect of the value of speed is the impact speed has on fatigue resistance. Put simply, the faster you are, the easier any submaximal speed is. Beyond the direct impact of speed, improving speed prior to fatigue-based training can make achieving targeted paces physiologically easier, thus enhancing fatigue resistance.

Fatigue. Fatigue can help clarify technical issues. It provides different sensory input and creates a challenge where swimmers are forced to struggle to maintain that skills. That struggle forces swimmers to find new or different solutions to the technical and performance problems presented.

Secondly, technique tends to really clean up when moving from a series of fatigued efforts back to unfatigued efforts, whether acutely or chronically. Somehow, the skills become crisper, cleaner, and ‘stronger’ when fatigue is removed. When used intelligently early in the season, this strategy can prove very effective in creating a technical overload to boost the learning process. This value of fatigue is distinct from the value that this training provides in developing resiliency while racing.

Improved fatigue resistance can improve not only sustainable technical outputs, but maximal outputs. At the same time, when overused prematurely, fatigue can ruin the skill acquisition process.

While the three-stage model is useful and valid from a conceptual standpoint, the model will be optimized by appreciating the subtle shifts between phases, as well as when it’s important to employ strategies that combine the different phases to enhance skill acquisition in the short-term. While the model is useful in and of itself, coaching is about innovation and managing nuance, and the ability to use this model effectively is no different.

Conclusion

The process of improving performance in swimming is complex, and affected by many different factors. Because of the many factors impacting performance, there are many ways to view the training process. The model above is one way to view training. The basic assumption of this model is that improves in technical skill are the most important factor for long-term improvement in swimming performance. This is a shift away from traditional, fitness-based models, and this shift can provide an alternative perspective that facilitates the ability to solve performance problems in novel ways.

Used in isolation, or in conjunction with other models, this simple 3-step process can be very effective in enhancing performance, particularly in those swimmers who are seriously limited by their technical skill. Further, it can be useful for swimmers who need to make a major technical change to remain relevant or to reach the next level of performance. While it may not be the right approach for everyone, it is a good option to have.

While I’ve tried to explore some of the intricacies and ‘tricks’ of managing the model in this article, it’s important to remember one thing above all else.

It’s simple.

Do it right. Do it fast. Do it under pressure.

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