From Russia with Love
Anatoli Bonarchuk is a Russian Hammer Throw coach, widely regarded as one of the best coaches ever, in any sport. I’ve written about him before, highlighting his simple coaching practices. He doesn’t say a lot, providing athletes with simple instructions and then letting them figure it out, with little interference in the process.
He also has very simple training programs.
Simple, as in the athletes will repeat a handful (1-3) of workouts over and over and over again, until they demonstrated a significant improvement in performance. Not similar training sessions. THE SAME.
Once that performance reaction was demonstrated, the whole program would change and the process would start anew.
I’m simplifying his training approach a bit, but not by much.
You may be under the impression that I am describing the world’s laziest coach.
It’s pure genius.
While this approach may appear extremely simple, and it is in terms of what the athletes actually do on a daily basis, it quickly becomes very complex in terms of the rationale, the thought processes behind what the training program actually consists of, as well as when to change the training program.
You are getting rid of all of the noise, and focusing in on pure signal.
By keeping training very consistent and very simple, he started to notice patterns in training. A lot of these observations are really interesting.
A quick note on ‘exercises’. For definitional purposes, the term ‘exercises’ can be considered the same as ‘sets’ in the swimming context. In throwing, they literally would do different exercises as most of the work was done for very brief periods of time. In the pool, we often use the same ‘exercises’ (i.e. freestyle), but in very different contexts (i.e. sprint set versus distance set). The following sets are all different exercises, and changing from one to the other is considered the same as changing exercises in the Bondarchuk language.
6x500 with 30 seconds rest
Here are 8 insights that came from repeatedly performing simple training programs-
1. You get really good at doing the things you do. For better or worse. The more concentrated and selective the training approach, the faster athletes will improve in the exercises they are performing.
2. You have to be relentlessly efficient in the types of work you do; choose the wrong exercises and while you may improve in those exercises, performance in competition won’t improve. There’s no transfer.
3. When you change exercises too soon, the process of performance development is delayed, often significantly.
4. It is the frequency of exposure to the exercises that affects the rate of performance change, NOT the volumes or intensities of the exercises performed.
5. Different athletes take a different number of training exposures to develop performance. Some change faster and some change slower. They also display different patterns of development. The patterns are not necessarily linear.
6. The amount of time, as dictated by the number of training exposures, it takes to develop performance is HIGHLY consistent for each individual.
7. Athletes get varying degrees of competitive performance improvement from the same training exercises. The transfer is different.
8. Once you get performance development, you have to change the exercises, or competitive performance is going to start to drop off.
These are some pretty interesting observations, and they only really become evident when using very simple training programs. How do we apply them, and what might they mean for coaches using much more varied training approaches?
Applications and Implications
There are implications of this system, some of them are relevant only when applying this specific system. I’d like to focus on the observations that apply regardless of the training approach taken. Let’s take a look at some practical ideas we can take away from Bondarchuk’s work.
You may have no intention of repeating training sessions until you get the changes you want to see, and your swimmers will likely thank you for that. However, there are some critical lessons that can be applied universally.
Frequency of Exposure Matters. More than anything else, it is the frequency of exposure that affects the RATE of adaptation, and the frequency of exposure is specific to each exercise you include. It is the NUMBER OF EXPOSURES, not the magnitude of exposures that accelerates performance. You can SLOW it down by reducing the frequency of exposure, OR speed it up by increasing frequency.
If you want to improve in one area, increase the frequency, not necessarily the volume or intensity for the type of work you’re interested in. If there are other areas that are less important, simply reduce the frequency of exposure.
This is really important. We often preferentially change the volume and the intensity of the work when we want to make a change. Frequency is often the real key for creating change, and creating it fast.
You Have to Know Your Athletes. Some athletes adapt much faster than others. However, how fast and how strongly they adapt are not necessarily the same thing. For some, the response may take more time, but is ultimately more significant. It is not necessarily good or bad, it’s just different. Pay attention to how they progress over time. While there can be some noise due to life events (school, stress, etc), it can be consistent.
Different athletes will get different amounts of transfer from the same exercises. This is pretty obvious to most coaches, although it’s not always acted upon. Just because someone is a ‘sprinter’ doesn’t mean they will respond to the same training sets in the same way as another sprinter. Pay attention, and focus on the work that each swimmer benefits from the most.
Change WILL Affect the Program. No matter what you do, when you introduce a change, the swimmers are going to react. Unfortunately, you don’t always know HOW they will react. The implication here is that there needs to a lot of thought that goes into
This is exactly why traditional tapering can be a frightening experience for most coaches. Why? In most cases, there is the introduction of a major change in the type and nature of training 2-3 weeks before the most important meet of the season. As described above, people react differently! Coaches have no idea what to expect. The more drastic the change, the more potentially problematic the situation becomes.
Change is critical and change is volatile. Be careful and be conservative!
I’ve heard coaches lament, “Things were going so well and then…”. Often the problem was a major change that wasn’t thought out as well as it could have been.
You Have to Know When to Change. A corollary of the above point is that you have to know when to change. Are swimmers starting to go stale with their current training? Are performances starting to stagnate? Change is probably required.
I remember Sam Freas saying that when swimmers start to go stale, change is what’s required. He said it didn’t matter WHAT you did, just make a big change, and that usually gets them going again. In the context of Bondarchuk’s observations, this can be a useful strategy.
You Have to Know What’s Next. What’s the next change going to be? What’s the next step? As you get closer to the championship competition, it makes sense to include more and more of the training components and training exercises that help specific swimmers go fast.
How do you know what to include? You have to pay attention to what swimmers seem to respond to best. With awareness, come insight. Over time, you can lock in on what will help each swimmer the most. These types of work need to be sequenced so the most effective training is happening right before the championship meet.
You Can Peak a Lot More Often. You can affect how OFTEN you peak by manipulating the frequency of exposure to desired training variables. If you run a simple program with little variety, swimmers will adapt to that program faster. The faster they adapt, the sooner they peak. The sooner they peak, the sooner they can start another cycle of training. Frequency of exposure to the same training elements is a powerful tool for controlling the training process.
If You Need Improvement in a Given Area Fast, Frequency Rules. When improvement is needed, and it’s needed fast, the key is not necessarily to increase volume or intensity. The key is to increase frequency. The more exposures someone has to a given type of work, the faster they will adapt to that work. The faster they adapt, the faster they will improve. A small amount of work repeated frequently is a tremendous way to improve short-comings.
Consistency and Change are Our Most Potent Weapons. Consistency of work and the strategic use of change are our two biggest tools in improving performance. While this may seem somewhat obvious, it’s often overlooked. When we want improvement, we have to be extremely consistent with the work we’re using to create improvement. At the same time, the strategic use of change allows coaches to keep the process moving forward, or in a different direction as needed. Conceptualizing the training process as one built on consistency and change can be very effective.
Purity Matters. If you want change, you have to provide a clear request. If there is ‘too much’ in the training program, or there are too many moving parts, it’s a lot harder to create improvement. While the extremely simple and repetitive training programs used by Bondarchuk may be a little too much for swimmers to handle psychologically, the idea of creating and repeating a clear signal is very valuable. When in doubt simplify the training and work towards ensuring greater clarity about what improvements need to happen.
If swimmers fail to improve, create more consistency. For those individuals who have consistently resisted improvement, I would suggest that the reason they struggle to improvement is because they aren’t exposed to a training program that is consistent enough in the work that is done. Simplify the process down to 2-3 workouts and repeat them over and over until there is a significant performance change in those workouts. Yes, this sounds extreme. However, what is there to lose? Prior approaches haven’t worked anyways.
To be clear failing to improve is independent of ability level. This could be describing the best swimmer on the team or the worst. The issue is failure to improve, particularly over two consecutive seasons. It’s an option to consider. You may find they start to click several weeks after repeated exposure to the same couple training sessions.
When taking simplifying training, you can start to separate the signal from the noise to determine what is really happening. Almost 50 years ago, Anatoly Bondrachuk began to do so. While there is a lot of to glean from his ideas and his experimentation, the most insightful observations are…simple.
The critical ideas are that of the importance of consistency and change as two levers that can be used to manage the training process. It is the consistency of the training exposure that determines how fast change will improvement will occur, and the timing of change that is so critical once those improvements fail to continue. As importantly, understanding the individual dynamics of these processes.
By creating consistent and simple training programs, and effective timing the change of these programs, we can deliver more regular improvement from our swimmers. With careful observation, we can determine which types of training and which exercises are most effective for the swimmers we coach.
By taking a simple approach, we can better manage a complex process.
*There are some individuals who are really big fans of Bondarchuk’s work. They may take issue with some of the applications and descriptions here. It’s not necessarily what Bondarchuk advocates. That’s okay. They are ideas inspired by his ideas. That’s how we learn and get better.*
For those interested, there is also A LOT more to the system, and it’s well worth exploring. You can learn more HERE