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Plan D Training Part I

Sometimes training mistakes are made and the consequences must be dealt with. Sometimes everything is done right, then a swimmer gets hit by a proverbial bus. Whether the result of poor decision or bad luck, injuries will occur and coaches need to be prepared to not only manage the situation, but ensure that swimmers are still given every opportunity to perform when it matters.

When injury shows up, regardless of the cause, coaches need to be ready to act. While managing the actual injury through the care of qualified medical professionals is a central component of the recovery process, this article will focus on what coaches can do to keep the training process moving forward in spite of that injury.

It’s fine to have a ‘system’ or a way of ‘how we do things around here’. However, coaches need to have other options available to them, even if they never plan on using them. You’d better have plan D ready, because you never know when plan A, B, and C are going to be taken away from you, and they WILL be taken away from you. When that happens and you’re not ready, it’s not bad luck, it’s bad preparation.

It’s easy to say, ‘she got injured, and there was nothing I could do.’ That coach would be correct. There was nothing THEY could do because they weren’t prepared. That doesn’t mean another coach wouldn’t have figured it out. Having options will seem unnecessary, until you need them.

There are a lot of cases where injury has sidelined athletes unnecessarily because coaches didn’t have Plan D. In contrast, I’ve seen enough athletes succeed with Plan D training, in spite of being told, ‘it’s over’.

The difference is coaching.

When faced with the limitations of injury, coaches have three tasks they need to accomplish to keep the training process moving forward, or in a particularly dire situation, minimize any performance losses that may occur.

1. Maintain or improve skill.

2. Maintain or improve fitness.

3. Maintain or improve confidence.

These are the objectives. If coaches can accomplish these goals, swimmers can either pick up where they left upon return to full training, return to training ahead of where they were, or at least significantly reduce the timeline for a full return in particularly bad situations. How this process is managed is going to determine what result will be achieved at the end of the season.

Remember this.

If the injury can be physically healed prior to the targeted competition, there is almost always a way for a swimmer to get on the blocks, ready to swim fast.

What CAN you do?

This is the fundamental question that needs to be asked and understood. Anything and everything should be on the table. What are the options?

  • What joints can be moved?

  • What general movements can still be performed (i.e. the legs can be used in any way)?

  • What specific movements can still be performed (i.e. kicking can be performed, but barbell squats cannot)?

  • For any given movement, how much volume can be tolerated?

  • For any given movement, how much intensity can be tolerated?

  • Is there ANY way to move the afflicted area actively?

  • Is there ANY way to move the afflicted area passively?

  • What non-movement ‘exercise’ options are there for promoting blood flow to the afflicted area?

As the healing process is ever evolving, these questions need to be constantly re-evaluated. If you can move from Plan D to plan C, it needs to be done. As the injury heals, more options are going to be on the table. They need to be used, albeit in a manner that does not jeopardize the recovery process. If a motion doesn’t cause problems, do it.

While it’s important to know what you can do, it’s also important to understand what you can’t do.

  • What movements cause pain?

  • What movements just don’t feel right?

Avoid these movements. It’s important to consider the delayed as well as immediate impact of a given movement. Some activities don’t cause problems while they’re being performed, yet symptoms can arise hours later or even the following day. While it can be tough to lock down what is causing delayed symptoms, being cautious and paying attention can make this easier.

For all that follows, it is in your best interest to communicate with the relevant medical professionals to ensure that what you are planning to do is safe and appropriate. This is important to protect yourself from a legal perspective, as well as an efficacy standpoint to ensure what you are doing is making the situation better, not worse.

*In some cases, the fastest way back to competition is to do nothing. Some injuries are severe enough that total rest is what is required. For these situations, 100% of the focus should be on getting healthy, and any distraction is causing more problems than it solves. Be realistic and know the difference. That being said, these situations are not common.*

Maintaining Skill

Manipulating water with the limbs is a skill. Maintaining effective body position is a skill. Organizing all of these movements with rhythm and coordination is a skill. These skills need to be retained as much as possible. We’ll take a look at some options to maintain skills during less than ideal situations.

The basic idea is to do as much ‘swimming’ as possible. I’m going to pretty loosely define swimming as ANY activity in the water that allows for movement and fluid manipulation. While the closer that activity is to swimming the better, take what you can get.

Upper Body Injury

As much of the propulsion in swimming comes from the upper body, an upper body injury can be particularly problematic. We need to do everything we can to maintain the ability to manipulate the water and effectively create force. Any way to keep the upper limbs moving in the water is going to be of some benefit.

Go unilateral. If the problem affects one arm, at a minimum that means you can use the other arm. Whether this takes the form of one arm swimming, one arm drilling, or something else entirely, do it. Swimming with one arm will not only maintain the skill of that arm, it will maintain the skill of the other arm to some degree. Anything is better than nothing.

There is a motor phenomenon known as cross-education. If a swimmer uses one arm, the other arm gets better. This has been demonstrated in both learning contexts and the maintenance of skill during disuse. Take advantage of it. The more skill a swimmer possesses upon return to full training, the faster they will be back to full form.

Limit range of motion. Because the arm action in swimming uses a large range of motion, there are often upper body movements that do not cause pain for those with an upper body injury. This is where coaches and swimmers need to get creative. For each stroke, there are many different components. With most injuries, some component of the stroke can be executed without pain.

Sculling is typically a good option, as there are usually some ranges of motion that swimmers can work through. While sculling is certainly not swimming, there is a lot of value in continuing to practice manipulating the water in whatever range of motion is available. It will help to retain some ability to manage pressure differences in the water.

Reduce intensity and/or volume. For more moderate injuries, swimmers may be able to perform full swimming actions, yet at reduced volumes or intensity. If this is the case, do what you can do to the extent you can do it without jeopardizing re-injury or exacerbating the current injury.

Even with reduced loading, swimmers can do much to retain their skills so that when the injury has healed, they can pick up where they left off, and skill does not compromise their return. To compensate for the reduced loading, you will need to find volume and intensity elsewhere in the program, either through resistance training, land work, or kicking. This will be addressed later.

Kick. Beyond the benefits for maintaining fitness, kicking is going to help with the maintenance of skills. Every second a swimmer spends in the water is going to help them continue to be able to manage the aquatic environment. They are always working on managing body position, feeling the water flow over their body, as well as creating propulsion with the feet. The latter is especially important for underwater kickers and breaststrokers, where these kicking skills contribute a huge amount of propulsion.

It’s important to kick in positions that do not aggravate the injury. For some, using a board may cause problems. Kicking in a streamline may cause problems for others. In these cases, simply place the arms by the side while using a snorkel or kicking on the back. However, even this may cause problems in some individuals. When swimmers are most limited, vertical kicking is always an option, and it can be very effective for all of the kicking styles.

Simply spending time moving through the water is going to help to maintain skills. Kicking is a great way to do this. Use as many kicking types as possible to spread the stress out. This is also an opportunity to get really good at dolphin kicking.

Lower Body Injury

While managing lower body injury can be challenging from a fitness perspective, it’s easier to manage from a skill perspective. Swimmers can still use the arms to pull, scull, etc. To maintain propulsive skill, simply do as much of this type of work as tolerated.

As the legs are an important part of the rhythm of swimming, be careful that swimmers are not excessively relying on upper body dominant strategies. As an example, it’s not great for swimmers to be taking a lot more strokes per lap when they’re pulling as compared to regular swimming. It may help them swim faster while pulling, but it’s creating a technical problem that will need to be addressed upon returning to full stroke swimming.

If there is any way to include some work that allows the swimmers to maintain the rhythm of the stroke with the legs, do it. This will greatly ease the transition back into full swimming once the injured area has recovered.

While it may be awkward to do, if there is any kicking that can be performed, include it. Whether that is some form of single leg kicking, using an alternative kicking style (i.e. flutter kick during a breaststroke groin injury), or anything you can think of. Even super slow, water aerobics like movements of the legs will be of value. Any leg action will keep the legs used to manipulating the water.

Back Injury

Back injuries are tricky as they are often unique situations, and the activities that provoke pain are not uniform. Different individuals will present very different symptomology and very different tolerance to movement.

What can you do? Whatever activities can be done in the water, without pain, should be used. As much as possible, limit activities that MIGHT be causing problems, and replace them with activities that accomplish the same goal without the added stress.

For example, if a swimmer is having back pain when they extend their back, don’t have them kick on a board, even if it doesn’t hurt in the moment. Have them kick on their back or with a snorkel so that their back is not arched. You can train the legs with less impact on the back, and you can ‘use’ that back stress somewhere else in the program where you have fewer options, such as strength training.

In most cases, activities that prevent the back from moving much are more likely to be tolerated. Separating pulling and kicking can lessen the load going through the back as compared to full stroke swimming. Limiting flip turns and any undulating motion are usually good strategies. Even if all that is tolerable is vertical sculling, where there is very little load going through the back, do it.

Finding a way to stay in the water doing something productive is critical. Beyond that, do what is possible.


Injuries happen. How well the process is handled will dictate the speed with which swimmers can return to full form. While medical professionals can help with the process of recovering from the injury itself, coaches need to possess the ability to keep the training process moving forward as much as possible.

This is a coaching skill that is distinct from the planning of ‘business as usual’ training. Coaches need options. We explored some of those options for maintaining the skills of swimming here. In part II, we’ll look at options for maintaining fitness.


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