top of page

Plan D Training Part III

In part I, the concept of Plan D training was introduced. In short, swimmers are going to get injured and we need to have options for continuing to move the training process forward in spite of those injuries. There is almost ALWAYS a way to minimize the loss of performance that typically happens with injury, and in some ways, keep the process moving forward.

We explored ideas for maintaining skill in part I, and in part II, we explored ways to maintain the various components of fitness.

In part III, we’ll explore how to maintain confidence, as well as how to learn from the injury processes that inevitably occur.

Maintain Confidence

While maintaining physical and technical abilities are crucial components of managing the injury process, psychology must be considered as well. For better or worse, swimmers have brains and these brains create thoughts and these thoughts lead to actions. These actions may move swimmers closer to or further from their goals.

For just about any athlete, injury is a time of crisis. Crisis brings uncertainty and uncertainty breeds anxiety. This is further compounded by a departure from the familiar and comfortable training regimen that can serve as an anchor in a swimmer’s life.

We can combat this dynamic by ensuring as much of the training routine is retained as possible, regardless of the nature of the training that now must be employed. Swimmers will gain comfort and confidence from the familiar, and this is a critical consideration for the implementation of any training plan. Training times should remain consistent and the types of training should remain as consistent as possible.

The follow strategies can be effective at ensuring that swimmers retain their psychological health and resilience throughout the injury process. Not only is this intrinsically important, it also has a direct impact on the efficacy of the return to full training and competition.

While the technical and physical considerations for designing training will dictate WHAT needs to be done, the psychological considerations will dictate HOW these activities are performed.

Keep them in the pool. Do anything and everything to keep them in the pool for as much time as is possible and practical. While doing so will have the benefits described above, it will also help swimmers feel ‘normal’. Normalcy will breed confidence in the process.

Whenever possible, keep them in the pool for as much time as possible, performing activities that resemble normal training in some respect. While this has value from a technical and physical perspective as described above, it is critical from a psychological perspective.

Swimmers are swimmers and they need to swim to feel like a swimmer. If they’re not in the water, they’re not going to feel like a swimmer. ANY permitted activity in the pool is going to be psychologically beneficial. It may require some creativity, and it may come at the cost of performing other activities that may be more valuable from a training perspective. However, swimmers need to retain their identity as a swimmer, and they need to be in the water to do so. This will reinforce their confidence in the process.

Make it HARD. Injured swimmers will have doubts about their ability to perform. They will be concerned about their fitness and their readiness. This is particularly true the further the training plan has deviated from ‘normal’. They gain confidence from what has ‘worked’ for them in the past, and any untested plan will bring uncertainty. However, in all cases, working hard has been a contributor to their success. ‘Hard work’ must then be present moving forward.

To ensure that they feel like they are still training, HARD training must be a regular component of the work they do. Swimmers must be convinced that they are still working hard, and that this hard work is moving them closer to their goals.

To allow for this to be done safely, identify the training options that can be safely performed with the most intensity and the most volume. These two options will likely differ. For instance, they may be able to perform some strength training with great intensity, and ride a bike for to get a lot of aerobic volume. Be aggressive with these options to ensure that swimmers feel like they are staying fit and training like an athlete.

It’s okay if these training modalities are not the most specific options available. In this case, we’re not just looking to optimally develop physical or technical qualities. We’re looking to ensure the psychological component is optimized. This may result in trade-offs between the two factors. Understand your choices and act accordingly.

While they may not have confidence in their altered training initially, they will have confidence in hard work. Keep them feeling like athletes and they will buy into the process.

Make it relevant. As much as possible, training should have relevance to what swimmers need to do in the pool. Sprinters need to be training with high intensities as much as possible. Distance swimmers should focus on sustaining intensity as much as possible.

It should be obvious to swimmers as to why they are performing certain training activities. There should be a clear connection between what they have to do in competition and what they’re doing while injured. There should be a clear connection between what they would normally do in training and what they’re doing during this interim period.

While this is feasible to varying degrees given the specific situation, this should always be the goal. Perform activities that closely resemble normal training in terms of the movements that are used, the muscles that are trained, and the volumes and intensities that are achieved. While this certainly is important from a technical and physical perspective, it is equally important in ensuring that confidence remains high.

Communicate. Whereas some individuals are good at connecting the dots, others are less so. Assume the latter and overcommunicate the purpose and the rationale of everything that is being performed. Much of the training may look different, and each aspect of it needs to be clarified.

With understanding comes commitment. With commitment comes action. With action comes results. If swimmers know why they are performing specific activities, and they know how these activities fit into the plan for them to swim fast again in the near future, they’re going to put a lot more effort and focus into what they are doing.

The better the execution, the better the outcomes. Some swimmers won’t intuitively see the purpose of performing certain activities. Riding a bike may seem quite removed from racing a mile. Communicate the purpose, ensure the understanding is achieved, and instill confidence that the plan can and will work.

Keep them around their teammates. For many swimmers, even and especially those at the highest levels of the sport, the swimming experience is ultimately a social one. Going to practice every day is an opportunity to spend time with their best friends.

Beyond the relational aspects, contribution and commitment are often significant motivators for participation in sport. Swimmers want to feel like they are a part of group that has a common goal, and they want to feel like they are contributing to that goal.

It is easy to overlook these aspects of the athletic experience in times of injury, and doing so can significantly compromise psychological well-being. While this is problematic in its own right, and deserves much more attention than it will receive here, it also negatively impacts healing.

Psychological stress can impair the physical recovery process, thereby extending the recovery period during injury. Further, impaired well-being can also weaken the commitment and motivation to fully adhere to whatever alternative training program is put in place. This compounds the challenge of training by one’s self, a reality most face.

In the event of injury, swimmers can often be separated from their teammates, as they may not be permitted to swim, or their schedule is altered due to rehabilitation or adjusted training demands. This prevents swimmers from engaging in the social experience they value, as well as reduces the perception that they are a contributing member of the team. They can begin to feel isolated and separated from their team.

As a solution, find ways to retain as much contact with the team as possible-

  • If rehabilitation activities must occur, can they occur on the pool deck during practice?

  • Can rehabilitation activities occur at separate times so that swimmers can be present at practice?

  • Can swimmers participate in practice in a non-physical manner to be around their teammates and feel like they are contributing?

  • Can swimmers perform their alternative training options on the pool deck?

  • If they are able to be in the water in some respect, can their planned training take place within the context of the regularly scheduled training?

There are certainly more options, and finding an option that works is critical for helping swimmers remain engaged with the team. While this may not be possible to ensure that swimmers are present for the entirety of every practice, it is certainly to retain some of the social dynamics that typically occur, and doing so will have a dramatic impact on psychological well-being, and the commitment swimmers demonstrate to a full return to the pool.


In many cases, what may be optimal for skill maintenance may not be optimal for physical or psychological maintenance. The reverse effects apply as well. Choosing which option to employ is going to depend on the specific context of the decision and the specific needs of the individual.

It may be that a skill maintenance takes priority over physical fitness when making a specific decision. It then becomes important to ensure that physical fitness is being addressed through other means. The key idea is to appreciate the choice that is being made, and then make future decisions that allow for all of the important needs to be addressed over time.

If you continue to favor one trait over the others, the training process will eventually become unbalanced.

Some examples-

  • A swimmer with an upper body injury may find cardiovascular training on an elliptical machine to be more beneficial from a physical standpoint, yet feel a better connection with the team when using a spin bike on the pool deck. Alternating between the two methods could be appropriate. Exclusively choosing one option could lead to a lack of fitness or weakened connection to the team, both of which could undermine the process of returning to full training.

  • A swimmer may find that biking helps to retain fitness of the legs, yet kicking allows the swimmer to spend more time in the pool in contact with the water. If the choice is made to spend more time in the pool kicking, it must be done so in a way that allows for adequate fitness development of the legs, or this fitness development must be supplemented. If biking is chosen, then some other aspect of the process must allow for time spent in the water to retain those skills.

Trade-offs will always exist. This only presents a problem when coaches are not aware of the implications of the decisions they are making, and fail to account for those decisions. With awareness, the trade-offs present with any decision can be accounted for over time through the choices that are made.


In many cases, new activities are going to be introduced during any injury period. A swimmer may add biking, or increase the amount of pulling they’re doing, or increase the amount of kicking they’re doing. While this can be important for maintaining skills and fitness, it also presents a series of risks.

New activities are introducing new and increasing loads. Increasing training loads are often what get swimmers in trouble in the first place, and were likely implicated in the original injury. If there is not a careful progression in the increase of volume and intensity of these new loads, new injuries can develop.

Don’t develop new injuries!

While there are likely some activities that are going to be more likely to be tolerated, everything needs to be approached with caution. Some common errors including the following-

  • Performing a normal practice, but now pulling all of it instead of swimming. The shoulders are going to be in trouble sooner than later.

  • Performing a normal practice, but now kicking much of it instead of swimming. It takes roughly 20 minutes to perform 1000 meters of kicking. In 40 minutes, you get 2000 meters. Most swimmers do not do that much kicking every day. The volume adds up FAST. If normal practice times are 120 minutes, that is A LOT of kicking and some muscle or joint is going to go.

  • Using fins on kick sets to keep up with those that are swimming. This is similar to the above problem, but worse. You’re now adding more load to the ankles. This is going to cause problems quickly.

  • Be really careful with running. While it may be an effective option for maintaining cardiovascular fitness, and you can get a lot of work done in a short amount of time, most people and most swimmers are not prepared to run safely. The heart and lungs may be able to take the work, but the joints cannot. Unless the swimmer has been running previously, I would advise against running.

  • Strength training is a powerful tool. When introducing new exercises or training volumes, be really conservative. The impact of strength training is not always felt during the training session, it can be felt up to 48 hours later. Sometimes you don’t know you’ve done too much until it’s too late.

The reality is that there were likely be a drop in total training load as a result of the injury. Accept it, and manage the process as best as possible. If you try to maintain the training load too much, you’re going to end up doing a lot more of something. While this can be okay for short periods of time, it will become a problem over longer time scales.

Which brings us to the next point.

The body is injured and needs time to heal.

Too much training of any type is going to impair that ability to heal. Most coaches are familiar with the idea that recovery is required for progress to take place. New structures must be built as a result of the damage that training inflicts.

The damage incurred by an injury is MUCH more significant than the damage that occurs during training. Healing requires energy. The best way to slow down the rate of healing is to spend all of that energy doing MORE training. The body only has so many resources. Where do you want them to be spent?

While some athletes may still be able to handle a lot of stress and recover, be careful. Many swimmers become injured because they were doing much in the first place. Be conservative. Doing a lot of work may be more effective at maintaining fitness, yet significantly delay the healing process. You might be better off losing more fitness and healing faster, which will allow the swimmer to re-establish fitness faster.

While there is no formula here, an awareness of the dynamic will be helpful. If an injured swimmer seems to be pretty beat down and tired, it’s likely too much.

Learning from the Past

Like it or not, swimmers can get injured due to mistakes in training. While there are factors that can influence the process (life stress, nutrition, sleep, genetics, biomechanics, etc), these factors simply lower the load that is tolerable. Simply, swimmers get hurt because they do too much.

An injured swimmer is an opportunity to learn. What mistakes were made, and how can we avoid finding ourselves in the same situation in the future? This is particularly true if there are patterns of injury.

Moving Forward

Swimmers get hurt. Most times, it could have been avoided. Sometimes, it can’t be. Once a swimmer is injured, it’s not particularly relevant. What becomes relevant is the plan of action to get swimmers ready to roll as soon as possible.

While we might not have access to our preferred options for training, there are almost ALWAYS available alternatives that will allow for the training process to move forward on some front.

  • You can remove weak links in strength, flexibility, and movement skill.

  • You can work on previously underdeveloped skills.

  • You can address previously underdeveloped fitness components.

  • You can develop psychological skills.

In many cases, injury is an opportunity that can set swimmers up for future success, but only if it is viewed that way. For coaches, the best way to take advantage of these opportunities is to be prepared for their occurrence.

  • Develop a deep understanding of what needs to happen to advance performance. This will allow to correctly identify what needs to be done when normal is no longer feasible.

  • Have as many options as possible for when you need them.

  • Know what muscles need to be trained, and have multiple ways to do so.

  • Appreciate what skills need to be learned, and create as many options for doing so as possible.

  • Understand what needs to be done to encourage and develop BELIEF.

When it comes to plan D training, above all, there are not rules, just results. Do what you can do, so you can do what you have to do when it matters.


bottom of page