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Pre-Loading Part II

As discussed in Part I, pre-loading can be an effective strategy to create novel stimuli while also accomplishing multiple training tasks. In part II, we’ll explore how this same concept can be used to help swimmers transfer learned skills into competitive contexts.

As a recap, a skill acquisition pre-load set would be set up in the following manner-

1. Introduce a technique shaper.

2. Race.

3. Active recovery.

4. Repeat as necessary or desire.

The purpose of these sets is to maximize learning opportunities and transfer these learning opportunities to the context that matters most, racing. As I’ve described in other posts, a key aspect of learning skills is exposure to novel sensations that tune swimmers into new ways of moving. However, while this exposure is necessary for learning, it is not sufficient for transfer to competitive situations. Swimmers must have opportunities to execute work with these new sensations within full stroke and high velocity contexts.

As a potential solution to this problem, sets that couple exposure to targeted sensation with race relevant tasks allow swimmers to feel new ways of moving and then immediately work to apply this information to their racing skills. The sets are designed with the intent to maximize learning opportunities with high repetition numbers.

This approach attempts to address to limitations of typical skill acquisition attempts. In the first case, there is often little connection between drills or skill acquisition tasks and the execution of the desired skills at high speed. In the second case, there are simply too few opportunities for swimmers to work through these new skills. By coupling skill work and racing with a large number of exposures, these problems are addressed simultaneously.

In the beginning, the ‘technique shaping’ element serves as a learning tool, whereas later in the process in begins to serve more as a reminder of how to move. The focus becomes on consistent execution of the racing task with high speed and precision. As a general concept, it can be valuable to slowly increase the volume, intensity, and relative proportion of the racing element. The racing element should begin to challenge the ability to execute the desired skills successfully. Over time, this element becomes the focus of the set.

Introduce a Technique Shaper

The critical idea is to create tasks that provide the same or very similar sensations for the swimmers to focus on. These tasks can take any form provided that swimmers are able to use the information to alter their strokes in a manner that effectively accomplishes the desired change, and allows for easy assimilation into high velocity swimming.

The latter consideration is what primarily determines the effectiveness of a technical task. While many tasks can promote change quickly at low speed, it is much more challenging to promote change at high speed. In general, the more the technique shaper resembles full stroke swimming, and the faster it is performed, the more likely that swimmers will be able to apply the information at high speed.

As an example, consider the attempt to improve underwater stroking mechanics. Typical drills would include slow swimming isolating the arm action. In contrast, using resistance equipment can help swimmers learn how to effectively apply force into the water by providing direct feedback about the pressure they are creating in the water. This is even more true when swimmers are given stroke count constraints. Swimmers will be using full stroke mechanics while swimming at any number of speeds. This will allow for smoother transitions into high velocity swimming. Further, this type of set can be used to simultaneously maintain or develop power qualities.


The purpose here is to apply and execute the targeted technical skill under race relevant conditions. When assigning distances, intensities, and volumes, swimmers should be able to execute their skills appropriately and achieve the required speeds. The idea is to assign targets that have a better than even chance of successful completion, both in terms of technical execution and performance. Swimmers need to be challenged and they need to be successful. Goals should be flexibly modified to reflect this delicate balance.

In general, it can be useful to initially limit racing distances and racing intensities to ensure that skills are executed. The limited distances and intensities can also allow for more volume to be performed. First you have to do it right, then you can speed it up, and then you can put it under pressure. Sprinters will typically race over shorter distances with distance swimmers performing longer repetitions. However, chosen distances should reflect a desire to minimize fatigue to allow a sufficient number of repetitions for effective practice.

Active Recovery

While this portion of the set can be used to maintain or develop aerobic abilities in a manner similar to the physiological development sets, the main focus should be on facilitating physiological recovery. This will allow for more rounds of the sets, better quality, and more learning opportunities.

An effective option is simply to capitalize on the fatigue generated through racing and require swimmers to perform the recovery portion with very strict technical parameters in spite of fatigue, even at slow speeds. As an example, coaches could insert a modified portion of the technique shaper performed at speeds that facilitate recovery. However, even though the speeds are slow, the technical demand remains high. This can provide swimmers with the opportunity learn to manage technique under fatigue, as well as address any technical degradation that may have happened during the race effort.

Repeat as Necessary or Desired

As the goal of these sets is practice, there needs to be a sufficient number of repetitions to allow for swimmers to work through technical problems. There is no magic number of repetitions. There simply needs to be ‘enough’ over time to allow for technical development. To allow for sufficient volume, the set must be designed to minimize fatigue to some extent. The structure of the set should reflect this. If fatigue starts to cause unacceptable technical degradation, the set needs to modified or terminated.

Getting Concrete

These examples are very simple. Coaches can change the set-up between rounds, add or delete repetitions, change intervals, use different equipment etc… I have examples chosen were used to clearly illustrate the concept.

Set #1

4 rounds through

4*10 seconds vertical kick in streamline@45 Maintain stable hand position; FAST

25@1.30 Fast underwater dolphin kick

4*12.5@45 Side kick with fins and small chute; create pressure in both directions; FAST

25@1.30 Fast underwater dolphin kick

The focus here is on developing skills with dolphin kicking at speed. Once swimmers learn to kick fast underwater they can work on developing the ability to sustain underwater kicking skills, eventually working up to the set described above and beyond. By incorporating skills in novel and somewhat isolated situations, swimmers have a kinesthetic target when trying to recreate those sensations during the regular dolphin kicking. With short efforts and numerous repetitions, there is a lot of opportunity for learning.

Set #2

4 rounds through

6*25@1 #1/4 400m effort #2/5 200m effort #3/6 100m effort

All are performed with a medium sized parachute and individually prescribed stroke counts

50@4 100 Race effort with one less stroke than normal

In this set, swimmers are learning to hold water across various efforts. By constraining stroke counts and adding resistance, swimmers are exposed to feedback as to whether they are properly executing their skills. The resistance increases pressure on the forearm and the stroke count constraints provides feedback as to whether swimmers are working towards increased distance per stroke.

Changing the speed at which the swims are performed modifies the challenge and helps to provide more novel sensation. Swimmers can then attempt to apply all of these skills to race efforts when stroke counts are also constrained. The whole set is structured to help swimmers learn how to maximize distance per stroke while swimming at high velocity.

Set #3

6 rounds through

2*25@1 Double arm backstroke with a small chute; #1 strong/#2 stronger

2*25@1 Backstroke pull with a medium chute; #1 strong/#2 FAST

Rd 1/4 hold tennis balls Rd 2/5 hands only Rd 3/6 small paddles

25@2 Backstroke swim FAST no equipment

As with the set above, the set is designed to improve direct force application with tasks that emphasize these traits. Having practiced these tasks and gain a sense of the desired sensations, swimmers then work to transfer those sensations into fast backstroke efforts.

When performing double arm backstroke, swimmers are required to pull directly without the distraction of rotation. As both arms are pulling at the same time, swimmers will be able to feel a more dramatic loss of propulsion with losses of body speed. Further, by shifting to a double arm pulling action, there will be more of a start and stop rhythm which will require more acceleration, increasing pressure on the forearms. These attributes are enhanced by the addition of the chute.

Along the same lines, the pull is used to carry these lessons forward with the oppositional arm timing that characterizes backstroke. By only using the arms, the swimmers must maintain velocity with direct pulling actions and strong pressure on the water, with enhanced feedback from the heavier chute.

Both technique tasks will use modified surface areas on the hand to enhance the contrast between rounds. This helps to broaden the kinesthetic information swimmers receive, as well help them learn the impact of hand position while pulling. Finally, swimmers try to put it all together with regular swimming, attempting to create and sustain pressure as they did during the technique tasks.


In training, we have limited time and energy to develop skills and physical fitness. Further, advanced swimmers require novel training stimuli to continue to advance their performances. While creating new training tasks is an effective approach, we are also able to organize and combine pre-existing training tasks in novel ways to create novel training stimuli.

Pre-loading accomplishes both these tasks by allowing for the maintenance and development of physiological fitness and skill acquisition, while also allowing for swimmers to learn racing skills. Further, the way these sets are created allows for many different stimuli that uniquely challenge swimmers’ ability to execute race specific skills and develop race specific fitness in novel situations.

When comparing the two versions of the strategy, one can consider the skill acquisition version to be about learning to execute skills well. It’s more focused on the front end of the races and learning to execute skills well at race speed first. In contrast, the physiological development version is about sustaining whatever skills and speed the swimmer has. When coupled together, coaches have a tool that allows swimmers to learn new skills effectively, apply those skills at high velocity, and then learn to sustain those skills at high velocity.

This three-step process is essentially what the training process is all about.


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