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Safety Valves

As coaches, we constantly have to make decisions about any number of training-related issue, and we often have to make these decisions in the moment. The more decisions we have to make, and the more pressure we have to make these decisions under, the greater likelihood of making a mistake.

One area that coaches constantly struggle with is that of training load management. Insufficient training will not result in long-term progress as a swimmer. At the same time, excessive training will also fail to result in improved performances over time.

The challenge is to optimally stress each swimmer, creating a stimulus for adaptation and then allowing enough recovery from that stimulus to facilitate adaptation. Most coaches have no problem on the stimulus side of the equation. If anything, there is a tendency to do too much, failing to respect the recovery component.

It’s important to appreciate our instinct to do more when making decisions about how much work to do, particularly in the moment. When left our own devices, we will usually overload swimmer more than they can reasonably tolerate over time. Swimmers can only handle so much for so long before injury, illness, or performance stagnation is inevitable.

Because of the strength of this instinct, it can be very valuable to create safeguards for our decision making, particularly when it comes to loading. Swimmers can only handle so much for so long before injury, illness, or performance stagnation is inevitable. To prevent stagnation, we eventually need to take the pressure off of swimmers. It’s much better to make the decision to do less prior to being forced to do less due to injury, illness, or loss of performance.

By creating safety valves, or pre-planned periods of reduced training stress, we can create a system that protects us from ourselves. By forcing ourselves to reduce loading, we can allow swimmers to recover, adapt, and prepare for future training. Further, these safety valves can reduce the likelihood of making mistakes by simply reducing the number of decisions that need to be made. Forcing ourselves to include rest periods eliminates the deliberation of how much to do. The decision is already made.

As a discussed in a previous article, long-term increases in training load or intensification of training load are required for performance improvement. However, these increases in training load are not without risk. Fortunately, these risks can be mitigated with safety valves. The benefits of rest periods of various lengths include-

Reduction of energy deficits. Training is energetically expensive. Building structural adaptations is expensive as well. At some point, there simply isn’t enough energy to go around and continued hard training doesn’t allow for physical adaptation to occur. Relative rest is required.

Reduction of sleep deficits. Especially in the sport of swimming, performing the required training often includes morning and evening training sessions which reduce the ability for swimmers to optimize sleep duration. This has negative effects on almost all physiological systems, resulting in impaired performance, immunity, and injury status. While the benefits of increased training may temporarily outweigh the negative impact of sleep debt, the balance will shift over time. Allowing sleep debt to be repaid will restore swimmers’ ability to positive adapt to training.

Allow tendons and ligaments to recover. Injuries will stop training progress in its tracks. With the increases in training necessary to facilitate the improvement of performance, comes greater risk of injury. As the forces involved in swimming are relatively low, there is lesser risk of ‘pulling’ muscles as a result of maximal loading. Instead, it is repeated, submaximal loading that causes overuse injury, with tendons and ligaments often succumbing.

Allow muscles to fully recover. With fatigue, muscles slowly lose their ability to produce force. Beyond the potential injury risk, this not only compromises competitive performance, it compromises the ability to train effectively. A reduction in training load allows muscles to fully recover their force production capabilities and restores the ability to train effectively.

Allow the restoration of psychological resilience. As humans, we can only push for so long. Eventually our ability to strain becomes compromised. By removing or reducing the amount of heavy training, we can restore or refresh the ability to strain, which is required to successfully navigate the rigors of a challenging training program.

By actively planning safety valves into our training programs, we can ensure that all of the above benefits are being realized. Using safety valves might not always be strictly necessary. We don’t always know exactly when rest is or isn’t required. However, that is precisely the point. Because we don’t always REALLY know how fatigued swimmers are, pre-emptively creating strategies to reduce fatigue can help to mitigate the impact of our ignorance. If left to our instincts, we’ll likely overprescribe training.

Generally, it’s better to underdo it than overdo it, so ensuring this happens has great utility. Further, if more rest than strictly necessary is provided, it only means the future training is likely going to be of even higher quality because swimmers will be fresher.

With this framework in mind, let’s explore some of the different safety valves that can be placed into a training program to ensure swimmers are moving forward with their training. These safety valves can be implemented as rigidly as required to complement and support the impact of our coaching tendencies.

Yearly Breaks

Extended training breaks can be a critical time period for swimmers to fully recover, mentally and physically. These breaks allow swimmers to move beyond any training baggage from the previous season.

If swimmers start the season tired, frustrated, or nursing minor injuries, it will only get worse. By allowing for complete recovery, any bodily systems still fatigued from the prior season can return to a fully functioning state. This extended rest can also allow for any problematic muscle and tendons to move closer to a state of total healing, increasing the likelihood of a successful season.

While it can be tempting to work to maintain total fitness following championship performance, allowing the mind and body to re-set can be the required stimulus for an even better follow-up season.

For most coaches, the constraints of the academic, national, and social calendars often enforce a period of rest. However, it can be worth considered additional abbreviated breaks during the winter after the fall season, and during the spring after the winter season, dependent on the various circumstances coaches may be find themselves in.

Down Weeks

Progress is not linear and the swimmers will not indefinitely respond to linear increases in loading. At some point, one step backwards can mean two steps forward. A down week is an investment in recovery, that can pay off in better training in the future. By backing off, the stage is set for future progress.

Lower training loads can allow for swimmers to reduce any caloric deficits that have accumulated. That extra energy can be used to build the physical structures that previous training has ‘requested’. It allows for the repair of tissues damaged during training, allowing these tissues to be built back stronger. This process is energetically expensive, and any caloric deficit will impair this process. Reversing this deficit can allow it to continue forward.

Extra sleep can help swimmers eliminate sleep debt, which has consistently been linked to compromised immunity, increased risk of injury, and impaired performance. All of these factors can serve to decrease the effectiveness of future training. By paying down the debt, future investments can be made.

In short, down weeks can help restore swimmers’ ability to adapt to training loads. This is seen not only in finalizing adaptations from prior stimuli, but also the receptiveness to future stimuli. While it may seem like you are moving backwards, recovery can be just the catalyst required to move forward.

Any of the following strategies can be used to facilitate the use of a down week, or they can be used as independent safety valves during otherwise normal weeks.

Recovery Days

Recovery days are simply a day of decreased volume and/or intensity. One is not necessarily preferred over the other, it depends on the training structure in place, what was done before, and what will be done later. In short, a volume-based program will benefit from a reduction of volume and an intensity-based program will benefit from a reduction in either the intensity, or the portion of the training program that is performed intensely.

These recovery days provide a physical and psychological break from the strain of hard training. This can be a useful pre-emptive strategy for helping swimmers finish the second half of the training week well. It can also be used reactively to help an unexpectedly fatigued swimmer bounce back toward productive training. During down weeks, multiple recovery training sessions can be inserted to accomplish the overall goal of load reduction, while maintaining volume and/or intensity during the remainder of the training sessions.

Relative to the other options, recovery days allow coaches to maintain the rhythm of the training week and for swimmers to stay in touch with water. The same weekly rhythm is maintained, and the specific types of work can be maintained, just with reduced volume and/or intensity.

Singles Only

Removing individual practice sessions has benefits unique from recovery days. Removing sessions during the week is a simple strategy that automatically reduces workload. By removing a full training session, less physical work can be done. This allows swimmers to close any energy deficit that has developed through the training cycle. This can help to restore a host of hormonal pathways that can be compromised during hard training.

When the removed sessions are morning sessions, swimmers are able to catch up on sleep. Regardless of coaches’ and swimmers’ intention, morning training sessions will always compromise sleep. As sleep probably has the biggest impact on recovery, allowing more sleep will definitely positively impact recovery status.

Another advantage to singles only training is that they are conducive to retaining training intensity. Because volume is significantly reduced with this strategy, training intensity must be maintained to prevent detraining. As swimmers only have one training session per day, training intensity is often easily maintained as swimmers are able to more effectively channel their physiological and psychological resources into fewer efforts.

Days Off

While recovery days can be very useful in providing swimmers with the opportunity to get some breathing room, scheduled days off remove any of the problems that come with recovery days. Even recovery days come at a cost, whether viewed from an energetic or neuromuscular perspective. A total day of rest eliminates that cost.

There is the risk that swimmers will use their day off, or the night before the day off, to take part in activities that aren’t particularly conducive to recovery. However, if they aren’t swimming, you know the specific soft tissues prone to injury are being rested, even if systemic recovery is not being facilitated due to lifestyle choices.

A full day off can also be of great value from a psychological perspective. It provides more time for swimmers to perform other life activities and it removes the psychological strain of training. Having a full day off also gives swimmers the opportunity to spend a day not thinking about swimming.

Most training schedules provide a full day off to realize these benefits. In certain situations, it can be beneficial to periodically provide additional days off to more fully take advantage of the benefits of this strategy. These days can take place at strategic times to provide additionally recovery prior to or just after particularly difficult training blocks. This can allow swimmers to exit and enter these training periods ready to go.

Additional recovery days can also be useful to pull specific swimmers out of a slump. Beyond the benefits of physical rest, the break in routine can often be valuable in helping ‘re-boot’ the swimmer, both physically and psychologically.

Weekly Cycles

The main value of an established training cycle may not be the physiological exactitude we often think provides. The real value may be in that in provides variety in the magnitude and the nature of the stress that swimmers will experience in training. As explained in Dull, monotonous training programs are

Coaches often put a lot of thought ahead of time in to how they are going plan their weekly cycle. This prevents them from making silly decisions in the moment. Whether formally conceptualized or not, this form of training management is a safety valve that prevents the implementation of training that will overload swimmers. It exactly describes the process of making baseline decisions removed from the situation, and then adjusting as necessary when the time comes. This is the value of planning.


The purpose of creating safety valves is not to create an overly rigid coaching practice. Safety valves are simply suggestions and reminders. If there is a compelling reason, remove the safety valve temporarily while considering the adjustments that may need to be made in the future.

At the same time, the safety valves you create exist for a purpose. When removing a safety valve you think may be unnecessary, remember it was created precisely because you won’t think it’s necessary in the moment. They are there to take pressure off swimmers and protect coaches from their own mistakes. Consistently ignoring safety valves is probably going to cause problems sooner than later. Proceed with caution while understanding that a conservative approach now can prevent problems later.

Getting Better

As coaches, we are always looking for ways to improve the process of helping our swimmers get faster. To do so, we have to question the decisions we make on a daily basis. In many cases, we default to the same decisions, particularly when we are short on time or energy.

One of these defaults is towards increases in training load. This default can become problematic when increases in load are not handled by individual swimmers. To rectify this problem, we can remove the decision-making process from the moment by including ‘safety valves’, or pre-planned reductions in loading that take pressure off of swimmers. Multiple strategies can be used for different circumstance, with the optimal choice dependent on the context.

Beyond the application to training load, we can use this same process to improve all aspects of our coaching by asking the following simple questions.

Where do we commonly make mistakes in our coaching?

Where do our instincts consistently prove to be wrong?

How can we create systems to prevent issues in the future?

By protecting ourselves from ourselves, we can move forward with our coaching practice, bettering our ability to help our swimmers swim fast.


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