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Sensitive Kids Part I

The harder they work, the slower they get.

Unfortunately, this statement characterizes some of the swimmers we coach. In some cases, these will be swimmers with the potential to swim REALLY fast if only we are able to provide them with the training they need to thrive on.

For whatever reason, they are VERY sensitive to fatigue, particularly fatigue that is created by higher intensity training, much more so than the volume of work. Most swimmers can work very hard. However, they can’t always do it for very long or very often.

For these individuals, going easier, more often, works better. While it’s antithetical to the notion that relentless work ethic is required in all aspects of life, it just seems to work for some swimmers.

These individuals all tend to struggle when placed in high training load situations, particularly when there is a lot of high intensity training close to or at fatigue. It is NOT necessarily the volume that’s the problem. It’s the intensity.

At the same time, training intensity IS critical for short-term and long-term performance improvements. How do we create training environments where the required training intensity is present in the appropriate amount?

Let’s start by examining some of the types of swimmers that might struggle with adapting to stress and handling constant high intensity training, as well as specific solutions for these types of swimmers.

Please note that ‘high’ and ‘low’ are relative notions. It’s more about a shift relative to what the swimmers is currently doing. What might be ‘high’ for one individual is likely ‘low’ for another individual. For some, 50 kilometers per week is a colossal volume whereas it will be a recovery week for others. Similarly, ‘high’ intensity and ‘low’ intensity are simply reflections of what swimmers are used to. Please keep this in mind when considering the strategies described below.

Mr. Olympia

While many swimmers tend to be relatively slender, you’ll occasionally see the particularly muscular swimmer. These individuals tend to struggle for multiple reasons.

Due to their muscularity, their strength is their strength and they tend to rely on that strength to be successful. As such, they tend to be somewhat forceful in their skills. There is a lot less finesse and a lot more brute force. While this strategy can be pretty successful in shorter racing situations for those with the physical tools to pull it off, it’s going to be a lot less successful in longer races and in typical training environments.

Their swimming is much less efficient and these swimmers are going to fatigue faster than their peers as a result. Setting the same training expectations is going to cause problems. They’re not going to be able to do it.

Unfortunately for Mr. Olympia, it gets worse.

Bigger muscles require a larger vascular network to get blood and oxygen into and out of all of the tissues. It also takes more time for blood and oxygen to reach those tissues. It also takes more time to clear any waste products from those tissues. In short, muscular swimmers are working in an environment where it’s much more difficult to sustain work.

This is one of the reasons why providing frequent, short breaks REALLY helps these swimmers. It allows a little bit more time for blood to get in and out of the muscles. In many cases, these swimmers can sustain high workloads for longer periods of time if breaks are given.

There’s another consideration that’s making Mr. Olympia’s life difficult. While the idea that ‘muscle weighs more than fat’ is nonsensical, muscle is actually denser than fat. More importantly, it is denser than water. For more muscular swimmers, they are going to ride lower in the water.

With their muscular strength, they can overcome this limitation in the short term through higher forces. However, they’re not going to be able to use this strategy during longer duration efforts. Riding lower in the water is going to make sustaining the same speed more difficult. If you ask two swimmers at the same performance level to perform the same set at the same speed, it’s going to be more difficult for the muscular swimmer every time. They simply have to do more work to achieve the same outcome.

For all of these reasons, expecting the muscular swimmer to perform the exact training as someone with a much slighter build is going to set them up for failure. They will fatigue sooner, and that fatigue will be preferentially located in the muscular system. In some cases, these swimmers may get LESS of an aerobic benefit from ‘normal’ training because their muscles give out before they can sufficiently stress their cardiovascular system.

These situations aren’t helping their technique, either.


One simple change tends to make life much better for muscular athletes. These swimmers can often perform the same amount of work if it is presented differently. For whatever type of training you’re doing, reduce the distance of each repetition, incorporate short breaks, and increase the number of repetitions.

This approach doesn’t make it ‘easier’ for these swimmers. It makes the stimulus the SAME as it is for other swimmers.

Some examples-


8x200 with 30 seconds rest ‘aerobic’


8x4x50 with 15 seconds rest between 50s and 45 seconds after every series of 4x50s


5x100@5 From a dive FAST



50 from a dive with 20 seconds rest FAST

25 from a push with 15 seconds rest FAST

25 from a push

5 minutes between rounds

It’s easy to conclude we’ve simply made the sets easier, and that’s the point! Training is harder for these swimmers, so making training easier is leveling the playing field. A second solution is to give them training equipment such as fins/paddles/etc to help them along. This can work in situations where training sets can’t be modified. However, my preference is not to rely on this strategy too much as I feel it reduces the opportunity to learn effective skills.

Mr. Olympia has some unique abilities in terms of strength and power. These unique abilities also come with unique challenges. If we want this type of swimmer to remain in the sport, we’re going to need to come up with alternative solutions to help these individuals accomplish their goals without suffering unnecessarily.

The Thrasher

Some individuals are pretty good athletes with good physical frames suited for swimming and/or great physical abilities. However, they’re not very good at swimming. By this, I mean that their technical skills are not on par with their physical abilities. They have achieved their current levels of success through physically superiority. Their strokes are not particularly good in the first place, and they really fall apart under physical pressure. As soon as their physical resources are diminished due to fatigue, their swimming gets bad. As soon as they’re put into a racing situation with competition, their skills go to hell.

Of course, the irony is that they need to train hard and push their physiology to develop or maintain their physical dominance, yet this training is destroying their skills, ultimately limiting their potential. Not a great situation to be in.

So, what is a coach to do?

Swim training tends to reside in the medium zone. Training intensity is pretty high, but not that high. Over time, easier workouts tend to get harder and harder workouts tend to get slower. For the thrasher, this can be problematic because the work is too hard to hold their skills together, and it’s too slow to practice executing their skills at competition speed.

Go HARD or go EASY.

As much as possible eliminate the work between, which is a sort of no-man’s land, particularly for these individuals. The easier work allows them to get their skills under control and avoid practicing poor skills. It will also build fitness over time, especially aerobic qualities. The hard training allows them to practice their skills at racing speeds over smaller volumes.

Hard and easy are relative concepts and require some clarification as to what is really meant. For some swimmers, they respond well to consistently performing training sets as fast as they can. The Thrasher does not. For most of the sets they perform, it’s worth performing the majority or the entirety of the set within control.

Let’s take a look at what three different examples might look like in practice.

Aerobic training


15x200@2:45 all strong effort



4 controlled with a limited stroke count

1 very strong

Instead of performing all of the efforts at a consistent, strong effort level, it can really benefit technically challenged individuals to perform more of the work at a lower intensity level. They can really focus on their skills and avoid technical breakdown, and the work will still be at a sufficient level to provide a fitness stimulus. They can then ‘test’ their ability to execute their skills during the less frequent faster efforts. It also provides a significant fitness stimulus.

This approach allows these swimmers to maintain or even improve their fitness while solidifying their technical skills. The thrasher is limited by their ability to swim well. By providing a training structure that allows these swimmers to consistently swim well, we’re setting them up for success.

Pace training


20x50@1:15 200 race effort


20x50@1:15 3@200 race effort/2@steady with a controlled stroke count

There are a lot of different ways to modify a set like this. The main idea is to allow swimmers to practice swimming at pace, and then stopping that work prior to when their skills begin degrade. Between subsequent pacing efforts it’s important to re-establish great skills before returning to racing efforts. This process can be repeated for many cycles provided that there is minimal technical degradation and skills are re-established each time.

Whereas the traditional approach primarily revolves stimulating physiological improvement, we’re mostly focused on pushing the limits of technical execution for these swimmers. The choice of how much to do is limited by each swimmer’s ability to swim well. Over time, the goal is to improve the amount of fast work that can be performed excellently, as well as how fast it is performed. When doing so, the physiology and the fitness is going to improve accordingly.

Resistance training


20x25@1 As fast as possible with a parachute


20x25@1 Every 5th as fast as possible with a parachute; Other 4 efforts are lowest combination of time and stroke count possible (‘swim golf’)

In both cases, swimmers are receiving a high force stimulus. The main difference is that the first set is all performed as fast as possible. As the sets progresses and fatigue accumulates, the thrasher is going to degrade technically. In contrast, the majority of the second set is performed with technical constraints that place the maintenance of technical skill as primary task goal, and limiting stroke counts will also slightly control fatigue. Finally, the swimmer still gets to ‘test’ their maximal effort multiple times. There is a similar physical stimulus with technical and physical safeguards that limit the possibility the thrasher will thrash.

The Snowflake

Some swimmers simply can’t handle stress. Whether this is a genetic disposition or the product of environmental factors (life!), these swimmers have a compromised ability to handle large training loads. In the academic context, there are some swimmers who seem to constantly struggle with training performance, only to demonstrate tremendous performances during academic breaks. School goes back in session and performances deteriorates once again.

A part of the problem may be that these swimmers are ‘chronically activated’. While not a particularly accurate description from a scientific perspective, what I am referencing is they demonstrate consistently activated stress response, ‘threatened’ by training, by school, or by social life. There is only so much energy to go around before it all starts to fall apart.

For many of these individuals, they get buried by intensity before they get buried by volume. If the intensity is low, swimmers in general, and snowflakes in particular, are typically able to handle a decent amount of work. In many cases, we can facilitate performance improvements focusing a little bit more on volume as opposed to intensity to help avoid performing training that is constantly contributing to a stressful state.

Of course, very intense training will need to be a component of the process to ensure improvement. The key task to is to be selective in using intensity with these individuals. It makes sense to perform this training at times when swimmers are most likely to be able to perform it well, while also performing it at times where they’ll be able to recover from the training. Fortunately, it does not take a lot of volume provided the work is of high quality.

For these swimmers, it’s not so much what needs to change within a given training session, but how training sessions are organized within a week. Below is an example of two contrasting approaches. In the latter case, the training may look easier, and it is. That’s the point. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s less effective.

You can substitute any type of work that you feel is most important, placing that type of work during the ‘key workouts’ that are underlined. This basic set up is for a 100-200 type of swimmer. It could change depending on time of year as well. I’ve tried to describe training themes that hopefully make sense to most readers and are not necessarily reflective of how I label or describe workouts. It’s to provide clarity of concept.

Traditional Set Up

Monday AM Aerobic kicking and pulling

Monday PM Threshold training

Tuesday AM OFF

Tuesday PM 200m race pace training

Wednesday AM Resistance training with parachutes/etc.

Wednesday PM Descending aerobic efforts

Thursday AM OFF

Thursday PM Threshold training

Friday AM Aerobic kicking and pulling

Friday PM 100m race pace training

Saturday AM Max VO2 training

Sunday OFF

Modified Set Up

Monday AM Easy aerobic recovery

Monday PM Moderate skills and resistance work

Tuesday AM OFF

Tuesday PM 100m race pace training

Wednesday AM Moderate aerobic skills, kicking, and pulling

Wednesday PM Moderate skills and resistance work

Thursday AM OFF

Thursday PM Threshold training

Friday AM Moderate Aerobic skills, kicking, and pulling

Friday PM Aerobic and shorter speed work

Saturday AM 200m race pace training

Sunday OFF

In the traditional set-up, we have ‘hard’ workouts every day. In contrast, there are only 3 ‘hard’ workouts in the modified set up. Those hard workouts are underlined. They are all placed on the days with only 1 workout, with the intent to ensure that a high quality of work can be achieved along with the possibility to effectively recover from that work.

The ‘hard’ workouts performed in the modified set up can be the exact same workouts as would be performed during the traditional set up. However, due to the manner in which they are distributed throughout the training week, it provides the snowflake with the opportunity to train hard without compromising overall recovery.

The other training elements serve to support, not take away from the main training objectives. They are necessarily of lower intensity. It can still be ‘work’. However, the focus should be on performing the training ‘well’ as opposed to working maximally.

By structuring a training week to include variation in training stress, primarily through changes in intensity, we can expose vulnerable swimmers to the benefits of highly stressful training with protecting them from the potential drawbacks from the same training.


Hopefully you can recognize some aspects of the archetypes described in some of the swimmers you coach. While hard work works, we need to be mindful of situations where it doesn’t work, and what we can do about it to ensure consistent improvement in all our swimmers. The solutions presented are simply a starting point, and how they are applied can vary greatly from situation to situation.

In part II, we’ll discuss how to apply the same concepts of intensity management to distance events and sprint events. While they employ the same concepts, the practical realization of these concepts differs.


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