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Sensitive Kids Part II

In part I, the concept that excessive training intensity can compromise the training process was discussed. While this should be no surprise to anyone, I also introduced the idea that some individuals are able to tolerate MUCH less training intensity than is typically prescribed.

It’s important to understand that these individuals do not necessarily have a lower performance ceiling. They can and do swim just as fast as swimmers that respond traditionally. However, they do need to be exposed to different training strategies. Failure to do so will prevent these swimmers from swimming as fast they otherwise could.

In this article, I’d like to examine how these ideas can be applied to entire event groups. In situations where an entire training group seems to be struggling to adapt to training, these ideas can be applied to reduce the training intensity while still allowing for the training necessary for improvement to occur.

Event Specific Ideas

While the characterizations of Mr. Olympia, the Thrasher, and the Snowflake from part I come with some general recommendations, we can also examine how the strategies might different depending on the events that these swimmers compete in.

For all of these considerations, we’re still working with the overall theme of controlling intensity to ensure that training moves forward. The difference lies in HOW intensity is constrained, as well as what must be done to mitigate the potential problems associated with reduced training intensity.

Distance Swimmers

Distance swimmers need to be able to swim fast and swim fast for extended periods of time. Doing so typically requires larger training volumes and exposure to extended fast swimming. For those that don’t always handle a lot of intensity, organizing this process in a way that allows for continued progress can be a challenge.

Go Long

Volume certainly works for creating aerobic adaptations. The value here is that volume can work without the need for high levels of intensity. In many cases, we run into trouble when we try to use high levels of volume AND high levels of intensity at the same time. In terms of facilitating progress in endurance events, lower intensity training can actually be superior.

For individuals that respond poorly to consistently high levels of intense training, a greater focus on training volume with tightly controlled intensity can allow for just as much improvement as a more intensity focused program. The key is to slowly build volume over time, with careful attention towards limiting training speeds.

Go Slow

If an individual wants to be successful at any endurance event, they’re going to need to perform a fair amount of training volume. If much of that training volume is performed intensely, ‘sensitive’ swimmers are going to struggle for all of the reasons described previously. The solution is to perform the majority of this training volume slowly. While this may seem blasphemous to swimmers and coaches alike as we’re conditioned to go as hard and as fast as possible.

Fortunately, as has been demonstrated across many endurance disciplines, it is the amount of relatively slow endurance work that is most tightly related to improvements in performances. Improvements in aerobic effectiveness are driven primarily by relatively low intensities, performed for extended durations.

We can use this to our advantage in swimmers that struggle with intensity. By going slower, we avoid the challenges that come with too much stress, while taking advantage of the effectiveness in improving aerobic performance. Further, these slower speeds are perfectly conducive to working on distance per stroke and technical efficiency, factors critical to the distance events.

Use Equipment

For endurance training to be effective, the muscles and physical systems of the body need to do a certain amount of work. As this work will be most effective when performed in the pool, situations can arise where the amount of work that is necessary to perform is larger than the volume of work that swimmers can effectively perform with good technical skills.

Training equipment such as buoys, paddles, fins, snorkels, etc, can make it easier to accomplish this work while preventing swimmers from practicing bad habits.

For those swimmers that experience technical breakdown prior to achieve the necessary workloads, adding training equipment can help to achieve these workloads without the technical baggage. While this work may not actually help develop technical skills, training equipment can prevent swimmers from actively making these skills worse. When to use training equipment will likely depend on the individual in question.

Go Fast

While low intensity swimming may drive the boat for those unable to tolerate large amounts of intensity, these individuals still need to swim fast. In some respects, they need to swim FASTER to compensate for the relative lack of intense work.

From a stress perspective, once you reach a certain level of intensity, further increases in intensity don’t necessarily create more stress. In other words, there isn’t a larger penalty from going faster. It’s more of an on/off switch. This switched tends to get turned when swimmers reach ‘threshold’ levels of intensity. As such, if we choose to push the intensity, it makes a lot of sense to be aggressive with these workouts.

When deciding to increase the intensity, a significant focus on pace work and fast swimming will typically be rewarded and will be quite complementary to the higher volumes of low intensity work. Because its less frequent, sensitive swimmers tend to handle it much better.

Because it’s less frequent, we need to be a lot more strategic and effective in what we choose to do. It needs to be good.

Be Strategic

This article is relevant only because some swimmers don’t respond as well to traditional training approaches as we’d hope. They’re more resistant to improvement. With distance swimmers, it’s particularly challenging as there is a lot of work that needs to be accomplished, yet the swimmers tend to struggle if the balance of work is not quite right.

To be successful, we need to effectively control intensity, choosing when to go fast and when to keep it controlled. This needs to be planned and there needs to be discipline in sticking to the plan. Because there is a limit in terms of how often swimmers can go fast, the type of work that is included needs to be strategic as well. That work needs to be done really well, and it needs to be the type of work that each swimmer responds well to.

Know when it’s time to go, do it at the right time, and do it with the right type of work.


With sprinters, particularly those individuals that are sensitive to training loads, focusing on performance rather than fatigue is going to be central strategy to improving performance. The critical question becomes how can we design training to maximize the opportunities to swim fast while minimizing the fatigue that is subsequently created?

‘Lactate Work’

If you ask most swimmers what their idea of a ‘sprint practice’ is, they’ll say something along the lines of 5x100@5 from a dive. This is your typical ‘lactate set’.

I’m not sure that this is a particularly effective approach for a lot of individuals.

These sets are very psychologically and physically demanding, they often lead to technical breakdown for most swimmers, and it can be very challenging to maintain performance. All of these problems are typically magnified in the individuals discussed previously.

These sets create a lot of fatigue, and they don’t necessarily prioritize performance. In contrast, sets that reduce exposure to fatigue and allow for the maintenance of performance are going to allow for more high-speed swimming. Consistent exposure to speed is what matters. Create sets that allow swimmers to swim fast, repeatedly.

While lactate sets may be very challenging physically, they don’t allow for swimmers to accumulate very much volume at high velocities, and these volumes tend to be slower than they otherwise could be. For sprinters, it is the volume of high velocity work that is going to drive performance improvements more than anything else.

Rest Periods

For those that struggle to handle training, keep the rest periods open. This will allow for the maintenance of performance, and PERFORMANCE is what sprint training is all about. It is about how FAST you swim, consistently.

Keeping rest periods open is going to allow for better maintenance of performance across all training components. This is particularly true for those individuals that fatigue quickly, fall apart technically, or simply can’t handle a lot of stress. These individuals will benefit most by any strategies that consistently create better a better environment for sustaining speed.

While reducing rest periods can be an option for making training more difficult, it’s not necessarily going to be a determinant in making training more effective. Ultimately, it is the work that is done that will determine the adaptations that occur. The speed of that work and how much of that work that’s performed is what matters, not how much fatigue is generated.

Keep rest periods open to keep the focus on performance, rather than fatigue.

Repetition Distance

As each distance of each repetition increases, more fatigue is generated and the average speed decreases. It then becomes clear that if we are trying to maximize performance while minimizing fatigue, we need to keep repetition distances on the shorter end.

Sensitive kids respond poorly to fatigue and stress. Unfortunately, there is no way getting around a need for training intensity in the sprints. You cannot just swim slowly. To mitigate the effects of intensity, we need to moderate how swimmers are swimming fast. Fatigue accumulation accelerates greatly as repetition distance increases. By keeping repetition distances shorter, we can reduce exposure to fatigue accumulation.

As the amount of fast swimming is going to drive improvements in performance, training volume is important. With shorter repetitions, we can achieve the required training volumes by simply performing more repetitions. The same high velocity training volume achieved with shorter repetitions is going to create significantly less fatigue and technical degradation.

This is not to say that longer repetitions can’t be used, just that they should be used strategically and sparingly. There needs to be a reason for their incorporation. This is also separate from using longer repetitions that are deliberately performed slowly for aerobic or recovery purposes. We are primarily focusing on the high intensity work when discussing repetition distances.

Intensity Control

While the instinct is to have sprinters go as fast as possible certainly has merit, it can easily be overdone, particularly in certain individuals. As I said above, the amount of high-speed swimming is what is going to determine long-term performance improvements in sprinters. The key to manage these is actively control training intensity.

Ask for performances that are fast, but not maximal. Asking for slightly slower speeds for the majority of training repetitions is still swimming fast, yet you’re giving swimmers some breathing room. Not only does this reduce the stress and pressure of performance, it allows for swimmers to swim more relaxed. This relaxation is ultimately going to facilitate performance over time.

All of this is particularly true for sprinters that learned how to go FAST in practice. It can become a situation where it’s almost like having a swim meet at practice every day. This is going to cause problems sooner than later. Some swimmers do need to learn how to swim fast in practice. Once they have, it needs to be managed.

There are two other strategies that can be effective. The first is to simply avoid timing everything. Timing WILL improve performance, and this is actually the problem. Constant performance comparison is stressful, and failure is demotivating. As improvement is not a linear process, constant improvement is not a realistic outcome.

For training activities that can be easily measured, don’t do it at every opportunity. This will reduce the intensity of the training. This reduction in intensity is necessary because it then allows for a sufficient volume of high-speed training to be performed. Remember, it is the volume of high-speed training that is going to drive performance, not necessarily the volume of maximal speed training.

A second strategy is to simply include high speed training activities that can’t be measured or the measurement simply have no emotional attachment. For instance, a swimmer is not going to be that worried about how far they can kick with a parachute in 30 seconds. While they may try to improve that distance within a practice, they’re not losing sleep over it if they can't.

Perform efforts for time or number of stroke cycles instead of distance, perform odd distances, and use any activity that can’t be easily compared. This allows for the accumulation of the necessary work without the unnecessary emotional stress.

The Commonalities

Beyond performing activities that are actually relevant to performance, training intensity is probably the most powerful tool we have to accelerate training adaptation. Intensity WORKS. However, the power to do good also comes with the power to harm.

From some individuals, and often for different reasons, training intensity must be carefully controlled or it will quickly be the reason that are swimmers are failing to improve. Some swimmers simply can’t handle a large volume of training intensity. Volumes of intense work need to be kept low, and this type of work needs to be supported by less intense work. In contrast to our instincts, less really is more.

For ALL of these individuals, here are some general recommendations-

  • Give them more rest

  • Reduce the relative intensity of a lot of the training

  • When it’s time to go fast, go FAST, if not, go slow

  • As required, use lower intensity volume for fitness development

  • Use equipment to help if they need more fitness work

How this dynamic manifests itself in practice will differ for different individuals. The amount of intense work they can tolerate, and the frequency they can be exposed to it, is going to change from person to person. Further, what is modified to support this work will change, too.

While there are some general guidelines that can be useful as described in this article, it ultimately comes down to coaching. Observe, adjust, observe, adjust. By finding appropriate solutions for each individual, we can provide the best opportunities for each individual to swim faster than they thought possible.

As a general approach to training, maximizing performance while minimizing fatigue is a sound strategy for long-term improvement. When working with those that are particularly susceptible to the negative impact of fatigue, it can often be the ONLY strategy that will consistently produce results over time.

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