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Stepping Back

Swimmers and coaches are greedy. They want to perform, they want to perform better than they ever have, and they want to do it all yesterday. In most cases, this serves us well. It allows us to get up early for hard training, come back for more in the afternoon, and do it all again the next day.

However, as with all positive traits, it can work against us in certain situations. Our desire for more, especially when performances are improving, can get us in trouble. By pushing for more, we can actually stop progress in its tracks. Counter-intuitively, it’s when training and competing are going really well that we are most at risk for making unnecessary mistakes.

In this article, we’ll explore these dynamics, as well as take a look at some strategies that can be useful for helping coaches and swimmers protect themselves from themselves.

Peaks, Cliffs, Valleys

We’ve all heard the saying that after every peak there is a valley. It’s applicable across all aspects of life, as after great experiences come some sort of a letdown. And while in swimming this is typically expressed in the context of championship performances, it also applies to every day training. Significant training performances are going to be followed by less significant performances. This can be VERY frustrating for coaches and swimmers alike. It can also be de-motivating as swimmers don’t always understand why they can’t perform as they did only days ago.

Coaches and swimmers alike expect great training to be followed by more great training. However, better training causes a bigger fatigue response. And we all know what happens to performance in the presence of escalating fatigue.

It gets worse.

If a lot of great training is consolidated into a small time period, there is going to be an escalating fatigue response. That is going to have an impact. After the peak, there is a valley. If we appreciate how the process works, we can potentially influence it in a manner that suits our goals.

In Ernie Maglischo’s book Swimming Fastest, he made a statement that immediately resonated with me, as it was both counter-intuitive and illuminating. He wrote that the greatest risk of training setbacks occurs AFTER significant training breakthroughs. It’s right after we have success that we are at the greatest risk for failure.


In the first case, swimmers are now training at a higher level than they have before. In and of itself, this causes an overload. They are exposing their body to a level of stress it’s not used to. The same sets performed faster are harder to recover from. This is pretty straight forward.

The second reason is a little less obvious. When swimmers have success, it’s fun. Swimmers love swimming fast. It’s motivating. They start training even harder because it’s even more rewarding to see fast times. Every swim is a now a test and an opportunity to see if more progress can be achieved. They start pushing even harder. The situation is made worse as coaches often encourage this behavior.

As discussed in On a Roll, training momentum is real, and positive feedforward cycles can quickly lead to swimmers performing faster than they have before. The only way to destroy the cycle is to get greedy and overdo it. We have two synergistic factors. Training becomes harder to recover from because swimmers are performing at a higher level AND they’re putting in more effort. At some point, this is going to catch up with them unless we take steps to pump the brakes.

This phenomenon is not just present in swimmers. From track and field sprinters to distance runners to sprint cyclists to powerlifters and beyond, the same sentiment remains. When there is a great performance, or a series of great performances, it’s time to be conservative and take a step back. Consistently failing to do so will cause training progress to slow or cease, or worse, injury will occur.

Once we understand, appreciate, and respect these dynamics, we can start to modify our coaching behaviors to ensure that we are placing swimmers in the best situation to be successful. In their training, all swimmers will reach a point where they’ll have some sort of breakthrough. Whether they’re starting a new season, or picking up in the middle of a current one, momentum will start to build at some point. We’re going to need to make decisions about what to do about it.

There is another way to look at the peak/valley dynamic. I heard about this from a Coach named Dan John.

After great performances, you are on a cliff. You can choose to either step back or fall off.

I found this so insightful because it puts coaches and swimmers in control of the peaks and valleys dynamics. It allows us to choose how deep the valleys go, as well as plan for how to navigate our way out of the inevitable valley.

As coaches, we have a sense when training and performance are starting to build. We can feel the momentum start to build and we can feel the climb towards a peak. As we approach the peak, we now have choices when viewed in the context of a cliff. We can allow the momentum to build until we run right off the cliff, or we can pump the brakes and step back.

Below are some strategies as to how we can navigate this process to take advantage of the momentum that has been created, and channel it into a bigger and better peak, all while minimizing the likelihood of falling off the cliff.

Some Suggestions

The following strategies can be useful for ensuring training continuity that may help coaches prevent swimmers stepping off the cliff. While there are always exceptions where we might choose to ignore these rules, it’s important to focus on long-term success as opposed to short-term gratification.

When there is a significant change in performance, it’s time to make decisions. The decisions we make can influence whether performances are going to continue to improve, or if they’re going to stagnate. The following strategies may help you with decision making process as you navigate the performance breakthroughs of your

After the breakthrough, GO EASY! This is the big one. Celebrate the success, back off, and don’t get greedy. A little restraint can go a LONG way. As described above, it’s after SUCCESS that swimmers are most susceptible to taking a step back.

While it’s very counter-intuitive, backing off is often exactly what’s needed to move forward. Great performances arise from successfully balancing the fitness and fatigue that are BOTH developed following training. When you’re seeing great performances, it means the balance has been right on for the last several weeks or months. Breakthroughs introduce a new level of fatigue, and we don’t know what that impact will be.

Play it safe. Training has obviously been sufficient to develop fitness or the performances wouldn’t be there. The only way to disrupt the process is adding extra fatigue. Backing off a little bit is the best way to control fatigue and keep the process moving forward.

Subtle adjustments make a big difference. Stepping back and shutting down are NOT the same idea. Stepping back can simply mean giving a little more rest on intervals, performing a few less repetitions, or back off the performance expectations. The changes don’t have to be big. It can still be solid work. However, it should be within the swimmers’ capabilities. They should feel like they could have done more, and in some cases, WANT to do more.

These adjustments allow for a little breathing room to let fatigue dissipate, let the body recover, and to keep swimmers hungry for the NEXT push.

Move away from success. This strategy has been employed by many age group coaches. Whenever a developing swimmer has a competition breakthrough in a given event, the temptation is to have that swimmer try to go even faster in the next meet. However, the wise age group coach often has the swimmer swim other events, knowing that the likelihood of further improvement is small. Swimming other events not only allows the swimmer to continue to develop a broad spectrum of events, it allows for the necessary time to improve enough to see further progress in the original event.

The same is true of practice. If swimmers have success with a specific type of set, keep them away from that specific set. While you can still perform the same type of work, change the set up or the style so that they can’t compare their performances. Otherwise, you can be certain that they will. After a breakthrough, they may match those performances, but they will rarely exceed them. There is little to gain.

Swimmers are athletes. Athletes are competitors. Competitors always want to know where they stand. They will definitely compare their performances, and they will get frustrated if there is any loss of performance. The solution? Don’t give the swimmers a chance to compare. Change it up so you can still get the work in, without allowing for direct comparisons.

Control great practices (and even good ones). Sometimes swimmers are lighting it up and they destroy the main portion of the training session. If you still have 30 minutes left in a session, it can be tempting to keep the pressure on, ride the wave, and see what else can get done.

In track and field and other disciplines, there is a heuristic that if you hit a personal record of some type, stop and go home. While this doesn’t have to be taken literally, the idea is that the athletes have already done something significant, and there is little to be gained by doing more. If you push for too much, you might just bury them.

Pushing for more can result in a magical session that takes 3 weeks to recover from before swimmers are able to repeat that performance. While it’s easy to scoff at the notion of a 3-week recovery period, think back to when your swimmers have had amazing practices. How long did it take until those performances were repeated? Were they ever repeated?

The answer is often being a little conservative, especially when everything is going really well.

Go for it when it’s there. If you’re working through a set and you feel that a swimmer can do something special, it’s fine to up the ante and take advantage of it. These breakthroughs are critical for changing how swimmers perceive their abilities. In the same sense, if you feel swimmers are building towards something special over a series of training sessions, set it up for doing something special as well. The key is do enough for the breakthrough and NOT go for extra as described above. The next couple practices will have to be scaled back as well. They’re at the cliff. Step back or step off.

Maintain expectations. It’s tempting to let breakthrough performances become the new standard. However, it’s important to appreciate that there is a lengthy consolidation period before breakthrough performances can become every day occurrences. It takes time and swimmers don’t always understand why they can’t necessarily repeat a fantastic performance every day.

The more coaches can help to educate swimmers about this process, and certainly not feed into it by expecting those performances, the more likely it is that swimmers won’t get frustrated. Frustration will put the brakes on progress faster than anything else, which is the last thing you want after a significant step forward.

Progress is not a breakthrough. There is a difference between regular expected progress and a significant breakthrough. We certainly don’t need to completely adjust training whenever someone has a good practice. It’s when a swimmer takes a major step forward on any one day, or has a series of particularly

training sessions, that it might be time to pump the brakes. You’ll usually know the difference. If you find yourself telling the swimmer or another coach, ‘that was really good’, that’s probably a sign. ‘Nice practice’ is likely your typical solid training session.

The better training is going, the more cautious you need to be. If training is going really well, that’s when you need to be most cautious. That means outputs are high and there is likely fatigue being generated. At the same time the stimulus for fitness is obviously sufficient. Great training happens in the relatively small margin between just enough and too much. Progress means the training is right where it needs to be, which is also relatively close to the edge. Pushing for more is going to push you over the edge. All it takes is one or two workouts that push a little too far. Be REALLY careful when performance is going really well.

Look for warning signs. If a swimmer is still progressing, yet their looking a little ragged or mood is changing, it usually means that problems are coming if the situation doesn’t change. It could be a simple as the swimmer has been stressed with school or needs a couple good nights of sleep, or it may mean training needs to change, or they need a bit of a break.

A general strategy is that if these warning signs are only present for a day or two, it’s a very temporary situation. However, if they persist for 3-4 days, it typically means a change is needed. The change you decide to implement, will depend on the individual and the situation. If these signs are ignored, the training momentum that has been built is going to unravel sooner or later.

Use safety valves. Think of training fatigue as pressure building up. As discussed Safety Valves, we occasionally need to release the pressure. There are many ways to do so, and the specifics are outlined in the linked article. Certain swimmers may respond better or worse to certain strategies, and some strategies may be more practical in your specific situations. Whatever works, use it. There are options.


This all sounds pretty straightforward. It’s simple and logical.

The problem?

It’s really hard to do.

As alluded to in the beginning of this article. We’re emotional. We want more success. We want it now. The best strategy for managing this process is having rules in place that make your decisions for you, especially when your emotions are suggesting you behave differently.

All consistently training swimmers will reach a point where they’ll have some sort of breakthrough in their training. How we choose to react to those breakthroughs will determine whether that progress is the platform for a great season, or the beginning of the end. Navigating these breakthroughs determines whether they continue, or progress grinds to a halt.

Too often we push for more and end up with less. By demonstrating a little restraint when it’s most tempting to be greedy, we can allow for swimmers to consistently make progress in training, which will allow them to perform when it matters most, in competition.


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