The Dryside Part I
As coaches, we tend to be very focused on the importance of our training sessions and training plans. We feel that the specifics of the training that is done in the pool creates the largest impact on performance. While training undoubtedly has a major impact on performance, and what’s done in training clearly matters, there is another factor that mediates the impact of training on performance.
What happens outside of the pool can dramatically affect short-term performance, the improvement realized from the same program, as well as the likelihood of injury and illness.
While this is appreciated by most, there’s value in exploring just how significant the impact of life can be on the overall efficacy of a training program. As a coach, we’re quick to look to our training and practice schedules when problems arise. As we’ll see, it’s worth considering how life outside of the pool is impacting performance in the short term and the long term.
Below is an overview of how life outside of the pool can impact what is happening in the pool. While I tend to avoid citing research to support arguments as I feel simple arguments supported by commonly observed and inarguable facts are most convincing, I believe it has great merit in this circumstance. These statements are not my opinion; they have been repeatedly evidenced. While this does not consist of proof, it begins to create a convincing narrative. More importantly, you’ll see that the majority of the points made below will resonate with the experience of most coaches.
In the context of the cited studies, it’s important to define what ‘stress’ really is. In the majority of the cited studies, stress was simply defined as the participants perception of stress through various questionnaires. Basically, if they felt stressed, they were. This is relevant to coaches as complicated testing isn’t required to determine stress levels. If swimmers feel stressed, they are.
Higher levels of stress have been related to performance loss, and these performance losses were offset by higher levels of social support was relate to improved performance. Skill execution has been specifically related to sleep loss and insufficient sleep also impairs strength. As most swimmers include strength training in their program, and many perform these sessions in the early in the morning, this is a real consideration.
Not only is performance loss associated with stress, physiological recovery is impaired with chronic life stress. After a single strength training session, those individuals with greater life stress had prolonged recovery of force characteristics. This has the potential to impair performance during future training sessions, especially as swimmers tend to perform multiple sessions per day, often for multiple days in a row.
Injury and Illness
Consistency in training is critical for long-term success and the most common barrier to consistency is injury and illness.
Injury rates have been demonstrated to increase during periods of increased academic stress 4, such as mid-terms and final exams. As the vast majority of swimmers are also students, this must be kept in mind when planning training. While it’s less common for swimmers to suffer from significant acute injuries, increased academic stress may be sufficient for a minor soreness to develop into a chronic injury.
Beyond the impact of academic stress, negative life stress of any source has also been associated with injury. This can be the result of acute stressors (i.e. relationship problems) or chronic stressors (i.e familial problems). As with stress, chronic sleep loss is associated with injury rates, as have poor nutrition. Impaired sleep and impaired nutrition is related to increased injury risk.
As with injury, illness can greatly impact consistency in training. Beyond the impact on injury rates, psychological stress can impact immunity in athletes. Further, short-term sleep loss has also been associated with increased rates of illness.
Injury and illness present major obstacles to the maintenance of training consistency. Independent of the design of training, increased academic and psychological stress, as well as sleep loss, have been associated with increased rates of injury and illness. Coaches must be aware that the greatest obstacle to long-term success may arise from what happens in life.
The bottom line for a training program is the degree of realized improvement following a block of training. Put simply, progress in training is less for those individuals who have higher levels of perceived mental stress, and this may be related to sleep habits.
Self-rated stress was related to improvements in aerobic fitness after a 20-week aerobic training program. More stress was resulted in less improvement of physiological measures. The same result has been demonstrated in strength training programs as subjects with greater life stress had smaller improvements in various measures of muscular strength.
Despite performing the same individually prescribed training program, participants who had greater life stress levels improved less.
Individuals may still improve, but they improve less. For the developmental or senior age group swimmer, this improvement loss may be washed out due to the relatively high levels of progress that characterizes this age group. However, for physically mature senior swimmers, these slight losses in adaptation may be the difference between significant personal bests and stagnation.
At this point, it seems pretty clear that what is happening outside the pool can have as significant an impact on performance as what is happening inside the pool. With increased life stress, sleep loss, or both, we can assume the following-
Short-term performance will likely decrease.
Recovery from training will be impaired.
Swimmers are at greater risk of injury.
Swimmers are more susceptible from illness, beyond the susceptibility that already comes with high training loads.
Performance improvements from a given training program may be compromised.
It’s difficult to know if impaired adaptation is the result of impaired performance in training, impaired recovery, training losses due to immunity, all of the above, or something else. The bottom line is that life matters and the perfect training program can be compromised by what happens outside of the pool, even in those individuals who are totally committed to their swimming.
What can coaches do about it?
Coaches have two options. The first option is to modify training and the training environment to account for and buffer against life stress. This option allows coaches to act where they can exert the most influence. The second option is help swimmers develop strategies to minimize their life stress. While this strategy ultimately is more challenging, it can have the greatest impact.
We’ll explore the details of both in future posts.