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The Relevance of Race-Relevant Training Part I

How we think about training, and how we conceptualize the training process, is ultimately going to influence how we choose to design training sessions with the intent to facilitate improvement. How we think influences what we do. As an extension, if our thought processes aren’t very good, the training process that we create and implement is going to follow suit.


The better our ideas about how improvement occurs, the better we can practically realize great training sessions that result in improvement. With that in mind, I’d like to discuss the idea of planning training based upon what needs to happen in races.


The current thought processes many coaches use when designing training are dominated by metabolic fitness and energy systems. They’re focused on building bigger engines, which should in turn lead to faster performances. However, they’re confusing cause and effect. If you develop great metabolic fitness, you might swim fast. If you have are able to swim fast, the required fitness will necessarily be in place. Fitness is really the ability to DO certain things.


It’s not that a swimmer has great aerobic fitness if they can swim 20x100 long course on a 1:10 interval and hold 56 seconds, it’s that they can swim really fast for a long time without much rest. While they are surely very fit, it’s their performances and what they can do that matters. It’s what they can do that is important, not the physiology that supports it.


As I have discussed before, a training process focused on what needs to happen in races will be more likely to get swimmers to where they want to go as opposed to a process focused on building fitness.


While more coaches are beginning to take approaches that are moving in this direction, many tend to get wrapped up in focusing only on specificity. Further, the definition of what is specific is rather limited. At the extreme, training will consist almost entirely of repetitions performed at race speed, where all other work is deemed ‘non-specific’. The implication is that all other work is not useful.


This is a big mistake. There are a lot of training options that can consistently drive performance development, even if they’re ‘specific’ or performed at race speed. They are absolutely REVELANT to developing performance. The importance of this type of work cannot be understated.


Its value is seated in that it is relevant enough to help to develop the skills and abilities to do what needs to be done, yet broad enough to allow for a multitude of training options. It is through this optionality that we have the tools to address specific contexts, as well as develop a fully prepared swimmer.


To explore this dynamic, we’ll first take a look at how to categorize these forms of training. We’ll start with what needs to happen, then explore the work that needs to happen to support swimmers in doing what needs to happen, and finally the rest.


What do we need to do?


This is the race specific work that everyone can conceptualize and is familiar with. If you are training for a certain race, you are swimming that specific stroke and you are swimming at speeds that are very close to the speeds that are desired in a competition. You are doing this over and over again in a variety of ways.


At a minimum, coaches and swimmers will need to know how fast they need to swim, to accomplish their goals, preferably with some awareness of the stroke counts and stroke rates that are required to achieve those performance. The latter factors can vary significantly for two swimmers that are swimming at the same speeds.


However, it goes beyond the speed of execution. How the swims are performed matters as well. The skills required to achieve the desired speeds need to be practiced as well. If a swimmer is hitting pace, but taking 3 extra strokes, that’s not the same thing as hitting stroke count.


We have to know what the outcomes we’re looking for are, and we have to design training sessions that allow for swimmers to develop those outcomes. If we’re not, we’re leaving a lot to chance. Race specific training plays a role here, as practicing these outcomes can aid in improvement.


However, in most cases, swimmers can’t just do it. Simply rehearsing races and pacing doesn’t always develop the ability to do perform those actions better. While they may make them more consistent, work needs to be done to ensure that swimmers are getting better at doing what they need to do.


What do we need to do to be able to do what we need to do?


This is the focus of the article. If swimmers can’t do what they need to do, what do they do? How do we develop the required skills and physical abilities? We have to develop the foundational elements that are relevant to the skills and abilities that determine performance.


While race specific work is pretty straight forward, race relevant work requires a lot more forethought and planning.


We’ll explore this in detail below.


What’s left over?


We’re not going to go into much detail here, as these ideas have explored elsewhere on this website. Further, there are a lot of effective options in these spaces. It becomes more about whether these items are addressed, rather than how they are addressed.


Recovery training- Movement can facilitate recovery. Including some training to address recovery needs will be required. The specifics are not particularly important. Coaches understand what this is.


Basic aerobic fitness- All swimmers will need to possess a basic level of aerobic fitness. For some, this requirement will be very high, while it will be relatively low for others. There is a fair amount of latitude in terms of how this objective is achieved.


Muscle strength- Stronger swimmers have a great potential for speed, and more speed is going to be beneficial across all events groups. The shorter the event, the more this becomes a limiting factor. Even more so than aerobic fitness, HOW strength is developed is much less important. There are many options, and many of them work.


Basic body strength- Swimmers need to have the basic strength to control their bodies. The focus here is not so much on maximal outputs as with muscle strength. Instead it is about the ability to maintain positions under stress.


Mobility- Swimmers must be able to move their limbs into the positions required to execute effective skills. If they can’t do so, they need to spend the time to mobilize the required joints. There are many options here as well, with the primary consideration being the choice to use methods that are safe and scaled appropriately. The greater issue is choosing or implementing dangerous options rather than ineffective options.


How relevant is it?


Having quickly examined three different classes of training, we’ll dive deeper into the middle ground, race-relevant training. Let’s use an analogy to consider the relative impact of race-relevant training. Consider an earthquake. At its epicenter, the impact is going to be huge. There are going to be major effects, and they will be larger than any other area.


This is similar to how training works. As the body adapts specifically to the demands that it is placed under, the adaptations will be strongest when performing the exact types of work as those performed in training.


If the epicenter earthquake is located in San Francisco, the impact in Oakland will be nearly as significant as it is in San Francisco. The impact in Los Angeles will not be as strong as that in Oakland, but it will still be large. However, the impact in Saint Louis will be much less significant, if noticeable at all.


When framed in a swimming context, performing swims at 400m speed is extremely specific to 400m racing. This is the equivalent of the relationship between San Francisco and Oakland. Performing swims at 100m speed is still relevant to 400m racing, yet it is farther removed as compared to 400m work. This is analogous to the San Francisco-Los Angeles relationship. Performing breaststroke kick sets is not particularly relevant to 400m racing, just as Saint Louis is likely too far removed from San Francisco to feel the impact of the earthquake.


Relativity


As such, relevancy is on a spectrum. There are some activities that are very race relevant, and other activities that are less relevant. The further away a given activity is from the desired races, the less the impact will be. This gets trickier when we consider that these are all RELATIVE. There are two main components that determine how relevant a given activity is.


It’s relative to the race. Performing 20x100@1:30 at a strong aerobic effort will have some relevance to a 100m swimmer, particularly an aerobically driven swimmer. It can make an impact, although it will not be the foundation of their preparation. In contrast, it is VERY relevant to a 1500m swimmer. In these cases, the relevancy is determined by the race.


It’s relative to the individual. Two individuals competing over the same event may have very different training needs. As an extension, the work that becomes race relevant will shift was well. Consider the same training set above with two 100m swimmers. For a more aerobically driven swimmer that also competes over 200m, the set will have a fair amount of relevance as their performances are determined by their aerobic effectiveness. In contrast, a 50m swimmer that moves up the 100m will likely be much more reliant on their speed and power to perform. Improvements in aerobic effectiveness are still important, yet they are less relevant to this swimmer.


There aren’t necessarily right answers. It is a matter of degree. It’s going to change a lot depending on the context.


The closer a given training set is to what needs to be done in a race, the more relevant it is. The obvious advantage here is that improvements in training are more likely to result in improvements in competition performance. The further away a training set is from the competitive context, the less relevant is. HOWEVER, the advantage is that more overload can be created on a relevant training component.


This is where individual needs come into play. If we’re focusing on a race relevant work that addresses a component that is a weakness for a specific individual, it’s going to be a lot more relevant even if it’s not extremely specific. In contrast, if the race-relevant work is not addressing a major limitation for the swimmer, it will become much less relevant for THAT individual.


Why does it matter?


The reason I am addressing this topic is that there is often a lack of thought given to the structure and implementation of this type of work. Often, coaches will focus on very specific race work (pace sets), as well as fitness training (aerobic development). They spend less time bridging the gap between the two. It is these linkages which ultimately fortify a strong training program.


In many cases, very specific training is great for expressing the abilities that have already been developed. It’s about displaying what already exists. Using Bob Bowman’s vernacular LINK, it is utilization training.


In contrast, race-relevant is what develops performance potential in specific races. Because it is relevant, it will transfer to performance. Because it doesn’t have to be extremely specific, there is a much broader bandwidth of adaptations that are possible.


Too often, it is the very general training described above that is considered to be capacity training. However, I would argue that it is race-relevant training that is truly capacity training. By working in these areas, improvements should yield an increased potential for performance in the targeted races.


Race relevant training might not always be SPECIFIC to racing, yet it is relevant to racing. Think of it as the support work that allows race specific training to get better. Improvements in race relevant training lead to improvements in race specific training, and improvements in race specific training lead to improvements in competition.


Options


Beyond serving a role as ‘capacity training’ or a ‘base’, for race specific work, it also serves a simpler role. It creates options. Over the years, there has been a relentless march towards specificity in the training of athletes and swimming is no exception. More and more of the training process is geared towards activities that replicate aspects of the competition. An example of this in the swimming context would be Ultra-Short Race Pace Training (USRPT). For those unfamiliar, training at the specific speed of the targeted race(s) is considered the only valid form of training.


This has largely been a positive trend as coaches are beginning to do a better job of identifying training activities that are most likely to actually improve performance. However, this can be taken to the extreme. Again, using the USRPT example, ONLY training at the speed of the race is considered an appropriate training option. This is a natural consequence of the thought process of making training as specific as possible.


However, if we’re locked into the belief that ONLY extremely specific training is going to facilitate performance, what do we do when that approach stops working? And as with all training, it will stop working eventually. We are out of options.


This is the value of race-relevant training. It expands the available training inventory to provide more tools to facilitate improvements in performance.


It gives us options.


Beyond options, it provides framework with which to consider how any given training activity could fit into the entire training picture. By considering whether a given training is relevant rather than specific, as well as how that activity is relevant, it allows us to incorporate a much broader spectrum activities, making it more likely that we can consistently facilitate improvements in performance.


Conclusion


Most coaches are intimately familiar with the concept of specificity. However, they are less familiar with the concept of relevancy. By embracing training that is race-relevant as well as race-specific, it encourages a level of reflection that can help coaches increase the degree to which practices will ultimately enhance competitive performance.


What constitutes race-relevant training is dictated by the demands of the race, as well as the attributes a given individual needs to develop to be successful. Relevancy exists on a spectrum, where a given type of training can be more or less relevant depending on the situation. Understanding this relativity can help to inform the types of training that are ultimately included.


Beyond expanding training options, the primary value of race-relevant training is that is allows coaches to overload the factors that determine performance. We can place more stress in areas where it is needed, as determined by race demands or individual needs. In part II, we’ll explore what that looks like in practice.



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