It is through the completion of training sets and training sessions that swimmers ultimately move closer to or further from their goals. As such, effective and appropriate design of individual sessions is of paramount importance.
I’m going to examine the underlying thought processes that drive HOW we chose to design training sessions. As our perspective and assumptions will ultimately dictate how sets are constructed, it becomes important to identify and appreciate which perspective(s) we are currently working from.
There are multiple perspectives we can consider practice construction through. Each of these perspectives can be more or less useful depending on the context. As we improve with our coaching, it becomes possible, and necessary, to view training through all of these lenses simultaneously.
When we can accomplish this, our coaching effectiveness will be greatly improved. What’s important is not just what’s planned, but what’s actually done. Most important is HOW the training is performed by the swimmers and how training is performed is determined by how training sessions are designed. Physiology is certain important, yet there are other often unconsidered aspects of training design that ultimately determine how well training goes on any given day.
So, what are you trying to accomplish during each practice?
Physiology and Training Zones
From my experience, most coaches begin training design from a physiological perspective. ‘Today’s practice is a threshold practice.’ ‘Today’s practice will develop VO2max.’ ‘We have a lactate set today’.
Check out the chart below, which is representative of USA Swimming’s energy system zones. Most governing bodies have similar charts, and individual coaches have also adapted these charts match to their own preferences.
By using the chart, coaches design can sets to target specific physiological adaptations using an appropriate structural framework. This approach has utility in that it can help to ensure that physiological variety is present in the training program. Further, the stimuli presented are consistent which provides the body with a clearer signal for adaptation.
As technical potential is determined by physiological capacities, long-term physiological development is critical for continued performance improvement. In this manner, the physiological perspective has and will continue to serve coaches well. This is particularly true of swimmers with sound technical skills and a robust ability to positively adapt to physiological stress.
At the same time, training can become problematic when only physiology is considered. Unfortunately, the majority of swimmers do not have sound technical skills and possess varying abilities to adapt to stress. More importantly, any training set will affect technique, psychology, and racing skills, for better or worse. If these effects are not controlled for or appreciated, they will most likely be negative.
Consider a set of 10*200m freestyle with 20-seconds rest, performed at a heart rate of 80-90% of max.
This set can be an effective physiological stimulus for any number of swimmers in numerous contexts. From my experience, this is where many coaches start and end with training design.
Some other considerations-
How will this set be performed technically?
What are swimmers learning?
What do swimmers learn about racing?
What psychological skills will be enhanced?
What will the emotional response be to this set and how will that affect future training sessions?
How does the set facilitate engagement so that swimmers will perform the set with relative enthusiasm?
If you don’t determine the likely effects, and then design constraints to control those effects, you’re going to get a lot of training baggage.
What skills do your swimmers need to learn to be successful racers?
How do these skills fit into a long-term plan to improve performance?
How are they going to learn how to sustain these skills when swimming fast?
How are they going to learn how to sustain these skills under fatigue and pressure?
Great skills do not arise by happenstance. They are systematically learned, developed, and trained over time to meet the requirements of competition. This takes a lot of consideration, planning, and training.
Technical development needs to be considered in every training session. It starts by identifying where swimmers are and where they need to go. Every lap and every stroke is helping swimmers move closer to their goals, or not. By considering this process during the construction of every training exercise, we can move that process forward in a way that best serves the swimmer.
Technique and training are the same thing. You are always training technique. Do it right, do it fast, do it under pressure.
How can that process become synonymous with your physiological training plan?
Swimmers win medals by racing and swimming fast. They don’t award medals by possessing incredible physiological capacities (although they might also have those capacities). The question then must be, how are training sets designed to learn how to race? How are sets designed to help swimmers learn how to WIN?
This is not an either/or situation. It’s not learn how to race or develop physiology. How can you do both, simultaneously? There are many options to do this. Appropriately constructed USRPT sets can work, mega-volume training sessions can work, as can everything in between.
It is not about adherence to a particular philosophy.
It is about identifying what racing skills need to be accomplished, identifying physiological objectives, and then using your own creativity and experience to figure out how to make it all work together.
How can you make it happen?
Each training session is an opportunity to develop psychological skills such as task-specific focus, resilience, the ability to re-focus, aggressiveness, ownership, etc…
These skills are learned through action, not by sitting on a couch. How are you designing opportunities for these skills to be learned? How are you providing opportunities for you as a coach to help teach these skills?
It doesn’t happen by chance.
It’s also important to consider the emotional response to training. Do swimmers leave wired by the thrill of achievement? Are they looking forward to the next training session? Are they excited by what they’ve accomplished? Are you building self-efficacy, the belief that you can accomplish specific tasks?
Or are they demoralized by failure? Bored from monotony? Frustrated with a lack of progress?
All of the experiences can be engineered through appropriate set construction, for better or for worse.
I remember Dave Salo describing how he preferred 20*25 on 10-seconds rest over a continuous 500 swim because he wanted communication, NOT because it was a better physiological stimulus. He wanted to engage and interact with his swimmers as often as possible. Furthermore, he got excited by fast swimming, so he figured the more he saw fast swimming the more excited he’d get, and this excitement would further excite his swimmers. Everyone would have a more productive and enjoyable experience.
His decision had nothing to do with the physiological benefits of interval versus over-distance training. Any difference in physical benefit was negated by the increased engagement by coaches and swimmers. Another coach with a different personality may make the opposite choice for equally valid reasons. They would be just as right to do so.
Coaching Attribute Perspective
What are your best skills as a coach? Are you able to inspire swimmers? Are you able to excite with your energy? Can you create terrific engagement? Are you able to provide unbelievably insightful feedback?
As coaches, we all have our strengths. It only makes sense to use those strengths in practice as often as possible. Design sets that leverage your strengths as a coach.
If you are the most excitable coach in the state, why would you give consistently have swimmers train in a manner that didn’t let you get your swimmers excited as often as possible? If you can inspire swimmers to attack colossal training sets, why would you settle for short and mediocre sets?
Design training to use your skills!
What do swimmers WANT to do, both over time and on this particular day? Is the set designed to require and facilitate engagement? How can you accomplish your objectives in a manner that is engaging and exciting?
I appreciate that we are not in the entertainment industry (although I am not entirely sure about that) and I understand that certain tasks need to be accomplished to achieve goals. However, if you can get those tasks completed in a way that fosters engagement, why wouldn’t you take the extra time to create that engagement?
Like it or not, the more swimmers enjoy what they are doing, the better job they will do and the more excited they’ll be for the next practice.
Moving Forward with Training Design
When beginning to design training, start with what are you trying to accomplish.
What is a successful practice, considered through multiple perspectives?
What will the swimmers learn, technically, tactically, or psychologically? What type of physical stress can support these goals?
What is the primary objective? What are the secondary and tertiary objectives?
How are these objectives best accomplished, both theoretically and when considering YOUR unique skillsets?
How can sets be constructed in a way that swimmers want to do those sets?
There is no superior perspective from which to construct training. ALL perspectives must be appreciated and considered.
For every set and practice, there will be concurrent training effects in all areas, designed or not. The question is whether you understand what is going to happen, whether you are in control of what is going to happen, and whether you can get what you need at the same time.
There are certain tasks that need to be performed to successfully develop swimmers. You have to swim fast, you have to be fit, and you have to be skilled. Consider all of the different ways that you can create opportunities for swimmers to develop all three aspects over time.
Training construction is not simple. It requires a lot of forethought and effort to effectively design training plans that serve the swimmers you coach.
This difference between great coaches and average coaches is NOT their training zones or weekly cycles.
The difference is in the details.
Great coaches consider all aspects of performance and design ways to develop all of these attributes, simultaneously. Critically, they do so in a manner that leverages their own unique strengths which allows them to do what they do best.