What Else Matters?
‘If I am not managing my athletes’ physiological responses, then what am I doing?’*
The above is a quote from a track and field coach of internationally competitive runners, and he is commenting on the role of the coach during a training session. While the quote may have come from the running world, it just as easily could have come from a swimming coach.
Universally, physiology is the primary consideration when designing practice sessions, and often, it is the only one.
Which energy zone will be targeted today?
How much volume will be done?
What intensity will the work be performed at?
As a swimmer’s physiology does have a dramatic impact on performance outcomes, it’s easy to see how this has become the case. By focusing on physiological development, we can ensure that the necessary fitness is developed.
Without question, physiological development is critical. It must be considered and addressed within any training context. However, by strictly controlling physiological responses, coaches also removing the dynamism that is required while racing. Races are not predictable and they occur in stressful situations which swimmers must be prepared for. For those watching the recent United States 2021 Olympic Trials, there were multiple individuals that did not make the team for reasons that had nothing to do with physical ability.
A physiologically dominant approach also implies that other aspects of performance are less relevant, and this perspective will leave these attributes underdeveloped. While these underdeveloped attributes may not show up in training performance, particularly when training does not represent the realities of racing, they will show up in competition.
Beyond these drawbacks, many physiologically-driven paradigms leave little room for individual differences. Many sources of coaching knowledge provide relatively strict guidelines to optimally develop physiological fitness. While these guidelines can often be useful, they can be problematic as well. These guidelines make three false assumptions-
1. All swimmers have an equal ability to tolerate stress.
2. All swimmers will respond equally to a standardized training load.
Unfortunately, not all swimmers can handle the same amount of stress due to genetics, lifestyle, and outside stress. Uniform, physiologically-based prescriptions will overload some swimmers, and it can be challenging for coaches to deviate from the ‘right’ intensities and volumes.
Further, not all individuals respond uniformly to a common stressor. This should be evident to any coach. When performing the same program, some individuals fail to improve and others win championships.
While basing a training program on physiology is not bad, it can be become problematic when it is the only consideration, or when we are not considering the potential issues that come with a predominant focus on developing fitness. If we are able to recognize the potential problems that arise from this approach to performance, how do we move forward?
What to Do?
If a physiologically-driven approach is potentially problematic, what can coaches do? How are they going to develop the fitness that IS required to race effectively? While it’s easy to assume that physiology must predominate, this is not the case.
ANY type of physical movement is going to stimulate a physiological response, and with this, we can assume that SOME physiological improvements can occur, even if unintended. We’ll come back to the importance of this concept later.
As coaches, we can consider ALL of the skills that swimmers require to race effectively. This would include any technical skills, any tactical skills, and any psychological skills. When reflecting, it can be useful to remember that swimmers must race by THEMSELVES. They are alone on the blocks, without the aid of a coach, a teammate, or any sort of external feedback.
Once you have a list of skills you feel are required, choose those that you feel are most significant, or those that underlie the others, as most swimmers will not have the time, the energy, or the focus to develop all skills.
With your list of skills, begin to design training sessions that target these skills as the primary focus of the training session. Remember that as these skills must be realized in competitive situations, there must be race-relevant practice situations, at least eventually. Attempt to tie performance into training.
With this approach in mind, what new opportunities will swimmers have to learn? What different ways will swimmers have to improve? What new opportunities will coaches have to learn? As coaches improve, they can find ways to target these ‘other’ attributes, and do so in a way that supports the physiological development they sought in the first place.
To make it a little more practical, let’s consider the following situations.
What would a practice look like if the primary focus of the training session was to develop 1-2 technical skills, and practice implementing those skills in a race-relevant environment? How would that practice be evaluated?
Beyond the technical development that would occur, a significant physiological stimulus would be present due to the racing. You get the physiology, anyway! Swimmers must learn to execute their skills under racing pressure, and the only way to do this is to execute their skills while racing.
However, the converse is not true. If a training session is developed with the purpose of improving some physiological trait, there is zero guarantee that meaningful technical development will occur. In many cases, stroke mechanics are actually destroyed due to a focus on effort over efficiency and effectiveness.
Transferrable technical skill is the goal. Physiology is the side effect.
What would a practice look like if the primary purpose of the training session was to learn to endure discomfort and maintain focus under pressure? How would that practice be evaluated?
While developing the ability to psychologically push through during the extreme discomfort of racing, and maintaining the appropriate focus, physiological development would certainly take place. If discomfort is present, you can be certain physiological stress will be applied! The type of stress can even be manipulated to create the ‘desired’ physiological adaptations.
Again, the converse is not true. Just because a training session does create discomfort, it does not mean swimmers will develop the appropriate focus throughout that training session. In many cases, it is the opposite. Survival becomes the objective, and defaulting to a survival mentality is exactly the opposite of that which is required in a racing situation.
Psychological resilience and focus under pressure are the goals. Physiology is the side effect.
What would a practice look like if the primary purpose of the training session was to develop confidence? How would that practice be evaluated?
Confidence comes from overcoming significant challenge. In the swimming context, the best way to create challenge is through physiological stress. The key to developing confidence is to create appropriate challenges, that a swimmer has a high likelihood of accomplishing. Here, the primary considerations are creating a challenging situation that can build confidence, determining the necessary stress is secondary and driven by the need for appropriate challenge.
The challenge could come from any type of work, thus giving the flexibility to use a spectrum of physiological stresses. This would allow a coach to train ‘appropriately’ as a side effect of addressing confidence.
When physiology is the primary focus, their will certainly be challenge present. However, the consideration is creating the ‘right’ amount of physiological stimulus, regardless of the what is appropriate for the swimmer. IF there is a mismatch, confidence may very well be actively harmed.
Confidence is the goal. Physiology is the side effect.
Instead of using physiology simply as an end goal, it can be creatively used to enhance multiple skills that are critical for racing success. If these skills are placed as a developmental priority, and practice sessions are designed accordingly, these skills will improve.
Importantly, the required physiological development will occur as physiological stress is required to improve these skills. In contrast, a physiologically driven program will not necessarily develop these skills, and in some cases, these skills may be actively harmed. We need to consider the potential consequences, in addition to the obvious benefits, of a predominant or exclusive focus on physiology.
To provide greater opportunities for our swimmers to be successful when it matters most, it’s prudent to consider all of the factors that contribute to fast swimming, and actively work to include those factors in our planning. When we do, we can provide not only a more effective experience, but a more enjoyable one as well.
* From Timothy Konoval, Jim Denison & Joseph Mills (2019) The cyclical relationship between physiology and discipline: one endurance running coach’s experiences problematizing disciplinary practices, Sports Coaching Review, 8:2, 124-148.