Provocative Distance Thoughts by Jonty Skinner (1997)


I like to experiment a lot. I know that doesn’t qualify me as a scientist. I do a lot of quasi research and reading. I love to analyze information. Sometimes I think I get a little overzealous in my own program in terms of storing information that is sometimes a bit redundant. Sometimes it sits in my computer and looks like a white elephant. But, it doesn’t stop me because that is the type of person I am. I tend to spend a lot of time just buried in my computer. Many of the days I wake up and look at the clock and realize I am about 5 minutes late for practice. The athletes are used to it and they know I’m buried in the computer.

I know some of you are thinking, “What does this guy know about distance training?” I have coached a couple of distance swimmers in the past and I actually managed to get a guy to break 15 minutes in the 1650. I’m not here to tell you how to coach distance swimmers. I’m going to tell you some things that I think you need to be aware of and very careful of because there are some trends in this country and these trends are not good. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at our results in the 1500 to realize that every year we are getting slower. I know there are coaches in the audience that probably have coached swimmers that did times in the early to mid 80’s that probably didn’t make the final in the 1500 and if they did the same time today they would probably be in the top three.

My thoughts are my own. What I am saying is not endorsed by United States Swimming. Most of these thoughts are generated in seclusion away from anything.

I am going to deal with energy system information    as a review. Endurance Level 1: the main thing is perfect technique. It improves the heart stroke volume. Swimmers cannot get by without increasing stroke volume. Stroke volume is maximized at 70% of VO2 max which means   it probably starts at the 110 to 120 beats per second range. You can do some things really well in this category. One is to improve stroke volume. Another is to improve the capillary network. Another is to facilitate fat metabolism. And technique. If you do not work on technique day in and day out you are wasting your time.

Level 2 is a big area for distance swimming. This is one of the main categories you should spend a lot of time in. Distance people are tied to EN2 like an umbilical cord. You cannot get away from it. You are going to be limited by your level of EN2. The fast pace you can swim in steady state is pretty much going to control how fast you can swim your pace in the 1500. The faster you can swim in steady state, the faster you can swim a 1500.

EN3 is still very important in the 1500 and also the 400 race. There is maximum oxygen uptake. There is some tolerance, both physical and mental. There is some buffering and dealing with the pain involved.

SP1 — we are not in the 1500 anymore. We are down more to the 400 freestyle. We are dealing with some tolerance. Some people like to think of the 400 as an extended sprint. When you watch Perkins swim the 400 it looks like an extended sprint.

An SP2 workout — we let the distance swimmers do a couple of these each season just to humor them.

The last system, alactic, SP3: on a fun day you let them do a couple of 15 meter sprints. That’s if they work hard before that.

There are a few things in society today that are affecting where we are right now. We already know there has been a significant drop off in the male population. We do not have the number of males involved in our sport as we did in the 70’s and 80’s. I suspect we do not have nearly as much talent in that number. There are too many lawyers. I’m not knocking on lawyers but I think they are making people jump and run in the other direction. I tell you this because every time you turn around there is some litigation because some person stubbed his toe going over the front step into your doorway and you get sued because it was too high and you didn’t put a warning notice in front of him. I don’t doubt that there are situations where there is physical abuse in swimming. There was a guy who was coaching up in the northeastern area and running kids over 200,000 meters a week. I don’t know what constitutes abuse. I’m not saying that does but I think some people are a little leery of this and parents start jumping up and down and saying they are going to sue you.

By the same token I think parents are softer today than they were in the 50’s and 60’s. They tend to be less tolerant of hard work. They tend to give their kids more leeway. Society is changing in terms of what we expect of our youth. Both parents work and I think this drives a lot of kids out of our sport. They do not have the opportunity to get kids into the sport. It is a lot tougher to get them to morning practice because everyone else has commitments. This is part of the reason why we don’t have kids in the sport today.

Team sports are becoming far more popular. They are doing a better job in terms of promotion. Having the world cup here did not help swimming one iota. If the football league were to die or the soccer league to die it certainly would not upset me because it would mean there is less  up there to shoot for. Title 9 had put a huge influence in woman’s team sports especially. We are going to lose a lot of athletes to softball and soccer. We have a bit of a glut on the female side. It looks that way right now simply because there are not that many men in the sport. We are going to see even less and less quality athletes on the female side as more schools pick up softball and soccer to balance out that scholarship quota. This is something we will see in five to ten years.

We are still unable to put our prime time players into major ads and the spotlight. A good example, Amy VanDyken, the biggest medal winner in the Olympic games did not make one national TV ad. She did a milk ad for a magazine. We don’t see any Nike ads with a female swimmer. I think this is going to draw people out of the sport. The reason why I say this and bring it to you attention is that it is my opinion that we cannot continue to do the job in terms of the development of the athlete the way we have been doing it over the past ten years. If we keep on this path, my honest opinion is that we are going to get less and less and the rest of the world is going to get more and more. When I use to work at the University of Alabama I was so consumed with the University I didn’t have a global thought about where we were in the world of swimming. However when you work at the head office and there is mounds and mounds of information, and with the internet you can go an look at a lot of things very effectively and very quickly, I am personally very concerned with what the Australians are doing. If they ever get their act together we are going to be in very serious trouble. We are going to have a hard time beating them in international competition.

Part of what I do today is get you to think or rethink what you are doing with your developmental athletes.

I broke down the age group rankings, the top 100 times aged 13 and above. I looked at how many rankings in the top 100 came prior to 1985 and then how many came post 1985. As the distance gets longer more and more times come from prior to 1985. Coaches prior to 1985 were endurance oriented. They trained their kids in endurance oriented concepts. Since the mid 80’s we have seen some changes. I am going to raise my hand — I am one of those who made mistakes. I probably confused people into thinking that swimming shorter, swimming smarter, swimming more on the anaerobic side would probably help make the kids swim faster. I’m not knocking Dave Salo, but Dave puts forth a very short, sprint type program. My opinion is that these programs in the long run are going to kill us. Not only in distance swimming but in all phases of the sport. It doesn’t change when you look at the female side.

I studied a large amount of data that Will Colebank had collected from coaches in terms of workout components and distances. What I see is that what we are doing with age group and developmental kids is not conducive with distance development. First I want to show you a program for Amy VanDyken. She is a sprinter and had a hard time going over 100 meters. 51% of her training is in EN1, 20% in EN2, 4% in EN3. SP1 and SP2 barely add up to 1%. We are talking about a 50 -100 swimmer. She went about 1.9 million meters in 46 weeks of training averaging about 40,000. She peaked out at about 60,000 to 65,000. During the sprint phase she averages around 40,000. Now look at this club program broken down the same way. This is a middle distance program that focuses on middle distance to distance swimmers. There is a fairly heavy volume in the EN1 and a greater volume in EN2 and not a huge volume in EN3. They were very light in the SP1 and SP2. There was no SP3 training. I remarked to the coach that they probably need to do more in this area.

Here is another club program that develops 200 specialty strokes swimmers. There is significant amount of EN1 and EN2, a normal amount of EN3, a very high amount of SP1 and a pretty high level of SP2. For comparison, Amy averages about 165 yards of SP1 a week and this team average almost 1,200 meters a week.

Here is a girls group, aged 13 14. This is one of the highest EN3 groups. This doesn’t bother me but what does bother me is the extremely high SP1 category, almost 900 meters a week over a 40 week period and this is during a very developmental period..

Here is a boys group under the age of 13. These are kids who don’t even have the metabolic process to do anaerobic work. You can do anaerobic work but they don’t produce any lactates. The only thing you can basically do with these kids is you can screw up their technique and you can screw up their ability to develop as athletes if you are too overzealous in the SP1 and SP2 zone. I’m not even sure these zones correlate very well with that age group.

The most dangerous area of swimming training is SP1. It’s the one where you can run into the most trouble. I would classify it as high intensity swimming with no recovery swimming in between. For example, 50’s on 1:30 where you are getting at least a 1:1 work rest ratio to a 1:4 work rest ratio and you are not doing any recovery speed swimming between repeats — and these repeats would not be over 100 meters in distance.

The only thing you can do with underage developmental swimmers who cannot train anaerobically when you give them anaerobic sets is screw them up.

Most teams in the country are set up where a coach works with 20 to 30 swimmers. You are doing these hard sets. How much time do you take to correct things? Probably not much at all. I have some ideas and suggestions. The nature of the beast is that you have developmental kids in your group for about 6 months or maybe a year. Eventually when they get to a senior group they might be with a coach for 4 years. One of the things I admired in the DDR systems was the process of designing training that was conducive to the development of the athlete. Orjan Madsen spoke at length about this early. I my opinion we do not spend enough time on the technique development of the athlete. If you have 3 age group coaches and you have 3 different levels, instead of having three coaches pass kids along and have three different opinions about technique or training, take one coach to take the 10 year olds for 3 years. The kids hear the same person, the same voice, the same logic. Then the coaches rotate back and take the next group of 10 year olds.

If they do not have the proper technique by the time they are 13 they are predetermined as to their eventual success.

Looking back at the workout data I refereed to earlier. Most of the sets are in the EN2 and EN3 categories. There doesn’t seem to be any real design to the week.

Here is a set of 20 times 100 where they go 5 on 1:15, 5 on 1:10, 5 on 1:05, and 5 on 1:00. It almost simulates the parametric concept to some degree. If you listed to Skip Runkle yesterday, the whole idea of the parametric system is to slowly progress forward, to slowly get the athlete to swim a greater distance at the same speed. When you swim far enough you move to the next speed. The limit here on this set is 2000 meters. In this coach’s mind, for someone to break the American records in the 500 yard free they have to be able to complete this set at a high level. This coach has had two swimmers break 15:10 in the 1500.

Anaerobic work. The problem with anaerobic work is that it hurts the body increasing the acid levels in the muscles and it encourages the body to adapt to anaerobic energy delivery. If you look at the majority of some of the great swimmers of the world today for example Popov, Pankratov, and Sadovyi, they are amazingly fit individuals. Pankratov and Sadovyi went a 3000 for time in 1993 and the 1500 split would have finaled at Olympic trials last year. They broke 31 minutes and these are 200 and less distance swimmers. The whole concept is, and it is the same concept that I believe in today, that you produce power through endurance. If we could take that philosophy with our developmental athletes, if we could focus purely on endurance and technique, I guarantee you that all events would improve. There are too many examples of great sprinters in this world today or in the past that have been Olympic champions or world record holders in the 100 freestyle who were all distance swimmers when they were kids. They stopped swimming the 1500 meter freestyle when they were maybe 15 or 16. Mark Spitz’s first world record was in the mile. How do these guys swim these amazing 3000’s for time and yet are truly powerful at the 200 meter races? In my opinion it’s power through endurance.

We are getting too involved in the anaerobic side of the equation and we are killing ourselves in a couple of places. First, the kids going through the developmental stage start to look good really early — too early. And they are going to look good because if you give them the anaerobic work it’s going to make them look good. I don’t get excited much when I look at 11-12 or 13 year old girls do these amazing times. I get even less excited when I see 13, 14, 15 year old boys do amazing times — until I see the contents of their work. If the content of their work is purely endurance oriented then you have something exciting. If the content of the work is a high amount of anaerobic work, that combined with the possibility that the kid’s biological age may be advanced — you’re looking at a dead end product by age 15 or 16. And there are a lot of them. There are a lot of age group graveyards in this country. The age group highway is littered with kids, especially on the female side, who were amazing at 10, 11, and 12, because they were going double practices and doing weights and doing anaerobic work.

I remember Junior Nationals in Tuscaloosa in the early 90’s where there was a 12 year old girl who broke the national age group record for the 200 meter free and the parents were really excited. The excitement lasted only as long as it took the parents to walk over and see the results posted from the west juniors and see another girl in the same age group had gone faster. The parents went to the meet director and were upset that the results were posted so quickly and this had robbed her daughter of the opportunity to feel good about herself. I was wondering where the priorities were? Now today, the girl is nowhere. I think part of it is we spend too much time on the anaerobic side and concentrating on the shorter events too soon.

If you do too much anaerobic work you can change the energy deliver in your athletes. You can change it from an aerobic source to and anaerobic source. The minute you do that the ability to do distance oriented work is limited extremely.


Biomechanical efficiency. One inch in distance per stroke in freestyle over 50 meters distance is 4 tenths of a second. It can be easy to lose that inch. This occurs because at too early an age swimmers are pushed to swim too hard. When you push to sprint too hard you start doing things like turning over really fast to make up the deficit. The people who struggle the most are probably your late bloomers — the kids with long arms, their strength is not where is should be yet. If you are not in their faces telling them they are going to come around by the time they are maybe 19. I know it is hard for a 12 year old to listen to that and believe in you but if you work hard at motivating them and improving their technique they will make it. It’s really hard because an underdeveloped 11 year old standing next to an overdeveloped 12 year old on the blocks has a long way to go. Try to hit a home run in the long run.

What really bugs me is the fact that we have had really great swimmers in the past and what do we really know about them? We know the basics, we know their best times, we know something about the way they trained. If Bud MacAllistar came up here and told us about her training you would hear that he stimulated her parametric system. It was very similar to the way Sweetenham trained Tracey Wickham to the unbelievable world record in the 400 where she came home so fast in the last 200. Do 100s on 1:10 until you can do 40 of them then go to 1:08 until you can do 40, then at 1:06 — that type of system. And Peter Banks trains Brooke Bennett in a similar way. Many years ago Denny Pursley published in Swimming World a set Kowalski of Australia did where he descended a set of 400’s down to low 3:50’s. Dick Jochums talked about DiCarlo doing 3:50’s on a set of 400’s. We know those types of facts. We know these athletes can do amazing feats in day to day training and they can come back and swim extremely fast in competition. But we really don’t know what they did. We don’t know their t-30. What was their best 3000 for time? We don’t know any testing information from them. We have no specific map to use or guidelines to use.

If you get an 11 year old kid in your program you think has talent and ability you might think you should be able to go to US Swimming or somewhere and say you have a talented kid and ask for a program or guideline for his development. At USS we now have the progressions for athlete development. This is the first thing we have done in a long time to give coaches some kind of idea of training continuity. However, in my opinion, the things we lack the most in this country are, one, there are too few coaches in the country who break down the training using energy categories. There are more today than 5 years ago and a lot more than 10 years ago, but there are still not enough. If you are sitting in this room, in my opinion you should be breaking your day to day training down into energy categories. If you are not you need to get to it as soon as possible. When you break it down you are going to make mistakes initially but by the end of the season you are going to be able to print out information that is going to tell you something. It allows you to make changes from season to season based on data, not feelings. It is impossible to make changes unless you have concrete data if front of you to base your changes. If you combine that with basic testing, and tracking of the athlete, and if that athlete is successful then you have a map or program someone else can use. We can put it in a form where other coaches can learn from it. We are going through an age with the internet where we can be accessing all this kind of information. We should have all sorts of information that you can download on your pc and then you have some idea in front of you about how to develop you athletes.

Most people in club development already know that the majority of male athletes will only mature when they are in college. Then you should be training them so they can mature in college. The college coach is going to get all the credit but in all honesty, if you guys do your job you are the key to the whole success story. The greatest thing we did last year was to go to Splash magazine and have the Olympic athletes recognize those coaches that developed them in the past. For the first time in a long time you could actually see the names of those individuals coaches who were instrumental in the development of the athlete. I hope that if you are in this room and you read your name you felt good about it.

I get emotional because I think United States Swimming is at a stage, a place where we can very easily fall off a cliff. In order for athletes to do a job at the elite level, age group coaches and developmental coaches have to do their job at the developmental level. It is hard to say “no” to the urge to develop that kid earlier. We know that the best time to develop the anaerobic system is in the late teens. If we are going to excel as a country we are going to have to wait to anaerobically develop the kids until their late teens. We cannot waste them. We cannot wipe them out because we are ignorant. I hope that five years from now we will be able to have a web page, to have plans, to have opportunities for coaches to access, download, and use information in a productive manner.


Answers to questions:

Coaches in this country are in a situation where the tail is wagging the dog because we don’t go about things politically in the right way to get the right things done. We do not voice our opinion in a strong collective manner. However, you as individuals control your program for the most part. If you have to go and sell your ideas to your parents and your community to follow what you feel is the best thing for each individual athlete, do it from a base of knowledge. Give them examples. You can control the training environment.


If they don’t swim that fast in the 50 and are swimming a lot faster in the 200 and they are only ranked 50th in the 50 and 5th in the 200, to you that is a badge of honor. And if it is a badge of honor to you, then it is a badge of honor to your kids. You might have to take a kid to the side, especially the late bloomer with the long arms, and say, ”There might be other swimmers faster than you but you are going to be the best someday. You are going to beat them all one day and you are going to have so much fun when that day come.” You may not wag the tail with your board and you may not wag the tail of the community but you can wag the tail where it counts most, and that is with your individual athletes on a day to day basis.


If you make a mistake and do too much anaerobic work how long will it take to fix it? I don’t really know. I know with the kids at my level it took about six to eight weeks to get back to where we were before. Hopefully you would never get to that point. My opinion is that you will never hurt your sprinters with endurance based work. They will say they are hurting so it takes a sales job on your part. The best male athlete I ever coached was Troy Dalby. He came to me in 1984 as a backstroker. I told him that if he wanted to be a great sprinter he would have to be a distance swimmer first. I convinced him to swim the mile when he was 15. He went 15:52 and made juniors. I convinced him to swim it again a little later because I wanted him to get another chance at it before he went to juniors. At juniors he went 47.5 in the 100, 1:41 in the 200, and 15:27 in the mile as a 15 year old. The next year he went 8:08 in the 800. He was making 200’s on 2:15, 400’s on 4:30. He was trying to keep pace with Janet Evans at the time. At nationals he went 51.3 in the 100 and said, “That’s it coach. No more distance work.” I made a stupid mistake allowing him to take that path. But at least he had two solid years of pure endurance work.

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