A Progressive Training System by Skip Runkle (1997)


What I am going to talk about today is something I was exposed to about two years ago. It was brought to me by a coach on my staff, Alex Nikitin. He talked me into giving it a try and within six weeks of doing it I was so excited it renewed my interest and excitement in this sport.

Parametric training — I’m not sure who came up with that term — was begun by Dr. Sergai Gordon from Russia. It is basically his work that we are using. He has been at it for over 25 years. The top European student of Dr. Gordon is Genadijus Sokolovas who did come to the US last year and spoke to the national team coaches clinic. He also spoke at the USS Age Group Coaches Conference. We had him for a couple of different weeks at our club and really got a great deal out of what he had to say. This is basically their work. What I am presenting is my interpretation of that information. I am presenting it in a way that I would understand if someone else was explaining it to me.

Genadijus had a disclaimer and this is my disclaimer: my system may not be covering every detail of parametrics but I cover what I feel is useful for anybody who has not been exposed to it. If you want more information you can call me. [Call the ASCA office for Skip’s phone number.]

One of the primary things behind parametrics is progressive overload. Progressive overload is basically the body reacting to a stress and getting stronger and then restressing the body and getting even stronger. Here is a quote from Dr. Gordon, “You want the work load to be continually increasing to allow adaptation to occur. The least amount of work which elicits an adaptation response is called the lower threshold adaptation. Increased volume of training loads is usage of higher resistance or heavier weights or exercises and will lead to high levels of endurance and strength. If the impact of the exercise is too high it can lead to diminished improvements or even worsen performance to a level lower than at the starting point of the season. It is apparent that each physical quality, strength, endurance, speed, and so on, has its own individual threshold of adaptation. Frequent or constant usage of training loads in excess of this threshold may not lead to improvements in results during the season but will lead to potential reduction of the athlete’s potential development in the long term.  This parameter can be called the upper threshold of adaptation. The improvement of results is not endless. The analysis of athlete’s biography and career results and progressions and improvements during seasonal training and improvements in results during selected workouts gives us the possibility to make a conclusion about the existence of adaptation limits. Adaptation limits can be global, athlete’s career, periodical, seasonal, quadrennial, or singular. Usage of singular directed training loads, endurance or speed development, will produce quicker adaptations. In this case the organism can more easily develop necessary response reactions.”

How I interpret this is that whenever you are training — it doesn’t matter if it is the weight room or swimming — you have a window of work. If you stay in this window, where you have the lower and upper level of adaptation, you will improve. In order to move you forward the work has to be at or higher than the lower level of adaptation or below the upper level of adaptation. If you are above the upper end you are going to set yourself back.

How we stay within this window is the use of testing protocol — test outs. I will talk about this later.

I am going to oversimplify swimming fast. There are two ways to get fast. You can either train the body aerobically to produce less lactate at higher paces or you can train the boy anaerobically to be able to handle higher levels of lactates. Because of the way that the system works there is more potential to develop the aerobic capacity to produce less lactate then there is to develop the body’s ability to handle high levels of lactate. Both are important and I need to spend time in both. They must be done in sequential order.

Here is an example of a season. This is a 24 week season. I separate the energy systems into 4 groups: EN1, EN2-3, SP1-2, SP3. In this system we divide the season into thirds. In a 24 week season, the first two thirds are 16 weeks. Strategy 1 is to develop the aerobic system over the first 16 weeks so the body can go faster and faster without creating the lactates. Strategy 2 is to teach the body to tolerate higher levels of lactate during the last one third of the season, in this case 8 weeks. This is oversimplification but it helps make sense of the system.


Look at strategy 1, the first two thirds of the season. The relative amount of each of the four energy system sets we use peak at just about the same time. For distance swimmers we have all the systems peak concurrently. For middle distance swimmers we have them peak the four systems within a one


Comment: You could do your SP1-2 on Monday morning


Answer: I don’t like doing SP1-2 on Mondays.

I mentioned that we have a way with this type of training to two week period. For sprinters the energy system sets peak within a two week period.

You can get pretty technical with these numbers but what I feel is important is that you keep a progression. You start slowly progressing at first, then pick up the rate of progression to the peak, then taper off.. My percentages of work in each system are similar to Jonty Skinner’s. One thing that I have done differently: if you want progressive overload you do not go through a modest preseason and then suddenly go for high yardage. You need progressive overload. If you don’t do it that way then I feel you risk getting above the upper level of threshold adaptation.

What I do next is go back to the weekly cycle which is the microcycle. I haven’t changed the basic microcycle very much from what I used to do but I have incorporated the parametric principles. I was able to apply this program to what I had done in the past. During the first two thirds of the season, strategy 1, what drives this is the EN2-3 work. That is what I plug in first to the microcycle. I plug it in on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoon. This type of work is tough. Milton Nelms calls it “glycogen strippers”. If you are really going to do a good job on these sets you need to back off of them and rest them for 24 to 36 hours after a hard set. There are two big reasons for this. First you need to replenish the glycogen stores. You want to deplete them. If you don’t I do not think you are training them adequately. Empty the tank then fill it up as much as possible. I think the limiting things in training are glycogen stores and also the effect of free radicals. I’ve been reading a lot about them. We have experimented with antioxidant supplementation. What we have been able to do in this last year is go two EN2-3 days in a row.

That’s what drives my program. Then I just insert everything else. I do EN1 everyday with warm up and swim downs. We do the SP3 stuff every day, but not every workout. We do train SP1-2 from the very beginning of the season. It is very low. I start out the season with about 200 meters in the first week and build slowly. Our maximum has been about 2000 for the week. We do the SP1-2 on Tuesday afternoon and Saturday morning..

Question: Don’t you feel that after EN2-3 on Monday night then Tuesday morning that you are going to compromise velocity for work you want to do in SP1-2 on Tuesday night?

Answer: No. I have learned that it is a different system. It might hurt a little bit but I disregard it. We do handle it. Now we could not get in Tuesday night and do EN2-3 stuff.

with keeping within the upper and lower level of adaptation. We do this by the use of test sets.

Over the last couple of years I have primarily used 6 different test sets. For short course: 4 x 25 on 1 min, 4 x 50 on 2 minutes, 6 x 50 on 1 minutes, 3 x 100 on 1:30, 3 x 200 on 15 seconds rest, and 3 x 400 on 15 seconds rest. We plug these in after about two to four weeks of training and we do them to the end of strategy 1.

In parametric training we want progressive overload. We adjust different variables in order to increase the stress. I used to repeat the same set every two or three weeks and tell the swimmers to beat their previous average time. Now, the first time we do a test set we record the times and find the average. The second time they do the set we increase the number of repeats but we want them to keep the same time. The variables we are keeping the same are velocity and rest interval. The variable we are changing is the volume, or number of repeats. That’s during strategy 1.

In strategy 2 the variables change. We go back to I have traditionally have done in the past where repeat the same set and try to get faster each time. We do not increase the volume.

It is specific how you increase the number of repeats during the season. In this season I have outlined with 12 weeks of testing (16 weeks total less the first 4 weeks without testing) I would take the initial number, for example 6 x 50 on 1 minute, and decide to max out at 40. We want to end with 40 repeats at week 16, the end of strategy 1. For the first 4 weeks we would slowly increase the number of repeats and during the last 8 weeks we would dramatically increase the number. That is the type of progression you want.

When we first started we did all six sets once a week which means I am doing a test set every day.

We did not look at heart rates. We only looked at total time. They go as fast as they can go. I do three of the sets freestyle and three sets best non-free and then change the sets next week so they do not always do 6 x 50 on 1 minute free.

With the 4 x 25’s on 1 minute we build to 30 repeats. The 4 x 50’s on 2 minutes go to 30 repeats. The 6 x 50  on 1 minute go to 40. The 3 x 100 on 1:30 goes to 20. The 3 x 200 on 15 seconds rest goes to 20. The 3 x 400 on 15 seconds rest goes to 15 repeats.

You’re in the 4th week of practice and you go 6 50’s all out and you know they are struggling. By the 12th week they are going 40 50’s and they are going the same times and they are just cruising. What has happened is that they have shifted energy systems. You think about the lactate curve — it has shifted to the right. What was SP1 at the beginning is now EN2.

This is a break point and it is very subjective. My gut feeling is that we may need to make some adjustment here. We are assuming we are shifting energy systems at these specific numbers. I mentioned the 6 x 50 on 1 minute where we started in SP1 and we finish at 40 and we are in EN2. When we have done heart rates they have correlated with the energy system we are supposed to be in. What we need to do is take heart rates on a regular basis and that will tell us exactly where those break points are. It is important to know where the break points are because when you are doing these test sets and you want to plug them into the week you need to know where to put them. Let’s say we are in week 6 and we want to do 100’s on 1:30 and we are up to 8 of them— once we go past 7 we are out of SP1 and into EN3. So we would want to plug that set into an EN2-3 spot. I never want it to be the first thing we do in practice. We warm up about 2000 of preparation type work and then we get in the test set and then everything else follows the test sets.

The test sets do not drive what I do. I am plugging them in to the right energy system set spot. The driver is my season plan.

There are a lot of different ways you can do the progressions and test sets. In my first season I did not know how fast I wanted to progress. I knew what I wanted to get to but I didn’t have any idea how fast we should be progressing. So I took the average time for the initial set, and remember these are swum at maximum effort, and I figured the standard deviation using my spreadsheet program and added the standard deviation to the average time. That gives me a window. What I used to do is say to the kids, “Last time we did 6 of these and this is your average and this is the window I want you to stay in. I want you to go past six staying in this window until you get two repeats in a row outside the window.” We took the system as far as we could each time without draining the system.

Genadijas uses algorithms with set progressions set. What I have gone to recently is finding the minimum number from the algorithms. If they are still in the window we keep going until they are out of the window. I have a minimum but I am still allowing individuals to progress faster than I prescribe as their progression. If we are going 12 50’s and the upper end is 40 and they went 20 on the last testing session then they start at 20. If you give them the opportunity they will try to test out — they will try to get to the maximum number before the progression I set up. I don’t want them to go further. The next time we do the set I will have them retest at the minimum number of repeats for where we are in the progression but I will ask them to swim a faster average time then their last set.

I use this plan for my whole team. I don’t know how important it is for distance swimmers to go 25’s on one minute. We did add a new set we call “2000 and more” which replaces our T-30’s. We do it once every two weeks. They go a 2000 time trial and the next time they go a 2200, then a 2400, then a 2600, and so on at the same pace as the initial 2000.

This type of training is not new. Twenty years ago Jim Montrella told me his secrets for developing top distance swimmers like Ann Simmons. One of his sets was 10 x 100’s on 1:20. The next time he would do 15 on 1:20 and then 20 on 1:20. Once the swimmer got to 20 he would drop the interval to 1:15 and start over. He would continue to go to the end of the progression until he got as far as he could get up until taper time. That is a good example of parametric training which addresses the aerobic end. He also did the same type of progressions on dryland. I asked him what he was doing this year — or at least what he was doing before June — and he said he is doing the same type of thing except with race pace stuff like 25’s and 50’s relating it to goal pace. He is only addressing one end. I think what is most important is using parametrics over the whole energy system spectrum. What we are trying to do is to develop everything on the lactate curve. All the energy systems affect each other. If you move one ahead, but not the others, you are going to create a situation where the athlete will not have complete improvement.

I started this system last fall and by December almost my entire group which is junior national and senior national swimmers hit lifetime best times on two days of rest. They were splitting the races like they were tapered — like they only do at the end of the year. On the 100’s they were within a second to a second and a half on their first and second 50. On the 200’s they were within a second. They looked good. We are developing that aerobic system to a much higher level.

Response to questions:

Some swimmers struggle at times. About two thirds of my group will be on the average time. I think that is pretty good.

I discourage the swimmers from going faster than their initial test average until they test out. I do not want them to go faster, I want them to go further.

We do our dryland at the end of practice.

If you number the test sets I listed above as sets one through six, then on one week I would do the odd number sets free and the even sets best non free. Then on the next week I would switch sets. For breaststrokers we will go the initial set of 400’s breaststroke and then kick additional 400 as the progression continues. I think it hurts their stroke.

I have pace times for EN1, EN2, and EN3 for everyone based on T-30’s. One of the by-products of the tests is that I can use the initial test of 400’s to establish training paces. I use that more than the T-30 now. I use the numbers I got from Jonty Skinner as far as the different energy systems compare. The 3 x 400’s was right on EN3 pace when I compared it to the paces derived from a recent T-30

I used to take about four or five weeks to get up to full yardage. Now I don’t get to full yardage until about two thirds of the season. I hold it for about four or five weeks. That peak is about 80,000. But I do not know how important volume is. When I go from 65,000 to 70,000 in a week I see a huge jump in performance. I know I need to be at least at that level. We start at about 30,000.

If you want your swimmers to continue to progress then you need to stay with a long term progression. If they hit maximum yardage at a young age they may be with you for three or four years but then they’re shot. Resist the temptation to bring them up the progress too fast. Plot the anaerobic work and the total volume across several years and stick to that progression.

We won’t see the effects of all the work and planning we have done for the whole team for another four or five years but I feel a great deal of confidence with this type of progression. We have to look at the long term results.

It’s hard to record all the data of the test sets during the test set . I only work with eight swimmers so if you work with more it is really hard. But it is important.

On our non-test sets I am going to use heart rate this year to monitor if they are in the right system.

I don’t let the timing of the Christmas time traditional hell week training drive our season plan. If we are approaching the end of strategy 1 then fine, otherwise we don’t do the over training.

The peak for the anaerobic sprinter or middle distance swimmer are a couple of weeks into strategy 2.

I am going to try to see how heart rates and goal paces correlate. I am going to start out giving them paces and heart rates and have the heart rate be the drive and see where the paces are. Your EN3 is going to change from day to day. We  will go 3 x 400’s  descend 1 3 on 5 minutes. (This   in not a test set.) The pace on the last one is usually fast. Then I have them swim and easy 200 and then they go 15 x 100 at the pace they held on the last 400. I have a pretty good idea that, that is as close as we can get to EN3 on that particular day.


We may look at goals times for the end of the season and base test set times on those goal times and see what happens. We don’t know if there is a correlation. We don’t know how to predict end of season times from the test sets but we are working on it.

I have 8 swimmers and their ability is pretty close. Alex’s group is larger and the ability range is much greater. He uses the same type of progressions I do. The kids have to get good at navigating, and passing, and being passed without anyone slowing down. They do it. On the 200’s and 400’s all we need to do is record when they come in, assuming they are taking 15 seconds rest and later we can figure out the times. It’s work to get all the times but it is worth it.

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