A Tale of Two Seasons by Jonty Skinner (1997)


There are some things lacking in swimming in our country. One of the major ones is the fact that we do not communicate very well. We do not have a very standardized system of communication and this isn’t just in the energy system categorization but in all fields of coaching — biomechanical descriptions, and more. It is hard to communicate with each other if we do not have a standardized system of communication. You might have a good conversation with a close coaching friend because you both know what you are talking about but to transfer information to a larger group of people is harder to do. I will introduce this presentation by giving you how I think, how I interpret, training categories, and how I apply them on a day to day basis. What I am going to cover today is the training information generated through the resident program from the 1995 preparation for the Pan-Pacific Games and the 1996 preparation for the Olympic trials.

I am talking about a group of athletes who are in their mid-twenties. This does not translate well to developmental athletes or age group athletes. The training volumes do not translate well. However, the concepts and the approach should. So do not simply take the numbers and apply them to your age group swimmers. I am using US Swimming’s training categories as described in a handbook two years ago. I have not changed them much at all. I will take you through them so you know what I am talking about.

Endurance level 1, EN1, is a pulse range of 120 to 140. It has a significant impact in improvement on heart stroke volume. It effects the amount of blood your heart pumps with every beat. The normal person pumps 75 to 80 micro liters. Cross country skiers have been recorded at up to 200. This starts at about 75 percent of VO2 max and goes all the way up to VO2 max. It also improves the capillary network. It improves fat metabolism which is glycogen sparing. The emphasize is technique efficiency. About 50 percent of the training over a year is done in EN1. It varies during the year but at the end it is 50 percent. You are swimming perfect strokes every lap. My athletes count their strokes almost every lap. When we list the criteria for this type of training, pulse rate comes first. Therefore they have to keep their pulse rate within a specific zone. The second criteria is their stroke count. The last criteria is repeat times. I believe that we spend too much time putting the repeat time as the number one priority. The kids get confused. They spend too much time chasing other kids or racing. It is the least important criteria.

Endurance Level 2, EN2: The heart rate range is approximately 140 to 160. The stroke volume is still working for you. It continues to improve the capillary network. We have a little bit different effect in that it improves the steady state level. In EN2 you are producing lactate but you are also flushing it as fast as you produce it. EN2 has more of an effect on the muscles whereas EN1 has more of a general effect on the whole body. The emphasis is basically the same — on technique and efficiency. In my opinion when you do any kind of training in EN1 and above, if you are not putting technique and efficiency as the number one priority for your athletes then both you and your athletes are wasting your time. The criteria for EN2 is basically the same as for EN1. Pulse rate is the first criteria, stroke count or stroke frequency is the second criteria, and repeat time is number 3. Maybe the stroke frequency is a little faster than EN1, maybe the pulse rate a little higher, but athletes come to practice on a daily basis and they are not always the same based on school studies, nutrition, sleep patterns, and social life. Therefore they need to listen to their bodies and in some cases they might swim slower on Tuesday than they did on Monday for a variety of different reasons. If you push them on the repeat times they will get frustrated. Use pulse rate and stroke frequency first. About 20 to 30 percent of all training in a year is in this system.

Endurance level 3, EN3: A lot of people like to refer to this system as VO2 max. In my opinion EN1, EN2, EN3 are all aerobic training. We are dealing here with maximum oxygen uptake. At some point the athlete cannot absorb any more oxygen. We start to deal with buffering capacity as lactate acid build up in the muscles. You also have to deal with tolerating the lactate acid and in my opinion that happens in both a mental and physical level. The emphasis changes a little bit with more attention to speed of the repeats but do not forget technique and efficiency. It gets harder to count strokes so you might allow more leeway in the counting of strokes and perhaps count for them, but it still needs to be there. You might be more interested in a tempo time combination where you are more interested in stroke frequency. That’s my number one criteria. The second criteria is stroke count in relationship to the time and frequency. The last criteria is pulse rate. So the order of criteria has change a little bit. We do about 3 to 5 percent of our training in EN3.

Now we get into the anaerobic zone, even though EN3 can be considered part of the anaerobic zone.

SP1: Anaerobic and aerobic metabolism are very far apart, very different. This training zone is very good at improving the anaerobic. This zone is one of the most dangerous zones you can train in. You can over train your swimmers very quickly and very easily in this zone. It improves pain threshold which is a mental thing in my opinion, especially when working with developmental swimmers. They sometime can put out a lot more than they think they can. The emphasis is speed but technique and efficiency continues to be important. The criteria begins with tempo time up front because this is a very specific process. Stroke count is important. Pulse rate is at maximum. At the end of the year, total volume of SP1 is .3% of the total yardage.

SP2: The effect is maximum lactate production. We want to put them in an environment where they produce as much as they can. They need a lot of rest between repeats so they can recover and be ready for the next repeat. The emphasis is on speed. It is a little harder to work on technique and efficiency. Racing skills are important because this simulates the race. The criteria is tempo, time, stroke count, and pulse rate.

SP3: Alactate work is short sprints. The maximum distance would be 25 meters. With younger swimmers 25’s may take too long. I would say that swims should be no longer than 12 seconds in duration. It enhances the creatine in storage. The emphasis is speed. This is very specific to racing so the frequency needs to be the same as racing. You are wasting your time if you are doing this type of swimming at frequencies that are slower than racing frequencies.

So that give you an idea of how I define the different energy systems and how I use them on a day to day basis. We have to find a common language. The longer we take to do it the worse off we are going to be as a country swimming power. We have no standardized testing method in this country. We talk t-30’s but outside of that there is nothing very standardized. In my program the nuts and bolts of what we do revolves around testing. I also feel that we do not train well back to front. That means that in the planning process you put your emphasis on the main meet at the end of the season and plan backwards. You figure your taper, you figure your speed sequence, you figure your development sequence and you go backwards.

If you have a talented athlete who is 12 years old and you say to yourself that there were a couple of 14 year olds on the Olympic team you might need to sit down and write a three year plan for this athlete. You start three years out and plan backwards. If you just start training carte blanc and go forward you are jeopardizing that athletes potential to make an Olympic team.

One of the testing things we do is called a lactate velocity curve. We are swimming 5 200’s on 4:30 taking a lactate sample after each 200 from the ear immediately after the swim. The swims are descended. We are looking for a positive shift of the curve which means they are swimming at the same speed with less lactate.

I am going to talk about two seasons, the summer of 1995 and the Olympic preparation. My mind set was that I wanted to take this group of 11 to 13 athletes and push them as hard as I could push them without going overboard. It is really hard to take 13 athletes that you have never coached before and get them ready for a major meet like the Olympic trails — to get to know them, to know their needs, to know their idiosyncrasies. They are all different.

In the summer of 1995 I pushed them really hard and took notes and watched them. We did a six week training sequence in the anaerobic speed phase from late May to early July which followed a fairly long endurance aerobic from the fall of 94 and a short EN3 emphasis in February of 1995. In that February we went three weeks in a row increasing the EN3 load in the athlete. That anaerobic speed phase from May to early July was the only anaerobic work we did from October of 1994 until the Pan Pacs in 1995.  I put three weeks of training into the SP1 zone. From late May to mid-June the main emphasis of training was in the SP1 zone. We training in all the other categories but the number one workout of the day was the SP1 workout while they were fresh.

The second three weeks we placed the emphasis on the SP2 zone. No SP1 work, all SP2 emphasis and maintenance in the other systems. I do the lactate velocity curves on a regular basis, however we always do our anaerobic training at sea level. In 1995 we spent three weeks in Corpus Christi, Texas in a very nice environment and were treated very well. We also spent three weeks in Santa Clara, California. When we go to sea level we immediately do the lactate velocity curve. In 1995 the best curve was just before the six weeks of anaerobic training and the worst curve was just after the anaerobic training, three weeks before Pan Pac trials. Twelve of the thirteen athletes had significant negative shifts in the lactate velocity curve. In all cases the athletes performed very well at Pan Pacs trials. When we came back to train Pan Pacs trials I gave them a week and a half to two weeks off. We did three weeks of preparation training and then six weeks of endurance training and we redid the lactate velocity test and found the curves finally got back to the level of fitness we saw just before the anaerobic training before Pan Pacs in May of 1995.

When I saw those graphs in July of 1995 I didn’t say anything to the athletes. I did another curve seven days out and they didn’t look good until almost the day they swam and then they came around and being the great athletes they are they saved my butt and swam fast. I had to make a change because I was not very comfortable with these graphs. I went back and looked at the date and made a plan. I felt the anaerobic exposure period of six weeks was too long and I felt the emphasis in the SP1 and SP2 didn’t balance very well with the anaerobic emphasis in the EN3 zone. The idea was to increase the volume in EN3, decrease volume in SP1 and SP2, and create a better anaerobic balance for a shorter period of exposure. The desired effect would be to still have them perform very well but to maintain conditioning far more effectively.

During the preparation for the Olympic games we did in fact see the curve continue to improve through the anaerobic period of training. This was very positive and exciting to me.

Now, looking at the training volumes in 1995 and 1996, in the EN3 category in 1996 we had a lot more emphasis then in 1995. In 1995 we were pretty much less than 1,500 a week whereas we had some weeks in the 3,000 to 3,500 range in 1996. For SP1, in 1995 there was a huge emphasis in the first three weeks, however in 1996 we kind of spread it out with a little less influence on a weekly basis. With SP2 there was a lot more emphasis in 1995 in the last three weeks whereas in 1996 we were more spread out. (I include all competitions in the day to day training analysis.)

Looking at 1995 and 1996 in the average per week there was a distinctive drop in the EN2 volume. The reason this happened is because I wanted to include a test to evaluate the athletes on a weekly basis. Every Friday morning we did an active drag test which is two thirty meter sprints, one free, one dragging a device behind them. We look at the relationship between the two sprints. If I felt they did well I allowed them to do a hard workout on Saturday. If the test was not up to baseline then Saturday morning’s workout could have been anything from a 3,000 loosen up and get out to a moderate aerobic workout. Someone like Amy Van Dyken never did a hard workout on Saturday morning. Maybe the people who swim 100’s and 200’s have a better ability to train hard three times a week and those who train 50’s and 100’s have less of an ability to train hard three times a week. We used this test to keep me from making that kind of mistake. I gave up what I would consider a normal maintenance aerobic workout on Friday morning and put in the test and that is why there is this significant drop in EN2 volume from 1995 to 1996.

You can see that in the average volume per week EN3 was significantly higher in 1996, SP1 and SP2 was lower, and SP3 was also lower.

My opinion of what happened here was that we had two seasons that are basically the same in terms of performance. The kids performed very well in the summer of 1995 and they performed very well in the Olympic trials in 1996. However, the training effect, long term, was very different. The training effect of the 1995 season was very different in the long term than the training effect of 1996. If it is a season ending meet, one where there is nothing important for three of four years, then maybe the way I prepared the athletes the way I did in 1995 is OK, because they swam very fast. However, if you want to continue the development of the athlete, to keep going on if you have another competition in the summer or next year for that matter, then the way we trained in 1995 is not very adequate because you are going to have to re climb the same territory that you had already climbed in the previous season. Especially with developmental athletes it isn’t very good. You want them to start where they left off in the last season. You want the adaptations to be pushing them forward rather than having them regain what they once had but lost. I really think this is very critical.

In 1997 I only trained two people and I did it a little differently. I wanted to go back and put more emphasis in the SP2 and SP3 area. I thought we were somewhat lacking in that area. And I wanted to maintain the emphasis in the EN3 area. Our lactate velocity curve has not moved back at all. I have been able to increase the SP2 profile, and the SP3 profile, maintain the EN3 profile, and have a similar result that I had in 1996.

I am giving you this information for a point. And that is that I am able to make adjustments in training for these reasons: first, I test my athletes on a regular basis; and second, I keep extensive amounts of information about their training— I could not survive without computers.

In looking at the comparison of volumes for 1995, 1996, and 1997, you can see from the chart the similarities and differences. You will notice that in SP1 we did no training in that category in 1997. I think it is a very dangerous zone.

To recap, I think that some programs by the very nature of the choices they make for the training of their athletes put their athletes into a situation where they will gain negative returns after they reach maturity. An athlete is always going to get better as long as they are growing. They are going to get faster. You are going to think you are doing a great job. Once they reach physical maturity, all of a sudden you can’t figure out why your athletes are not swimming faster year after year. They actually get slower. Unfortunately, the majority of college programs in this country are not training for the long term. They put a huge anaerobic emphasis on their athletes to prepare them for the short course season. They may improve as freshmen and sophomores but as juniors they may not and as seniors they may be slower. If you have no stats or information you won’t be able to figure out why. A possible solution to those athletes who start college out well and then end up going backwards is to look at the levels of EN3, SP1, and SP2.

The high emphasis on the anaerobic side has a huge influence on mechanics. The more work you do in the anaerobic area, the greater effect it has on biomechanical efficiency. You might improve the anaerobic profile, you might improve their ability to produce energy anaerobically, but in 1995, the races were ugly. They took too many strokes to get the time that they did. In 1996 they were far more efficient to do an equal or faster time.

You have these choices. These choices have a lot of implications. If you are a club coach it is very easy to get involved in the anaerobic system when they are in the 12 to 16 age. They go fast, they look good, you look good. However, in the long term you create complications. You might hurt their biomechanics to a degree to where they lose a little in their efficiency. As stroke count goes up, frequency gets lower. As tempo goes up, distance per stroke goes down. In an ideal world an inch in distance per stroke equates to about four tenths of a second per fifty in freestyle and backstroke and about two to three tenths of a second in breaststroke and butterfly. What you do as a developmental coach with a developmental program and how much emphasis you place on biomechanics, how much emphasis you place in the total training environment in terms of continued adaptation of the athlete will predetermine whether that athlete has Olympic potential or not. You can have the best potential athlete in your program at age 12 and you can do an number of things wrong. You can start the anaerobic influence too early. You can pay too little attention to mechanics. In the long term they will never make it. You have to make those decisions.

The information I have shown you today shows the type of training you do in the anaerobic sequence will have an implication on the long term training of the athletes. The higher the anaerobic influence without a good balancing effect and good emphasis on mechanics will have and implication on their racing skills and their ability in the long term to be successful.

Responses to questions:

  1. How many athletes can you coach and still do the necessary testing and record keeping?
  2. When you are a club coach and you have 20 or 40 swimmers and you are the only coach it is tough. We do not give the athletes enough credit for what they can do on a day to day basis. If you take the time to educate the athletes as to the long term plan and goals are, and what their responsibilities are for that long term plan and goals, they can plan a huge role in day to day training. They respond to it. They like it. They like being responsible for counting their strokes. They like feeling at the end of the day that they had some part in what goes on. I know it easy to stand here and say all this, but I have been in your position also. It does work. Get some facts. They get fired up. Education. Responsibility on the athlete. We are too used to spoon feeding and coddling the athlete. It is up to the athlete to get the job done. If they can’t do it by the time they get to the blocks they you have done something wrong in the preparation period.
  1. All your data relates to 50, 100, and 200 swimmers. How does the data chance for the longer events?
  2. I would speculate that would be a significant decrease in SP3, a significant decrease in SP2, a little more influence in SP1 during the endurance phase, and a significant increase in the EN2 and EN3 categories.
  3. In the 100, how fast should the first 50 be based on the swimmers best 50 time.
  1. It varies. The athletes are all different. They swim the race differently based on their physiology. There is the aspect of aerobic versus anaerobic fibers. There is a flotation aspect. If you have a sinker, you might have a different race strategy and your training strategies may be based on the race strategy. You have to know your athlete. Once you know those things you can determine their splits, how many strokes per lap to take, their frequency — once you know all that then you can plan backwards. I have an athlete with great feel and huge hands but he is a sinker. He dives in with a full breath of air and sinks to the bottom. His physiology says he should be a 200 breaststroker but because he is a sinker, to train for the 200 works against him. I don’t know if it is do-able. There should be a strong relationship between the stroke count for 50 meters for EN1, EN2, EN3, SP1, SP2, and SP3 to what you do in a race. I don’t know what that relationship is, but I know it is there. When I find it, it will only be specific to the athlete I am working with.
  2. Training young swimmers for the long term in a club setting is difficult because the parents want immediate improvement and fast times now, not later.
  3. There is a fault with our system. We talk about it all the time — age group rankings, age group competitions, age group events. We’re not going to change the system but I am hoping to influence some people on how they think.
  4. What can you do to help sinkers with stroke technique?
  1. I put fins on them. Don’t be scared of putting fins on swimmers to get body position and momentum because it helps them learn better. You might think that you are causing a long term problem but I don’t think it is a problem at all.
  2. How many times a week do you do EN3?
  3. The normal frequency of training would be Monday is aerobic, Tuesday is anaerobic emphasis and obviously EN3 is part of that, Wednesday is total recovery, Thursday is anaerobic emphasis with EN3 being a part of that day, Friday morning is the drag test and Friday afternoon is aerobic maintenance, Saturday is recovery or acing skills depending on their ability to handle the work.
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