Myth Busting: Challenging Received Opinion in Swim Coaching by Charlie Dragon (2009)


I want to thank all of you for attending The American Swim Coaches Symposium. I want to thank Speedo for the watches they provided for our Speakers. Without the ongoing support of our sponsors it would be difficult to provide a quality event like this where we can learn, ask questions, gather information and hopefully expand our potential. I am here to introduce our next presenter. It is Charlie Dragon. He is presently working with Mecklenburg and Dave Marsh. He brings some unique insights on many topics. He has 11 years of summer league coaching which in itself provides a tremendous vision. Summer league is where many of us started, be it as swimmers or in coaching. Some of you did as I did from there and said I might as well hang around for another 39 years. Summer league was my first coaching job and I reflect back on those early years. In addition to that start, Charlie’s education is unique. He earned a Masters Degree in Philosophy. Working with Dave Marsh and the Mecklenburg program is also a great opportunity from which I expect Charlie will offer some fine insights. I am honored to bring you Charlie Dragon to present his talk on “Myth Busting.”

Hello. First I would like to thank John Leonard for inviting me here a little over a year ago. Anticipating and preparing for this clinic has kept me going. It kept me motivated to learn and to think during the last year and a half. I am also thankful to the people along the way who have encouraged me. They encouraged me to believe that at some point someone is going to be interested in what I have to say. Russell Mark who works for us at USA Swimming asked me what my talks are about. I said I guess the best title of my talks would be “welcome to my brain.” You will see what I mean as the talk goes on. I hope you enjoy what is in there. I have been thinking about these ideas (in my brain) for a long time. In my past life as a PhD student in Philosophy I had a Philosophy Professor who told me that there are two kinds of people who study philosophy. Some are interested in the questions and other people are interested in the answers. The people who are interested in the answers often become kind of dogmatists. Dogmatists have their ideas and no matter what you say, they hold firm to their ideas. My professor was interested in the questions as am I. So I am here to raise some questions, look at some arguments and think things through in a way that leaves the actual answers up to you.

When we study an argument made by Aristotle, what matters is the logic of the argument. It does not matter that he made it or if it is true or not. All that matters is if the argument is logical. Is it sound? With that as our prism from which to study things (is it logical) let’s move from the philosophy world into the regular world. In swim coaching then, let’s assess if a position is really sound rather than base our assessment on what coach said it or what athlete that coach got to a certain level of performance.

I will quote a number of people in this talk starting with Jonty Skinner. Jonty wrote an article called, “Thinking Outside the Box in the fifty and hundred meter events.” Pardon, I don’t know when that article was published. In the article he wrote, “I have said many times over that our sport tends to be incestuous by the way we pass down and share information. This, in my opinion, tends to propagate errors that are never questioned and we rarely think outside the box in ways that explore new ground.”

I think most people get into coaching because they had some success as a swimmer and when they start coaching they coach the way they were coached. Does that sound familiar to anyone here? Or they start out as young coaches and end up coaching the way their head coach did. That is how ideas get passed down. They may be good ideas and ways of doing things but what if they are not (sound ideas) and we accept and pass them along without assessing their soundness? The pattern (assumption) seems to be that if it worked for me, it is going to work for the kids I coach.

I am a little different in that regard because I had a mostly negative experience as a swimmer. I swam on some terrible teams. We were brutalized in a negative environment. I suffered a pretty bad injury from it. My friends who I swam with at the time are still my friends today. They are dumbfounded that I am a swim coach. They don’t want anything to do with pools. So I come at this without the traditional kind of bias. The coaching I got did not work for me so as opposed to perpetuating that style and those ideas, I want to approach everything from a blank slate and see what makes sense. Today therefore I am not going to push one view of training over another on you. I admit that I have tendencies and leanings which will probably become clear, but I intend to raise ideas and suggest we think through them and as coaches I suggest that we question what we do. Maybe we will conclude to keep doing the same thing we have been doing or maybe we will come up with a different approach. I think the process will help everybody a great deal. I leave the answers up to you guys, so let’s talk about questions.

We hear people say that a swimmer is good because he swam lots of tough workouts. We hear that all the time, right? We rarely hear that he swam so many tough workouts because he is good. That outlook reverses the cause and effect. Here is a drawing of Angels and Demons. If you look at it one way you see angels. If you look at it the other way you see demons. I am not sure who first made that statement reversing the cause and effect of tough workouts and swimming performance, but I heard it from Mark Gangloff. It is something I never really considered but it makes me think (and question). Perhaps some of the great athletes who do those unbelievable sets do so because they are really good and they can actually hold onto good technique, rather than thinking the set itself made them that good. Maybe it is both. It may be a cyclical relationship. I really don’t know. It is not a cause and effect I would have normally considered.

Maybe he did all of that because he was good first. I don’t think this is idle consideration either. When I look at a top group of swimmers at any age and swimming, those people who are the best swimmers in your workout, it looks easier for them. I don’t mean that the interval is too easy for them. I mean it looks more relaxed for them. It looks easier to a great degree and I think the great athletes find ways to pick their spots and apply force when they need to and relax the rest of the time. They are able to make tough workouts easier for themselves in some way. We need to consider what is the cause and effect. Let’s continue with cause and effect. I love how we coaches spin different results. I love meet results. At a swim meet when our kids perform a certain way we think what caused this performance? What do we say when we get a bad performance? Let’s say at the mid season meet our group swam slowly or our team swam slowly. We look for a cause, don’t we? One of the causes we hear most often is “they have been training really hard.” Maybe you have. Maybe that is an excuse and they should have swum faster or maybe you would say we haven’t been training enough. We swam really slowly because we are out of shape. We hear that one too.

What is the truth in all of that? My favorite is when we spin a positive result. This kind of blows my mind. Let’s say the kids swim really fast at a mid-season meet. I have heard coaches say it is because they are not training enough. I didn’t work them hard enough. They swam fast so something must be wrong. They are not supposed to swim fast now. Rarely do you year a coach say we swam fast at the mid-season meet because we are clicking on all cylinders. Training is going great. We are set up for a great end of the season. These are all ways we spin our answers. We spin our causes and we often spin the causes to fit our mindset. Our mindset reflects how we approach the sport and how we approach our athletes. We spin things to fit what works with our mindset and it often obscures whether something is true or false. It is hard to get out of that kind of mindset and see what is true or not. When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Again, we have our prism in which we view our athletes and we view our programs. If I am a coach that believes hard work and dedication are the most important things out there, then I am going to attribute a result to either a lack of hard work and dedication or a result of hard work and dedication. That is the prism in which I view my athletes. If I believe in the primacy of aerobic work, then I am going to attribute any successes (past, present or future) to aerobic work. This can be true with technique or dry land or whatever prism you see things through. People spin results to match their view. This is not a slight on swim coaches. This is simply human nature. It is human nature. What worries me is when we limit our chance for learning because we only have one tool, as in the hammer and nail analogy. I think our goal at these clinics is to learn as much as possible. We can not afford to have just one tool. Do not be limited by having only one way of viewing your swimmers, your training and the results you get.

The more tools you have and the more knowledge you can absorb, the more likely you will identify the real cause of a result. Humans are too complex to be one thing at one time. We are too complex to be the result of a single period. Rarely can a single moment or an isolated aspect of your whole season totally and accurately explain your result at this moment. The more tools we have lets us get closer to the truth. More tools let us see more clearly and comprehensively and give us a more inclusive prism. By the way, none of us thinks we are like this, me included. I too fall into this way of thinking and seeing things. I want to be better than that; to see things more broadly. I try to stop it from happening, but we all have our ways of viewing things and whenever we see a problem we print our view onto the problem and try to solve it.

“Build a Foundation” is a common theme at age group talks. It is a bedrock belief in swim coaching that our swimmers need a foundation, and that usually means an aerobic foundation from which the rest of their swimming careers are built. Somehow the laps they are doing at 12, 13 or 14 are meant to result in how they score at conference meets when they are 21 and 22. I would like to learn more about that “somehow” because it confuses me a little bit. I can understand that training helps you train down the road. Early training certainly helps your training later on, but is what we seem to accept as a bedrock belief about the need to establish an aerobic foundation early on really true. We are constantly told to build a foundation. What interests me is what do we want to make this foundation of? I can accept that we are going to build a foundation, but what are we going to build it on. You can build it on aerobic conditioning. How much aerobic conditioning is enough? Should we build it on technique? Should we build it on good practice habits such as getting to the pool on time; getting in on time; listening to the coach; doing the sets right; holding your splits? Should we build it on speed? Should we build it on dry land, strength and flexibility? Should we build it on competitiveness? How about a foundation built on fun to develop a love of the sport? How about all of the above? That is a tall order and it is hard to do in equal portions. Are you going to build it on all of the above? We would love to do that. But at some point you are going to have to weigh each one of these possible parts of the foundation. You are going to have to give more weight to one or two of these than the others. Can we agree on that? What each coach chooses to emphasize more than other things is based on your judgment about what your group needs at the time and what your group has shown in the past.

My personal thought is that aerobic conditioning is necessary, but often overdone. I see a huge percentage of our time spent on aerobic. It is important but maybe not quite as much as seems to be the conventional amount. That doesn’t mean that aerobic is unimportant but I think it is sometimes done in too narrow of a way. I mentioned before that I am a proud summer league coach. For all of you out there who coach summer league, I salute you. We do not get the respect we deserve (light chuckle). My summer league was a very old league. It was a sprint league. Ages 10 and younger swam 25’s and the hundred IM. Age 11 and up did 50’s and the hundred IM. If there ever was a true sprint league, that is it for sure. It was an eight week season and a lot of the kids did not swim year round. Once a year my coach would do the mile swim with all the kids. It had nothing to do with our racing. There was no connection between our summer league sprint racing and swimming this mile. But the kids loved it. Year after year they loved it and the coach would write their names and their times down. If you were young like age 6 or 7 and you just joined the team, you could do 20 laps. That would be fine. We would record the 20 laps or some maybe did half the mile and we would record that. That was fine. You could kick if you wanted to. You could stop at the wall if you wanted to and get a drink. Swim the mile as best you can and we would record your time. Some of the younger kids take 45 minutes or an hour to do the mile. The amount of pride that I would see in those kids making that accomplishment was incredible. It was incredible and I think that is a way of training aerobically that is interesting and motivating.

I remember there was a seven year old girl one summer named Mattie. She was tiny and built like a stick. If we asked Mattie to do a 50 at the beginning of the summer she would start crying. Flip turns made her cry. Everything made her cry. But she would always come to practice. We got to the day of the mile swim. In the back of my mind I am thinking oh God, for Mattie this must be the worst day of her life to swim a mile. I am expecting her to cry. Mattie starts swimming the mile and every four or five laps I would stop her and ask Mattie, “Are you okay”? I assured her she did not have to do this. It is OK to stop. No, no I am fine she said. Mattie got to about 20 laps, then 30 laps and I turned to the head coach and said Jim, I can’t believe this. Mattie is still going and I remember the last time I stopped Mattie and said, “Mattie, are you okay? She got kind of angry at me for stopping her. She responded, come on, I am swimming. She swam the whole mile. For a girl to start a season the way she did and 6 weeks later swim a mile is amazing aerobic training. It was really fun aerobic training and not aerobic training that is forced on them. It was not presented as do it on a set interval or you are a failure. This is an open-ended way to swim a mile and we gave them a little certificate. For a 7 year old girl, I think that is a pretty cool thing.

Something I want to bring up is competitiveness, as in teaching it. It is not something we talk about in training. We talk about kids that have it and we want kids to be competitive, but I don’t know if we talk about training them to be competitive. I think as our sport grows and with the tendency away from being competitive in gym class and with kids spending less time outdoors in pick-up sport games, we have to deal with teaching them to be competitive. As age group coaches we will get kids who aren’t competitive. I think it is one of the most intractable problems I have as a coach. I do not know what to do with a kid who is not competitive. My mother is not competitive at all. She never joined a swim team. We get kids who join who do not seem to care about winning at all. We have to figure out ways to make them competitive or at least make them comfortable at being competitive to some degree. I think that can be done through practice situations by putting kids in competition in practice. I like putting kids in relays. In practice relays they may start out ahead or behind and they can’t look next to them and say that kid is faster or slower and predetermine the outcome the way they sometimes do in meets. We can train competitiveness. I think that swimming might actually attract less competitive kids. I think in basketball for example, if you miss shots all the time you are going to get embarrassed. In baseball if you are striking out all the time you are going to feel embarrassed. In swimming if you are in the back of the lane going back and forth, no one is really on your case. We might have this problem more than pee-wee football for instance which may not lack competitiveness, especially from the parents.

Let’s look at the golf shot analogy. This pertains to what age do we want our kids to peak as athletes. At what age do we want them to be their best? I look at the career of an athlete in terms of a graph with the vertical access being achievement in the sport and the horizontal one being the athlete’s age. Drawing from the golf shot analogy, to go as high as possible on this graph you need to hit a driver. Imagine the flight of a driver. When you hit the ball it starts out low and it goes really long and then it kind of goes up really fast, far away from you and then it comes down. Compare that to how you hit a nine iron. A nine iron shot goes up really quickly and then down. It does not go nearly as far. We do not want our kids career to be like the a shot with a nine iron where they go up fast and then drop down fairly early too. They would peak and stop growing too early. Ask yourself what club do you want to hit with; to guide your swimmer’s career? Do we want to hit with a 9 iron or do we want to hit with a driver? None of us likes seeing kids ranked in top 16 at ten years old and then barely get better when they are 12 years old. We have got to think about how we train them. Which club do we go with? We want to be sure we hit the driver to ensure their long term development. That way they slowly come up and maybe they reach their best in college or even beyond college.

What is interesting is that those advocating a solid aerobic foundation in the early years agree with this. They say that too much speed at an early age shortens a swimmer’s long term development and career. Of course, the other side argues that too much volume early on is what shortens careers. What prism do we look through and what really makes sense? What is right? This might be a bit of a touchy subject, but we all know teams where the kids are amazing from 10 or 11 to 14, and their senior swimmers are sort of mediocre. Getting back to cause and effect, we often see people blame the senior coaches. Age group coaches may say we are tearing it up in our groups so how come the senior program is not doing as well. We may not take time to question if what we do in the age group ranks is limiting their growth later on. Maybe we are hitting with a 7 or 9 iron rather than the driver early on. It is a possibility. It is something to consider.

I think there are upper limits to the stress most people can handle physically and if we hit those upper limits by the time they are 13 or 14 it is very hard to go further than that. They will probably make incremental improvement, but I do not think they will make big improvement, so if we hit their maximum stress level at 13-14 we are likely to be hitting with a shorter golf club. Does that make sense? If this makes sense then why are we not always hitting with the club that ensures long term progress? Why aren’t we hitting with drivers all the time and why is this even an issue? If we more carefully choose the club that projects longer term development, our younger kids might not place as well at meets and this could be a concern for people. We may not have the best younger swimmers at meets if we forgo some things to favor their longer term development. They will probably be pretty good. They will probably be very competitive, but you might still get beat by a team that is really creaming them at the younger ages. Do you want to take that? Are you willing to take that as a team and as a professional coach? Like it or not we make our careers based on the times people swim. If our kids are not winning or swimming fast times, that might hurt us or hurt our bottom line. For a number of reasons, I think it is hard for us to ask and talk about tough questions. It is something that needs to be looked at if that if a club or a coach wants to serve their athletes with the best possible program so they peak later in their careers when they are physically mature. Looking at long term development has big financial considerations. Some could make the argument that it is OK if swimmers are their best at 14 or 15 because they are not going to swim past college and professional swimming is in its infancy. Some may therefore argue let’s get them going now.

But I think as our sport matures the age of our athletes is going to shift higher and higher. I was watching the World Championships in track this summer and the commentators would introduce each athlete, referring to the 22 years old as just a kid in the sport. In track you are a kid at 22. There are probably sports that need teenage athletes. Those are probably sports that are size dependent like gymnastics where being really small is an advantage. It may be an advantage in diving. I don’t know diving that well. Tennis seems to favor a slightly little younger athlete, but that is probably due to the toll on their legs. Tennis is an injury prone sport. I think most athletes and most professional sports hit their peak in their late 20’s to early 30’s. Women may be a little bit younger than that. I think swimming will keep getting better as we see older athletes competing and if we train them with the long term in mind. I think if we kill them in training at 14 and 15, they can’t swim that level of intensity for another 10 to 15 years. That has been my experience. Are there any questions? If so let me know and I will stop at any point.

What skills do we value most? That is a question that we have to ask ourselves when we train children. I think we agree about the value of skill building at a young age. It seems easier to learn many things when you are younger. Foreign language seems easier to learn. Math seems easier to learn. Music seems easier to learn at a younger age. We talk about a window for aerobic development at a younger age. There probably is a window for aerobic development. Is there a window for nothing else? Is aerobic development the only thing with a window during which you have to get it? Is there no window during which to develop technique or for skill building? If you really impart good technique at a young age, maybe they are set up for more of that in the future. Is there no window on flexibility? Is there no window on strength training? How come it is aerobic development that has this special window? I think there are probably a lot of things that can be imprinted on kids at a young age if we build those skills into them when they are young. I find it interesting how old marathoners are. Did you ever notice that? I think the woman that won the Olympic marathon last year was 39 and a lot of marathoners talk about not training for marathons until you are in your twenties. They don’t think training for marathons at a young age is a good thing. They think if you train for a marathon when you are younger it will negatively impact you when you are older. Some say you only have so many miles in you. My question do we not have anything analogous in our sport? Sure, a marathon is way longer than any of our events, but we think you have to do the big events when you are young and you can sprint when you are old. It is interesting to think that building for a marathon seems to be the opposite. You have to wait until you are physically ready to do something like a marathon.

I remember a coach commenting to me about Usain Bolt, the great Olympic 100 and 200 meter running champion. As a youngster his coach kept him higher at the 400. That is analogous to our sport. The coach kept him at the 400 but he excelled at the 100 and 200 later on. It is important to note though that the 400 is about a 45 second race in track. It is not really distance at all. So his distance base was a 45 second race. I was talking with a kid who runs cross-country and he was telling me about his training. He runs for an old school cross country coach. He gets up to about like 80 miles a week in running. From what I understand marathoners do 80 to 100 miles a week at their peak. This young man is running a 3.1 mile race and doing about 80 miles a week and the marathoner is running a race eight times as long doing roughly the same amount of miles. We might think that doesn’t make sense. He doesn’t need to run that much does he? Well in swimming we train a kid to do a 50 second race pretty much the same way that we train one to do a 4 minute, 10 minute or a 15 minute race. The point is to ask questions about this and make some comparisons to other sports and see what we decide.

Let’s get into some science. Can we get fit in 6 minutes a week? This is actually relevant. I am going to quote from a study that trained rats in a pool. You can’t get any more accurate than that for us, right? Rats in the pool seem to relate to what we do. There he is, swimming along. This is from June 24, 2009. I am going to quote at length. This has some fascinating results that are counterintuitive, at least to what I expected. Researchers at the National Institute of Health and Nutrition in Japan put rats through a series of swim tests. They divided the rats into two groups with two exercise protocols. Group I paddled in a small pool for 6 hours as two sessions of three hours each. Yes, I said 2 times 3 hours for a total of six hours. That is long swimming for the rats. The rats in group II were made to stroke furiously through short intense bouts of swimming while carrying ballast to increase their work load. They were weighed down so they had to swim furiously simply to avoid going under. After 20 seconds the weighted rats were scooped out and allowed to rest for about 10 seconds. So they would swim 20 seconds with the weight and then rest 10 seconds and then swim 20 seconds on weight and then rest 10 seconds etc. It kind of sounds like what we do, doesn’t it? Scientists had the rats repeat these brief strenuous swims 14 times for a total of about 4 ½ minutes. So the Group II rats were training really hard for 4 ½ minutes. The rats in group I went for 6 hours. Afterward the researchers tested each rat’s muscle fibers and found, as expected, that the rats that went for a 6 hour swim showed preliminary molecular changes that would increase endurance. Interestingly the second group of rats which exercised for less than 5 minutes total showed the same molecular changes for endurance. That does not seem to make sense, does it? The rats that busted their butt for 20 seconds and then rested for ten seconds showed the same molecular changes in endurance as the ones that went for 6 hours. That surprised me.

Martin Gibala (PhD) is the Chairman of the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. He said scientific literature used to say that the only way to improve endurance capacity was from long term exercise bouts such as long runs or bike rides; or perhaps swims that took six hours. Research at Gibala’s lab seems to be challenging those beliefs. They conducted a study where they had healthy but not athletic college students ride a stationary bicycle. One group rode at a sustainable pace for 90 to 120 minutes. The other group rode intensely for 20 to 30 seconds, then rested about four minutes and repeated that pattern four to six times for a total of two or three minutes of intense exercise. Both groups exercised three times a week. After two weeks both groups showed almost identical changes for endurance as measured by a stationary bike time trial. Also, changes in the number and size of mitochondria were the same for each group. Once again, this is weird again isn’t it? There is a catch though. For the short intense bouts to produce these results, the efforts must hurt. Gibala called the required output as an all-out effort. You will be strained well out of your comfort zone. To get these adaptations, the very short strenuous bursts have to be a true maximum effort. It is fascinating though that they got similar improvements in endurance to the people who stayed on the bike for 90 to 120 minutes.

Let’s continue that line of thinking and let’s return to Jonty Skinner’s article about thinking outside the box in the 50 and the 100 swim races. Personally I would like to change his title from thinking outside the box for the 50 and 100 to thinking outside the box in swim training and competition. Anyway, it is interesting that the 400 meter run on a track and the 100 freestyle swim race are similar in duration, but the training regimens for each are typically very different. Track athletes training for the 400 spend a much larger amount of time in the anaerobic energy area. They also tend to do a lot of stretching. They do a lot of high intensity explosive work and they do light jogging to warm down. The point I want to make is that there seem to be different ways to get the same results. We are getting good results in the 100 freestyle and track is getting good results in the 400, but we are doing it in very different ways. I am not saying we should do what track does and stop doing what we do. I am just suggesting that we think about different ways to approach the same event. I think it is fascinating that two swimmers on our USA 4 x 100 relay at Worlds this summer, Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps, come from well known distance backgrounds with a focus on 400 IM training. That is fascinating to me and maybe even unexpected, but it happens. Conventional thinking suggests that a swimmer can come down in distance as they age, if the aerobic base is set early. I choose to ask if what they did as teenagers makes them fast now or is it what they are doing now that makes them fast in the hundred free? Was it their teenage endurance training or their current strength and speed work that makes them great at the 100 distance today?

Aerobic swimming does not make you swim fast. It helps you recover better from fast swimming. Skinner’s contention is that aerobic, cardiovascular conditioning’s primary purpose is to support the mature sprinter’s recovery from high intensity training. A well developed base conditioning phase will facilitate a more effective recovery process and a sprinter that recovers better will be able to sustain training loads of higher intensities. Sprinters that can sustain this level of high intensity training at a greater frequency for a longer period of time will have a greater chance of achieving their potential. The idea is that aerobic training lets athletes recover better from sprint training. That means they can sprint train more often and at higher levels. I am not trying to push answers on any of you, but this makes sense to me. Before I came to Swim-MAC I was with a team that practiced on the low yardage side, sprint side. I felt our kids could race pretty fast. I thought the kids could do a lot of things well but wow, they broke down during meets and they broke down practice to practice. We couldn’t go six good practices in a week. When I came to Swim-MAC I was amazed how much faster the kids recover. They do a tough practice and the next day these kids are bouncing around on deck ready to go. From my past experience, I didn’t expect that. I did not expect them to be energetic on a Sunday morning of a three day meet. They are and I think a lot of that comes from their ability to recover from their fast swimming, and I think a lot of that comes from their aerobic training.

Let’s talk a little more about the aerobic component of races. I am drawing from an article called “Evaluating Energy Zones in Swimming” from the April 2009 issue in Swimming World. The article states that the main energy system for exercise bouts of 30 seconds to 3 minutes is anaerobic metabolism. Aerobic metabolism is the main energy system for distances longer than 4 minutes. However, there are no hard boundaries between these energy systems. Dave Salo made that point yesterday. It is not one or the other when it comes to energy systems and races. It is both but in different proportions for different race distances. The aerobic system is less than 50% responsible as an energy source in ten of fourteen races as those races take less than four minutes. In ten out of 14 races, anaerobic is the main energy source.

I think the debate about aerobic training versus anaerobic or sprint training went down the wrong road when it became an either or. It is not either or. It is not do it this way or do it that way. It is figuring out what each system does right and using each system for what it doese well. And if aerobic swimming helps you recover better in events that last 4 minutes and less, then it is extremely important and it needs to be part of one’s preparation. In philosophy we call it a “false dilemma” when an argument suggests there are only two choices when there may be other choices to resolve the questions. In swimming that would be the notion that we need to train either in the old traditional way or in this new, maybe weird sprint type way. We do not have to limit ourself to an either or way of seeing things. We need to decide how much of each is going to be helpful to make your swimmers better. This is a zero sum game. Spending time in one area is not spending time in another. Each time I write a workout unfortunately, I think about what I am not doing. That can be a distraction. So you get the full range of things done in training, you have to know what you are not doing as well as what you are doing. The kids have limited attention spans and we have limited time. We cannot hit everything each workout. It would be great if we could do it all but we can’t so when you create a training program, think about what you are not doing as well as what you are doing. It would be easy if something clearly didn’t work because we could quickly dismiss it. Since traditional endurance and sprint programs both have merit, we need to decide what to do and how much of each option we include in our program. Traditional training is working so it can not be dismissed outright despite what science seems to be telling us. What I want to get into is why? Why is it working? If the science and the rats in the pool tell us that we can create great milers by just making them sprint for 20 seconds, how come traditional training is working so well? And if we have evidence that some swimmers on traditional, volume base training swim exceptionally fast 50’s and 100’s, why is that and what does that imply for our training choices? Some people go really fast 100 times doing 10,000 a day. That is not supposed to happen but it does. The question is why? What is the answer? I don’t have an answer. I have some ideas. I think there are some strong positive side-effects to the traditional model. I want to work through them with you. I am interested to hear what you think about this because I came from a traditional training program that did not work out for me.

Number One: Long hard sets create positive self-talk. Doing all those laps with so much time spent at elevated heart rates and all the lactic acid buffering creates strong mental habits, for those who survive it. You have to talk yourself through the pain. It creates a mental resiliency in your athletes. Couple that with an elevated ability to recover physically and you can get athletes that simply can take it and bounce back. I thank Coach Sean Hutchinson for helping me see that. It may be harder to create strong self-talk with some non-traditional approaches. I think that might be one of the primary benefits of the traditional model. You get kids who can talk themselves through any kind of pain.

Number Two: The second benefit of traditional training seems to be that so many workout sessions per week, plus the time spent traveling to swim meets develops strong bonds among teammates. It is almost like being at camp or being at a private school where they live on campus. That is how I felt this summer. The kids were spending so much time together it was like being at camp. And they act really close when doing more workouts and camps and meets. It was their life. The bonds formed from spending so much time together can create all sorts of positive outcomes in their training and racing.

Number Three: Going through so many tough workouts together creates a sort of survivor bond among them. It creates a mind-set of “we did it, we survived and we did it together.” With some extra tough coaches this mind-set can be a “We did it” among the swimmers versus the coach. That creates a sense of bonding too. When the environment is so tough that athletes are driven to choose to survive or fold, and when the support is coming mainly from one’s teammates, a unique bond is formed. This drive to survive that bonds the teammates creates a mental toughness in training that carries over to racing. In fact I actually worry that because I do not wish to seem like a tyrant and I tend to be so supportive, that the support may come from me and not from within them, individually and as a team. If they know they can rely on me for support, I wonder if I am taking away some of that positive side-effect of the training environment.

Number Four: Traditional training creates a belief that I trained so hard, nothing scares me. All the tough practices and the splits I held become stories the swimmers talk about, perhaps with a “how did I ever do that” mentality that gives them a strong belief system. What coach does not want that in their athletes? I visited Germantown Academy and that is what I saw. They train tough so nothing scares them. They did it and survived. They have a killer focus. I never saw anything quite like that, especially in girls. Their ladies are really tough and it comes from their training effort and focus. Their water training is incredibly tough and competitive and their dry land program is off the charts tough too. They work so hard they believe they can do anything. They are resilient. I think they go to swim meets and think no way you have trained as tough as I have. They think there is no way you can out tough me.

Number Five: The final side benefit from traditional training is that there is no way around it, especially when it is interval driven. There is no hiding. You do it or you do not last. When you do it you believe you can handle anything. With sprint-geared training with longer rest periods the swimmers can sort of hide or at least they can shut it down relative to the non-stop grind of short rest, competitive higher volume training. As we saw with the rats, to excel from short burst, speed training requires all out efforts all the time. Some can not give that. I think if you are doing speed- based training with long rest periods, you can get away with not putting out full effort. I think that that is a big risk for coaches that go that route. If you have swimmers go 50’s on 3 minutes, maybe they are going 95% on that. That will not work with that type of training. It has to be all out to get the adaptations you are seeking. You can’t slack off with repeat 500’s on a tough interval. You can’t get around working hard on that. I have been thinking something recently that I want to bounce off you. The middle and lower level athletes who are somewhat mediocre make up the bulk of our program. I wonder if traditional training is more effective for them. I wonder if that is what they need since it forces a higher effort. This seems especially true unless an athlete is highly internally driven. I think the super motivated, high achieving athletes will go hard on everything because they want to. But the middle of the pack kids might need to be forced at times. It is not ideal. You would love them to be motivated, right? But I think sometimes if you open it up and use a non-traditional approach with the lower end kids you might not get the best results. Does that make sense?

I am throwing things at you that say traditional should not work and then because we see evidence to the contrary, I am trying to come up with reasons why it does work. Science may tell us one thing but I am not going to ignore something contradictory that we can clearly see works. I am trying to explain why a distance background followed by strength and sprint training in the college years seems to work. I think one explanation is that if you had a distance background in your youth and you hit weights, sprinting, cords and innovative training in college, then the college regimen is a new stimulus. We all know that a new stimulus will produce a result. The distance background might be working because it set the athlete up for the training in college to be a new, fresh stimulus. It may not be that the distance background made you better in the 100 free. It is that the lack of sprint training in the early years let the sprint training in the older years became a fresh stimulus. Again, we are not pushing one belief or another. We are trying to ask what makes sense and learn why things work. I think if you do a lot of power work and sprinting when you are 12-18, when you hit college and do this type of training, it does not affect you the way it would if it were a fresh stimulus. It is not that you ruined the kid with the early training choices. It is that you are not getting that crazy jumping ability when they are in college because it is not a new training stimulus to them. The distance background might be working indirectly and that might explain why people with a distance background often become great sprinters. I am simply trying to explain things.

Whatever you do, do it really well. Do you believe in one type of training over the other? Or do you believe in a mixture of training forms? Whatever you believe, go with it and do it well. I think that that is one of the keys to why the great programs are successful. The coaches who run these great programs believe in what they do and that comes across to the athletes. Whatever training form you choose, you have to go at it like it is absolutely the best way possible. Even if you are not sure, you have to be committed and project that to your athletes. I see that in the strong programs I visit around the country. The staff has a shared belief and commitment which creates belief in the athletes. The athletes on those teams believe that they are trained the best way possible. I think that explains a lot of success.

Moving on I will talk about muscle fibers. I am going to quote from an article by Bob Treffene, a Sports Science Advisor to Australian and British Swimming. The article is called “A Physiological Model and its use in designing training plans and sets for international swimmers.” His contention is that training for elite swimmers is normally aimed at reducing lactic acid buildup. The less lactic acid buildup you have during a race, the less pain you will feel and will be able to hold your stroke together longer and finish fast. How do you increase that rate of removal? He believes MCT4’s (monocarboxylate transporters) are mostly increased through high intensity training and those are what allow lactate to be removed. The more high intensity training you do, the better your body can buffer lactic acid. I have some anecdotal evidence for that. At age group meets when I look at kids who die at the end of a middle distance race (200 and 400), I don’t suggest the kid must be from a low yardage program. I have seen no correlation to that. I see many kids from a typical high yardage programs that die at the end of a race. I think that is because they have never practiced going that fast so when they get to a meet, they are going faster than they ever trained. That is tough for their bodies to handle. They can not buffer the lactic acid and they break down. Training at the speeds you want to go seems logical, and I think it makes a lot of physiological sense too. It is interesting that to swim fast, one has to train fast but the only way to recover from fast swimming is slow swimming. Fast and slow swimming serve different roles. Both seem important and complementary. Rather than see things as either or, recognize what aerobic swimming is good for and what it is not good for.

Have you heard comments like pity the sprinters? Maybe we should. In the same article he (Treffene) found that the anaerobic threshold of sprinters is approximately 75% of their critical velocity and the anaerobic threshold for endurance swimmers is 95% of their critical velocity. This means that distance trainers can train harder than sprinters. But physically the sprinters are actually in a lot more pain than the endurance swimmers. Their bodies are not buffering the lactic acid at that point. Their anaerobic thresholds are simply lower than their critical velocities and that has to do with the amount of fast and slow twitch muscle fiber in one’s body. A lot of that is genetic. Some are born with a greater percent of fast twitch muscle fibers and others are born with a higher percent of slow twitch muscle fibers. The training we do influences that. The athlete has what genetics gives him but training influences things to a degree. In the same article he shows some research about how to do that, but the bottom line is that sprinters hurt more. I think they are hurting more because their bodies are set up differently. I don’t think that is a puberty and post-puberty kind of thing. Obviously, your muscles develop over time, but I think the amount of the fast twitch and slow twitch is decided at birth and it is influenced by how we train them. If we train them long and slow we will change fast twitch into slow twitch, and if we sprint more we will change some slow twitch into fast twitch. When it comes to racing, what kind of muscle fibers do we want in them? As coaches we are in control of their bodies to a large degree. They don’t really have a choice of which way their little muscles go, but we do.

In Treffene’s article he feels we create those MCT populations to help reduce lactic acid, and he believes that VO2 MAX sets are the most effective for that. He says VO2 MAX training is your bread and butter. Those are your main sets of the week. Those are what you do the most of. The aerobic stuff is recovery between that. Aerobic recovery lets you replace glycogen stores between the MAX VO2 stuff. Drill work can be part of the aerobic component. He believes within your weekly plan you should do a big VO2 MAX set 2-3 times a week. He says that is where you are earning your money. Everything else is skill and recovery work. I think this is interesting stuff.

Here is a fun quote from Steve Prefontaine who was the best American distance runner back in the 1970’s. He is still a legend in distance running today (even though he passed away in a car accident many years ago in the prime of his running career). “The only good race pace is suicide pace and today looks like a good day to die.” He chose to push the limits. Some kids on your team will love that but some of you may say oh no; God no, don’t go out that fast. I find it fascinating that kids succeed despite their training. I think that is what makes our sport fascinating. If we were all in agreement about how to train, we wouldn’t come to these conferences, would we? We come to learn. Differences in approaches and opinions help us learn when we share with each other. There are people who train in ways that make no sense to me and their kids are fast. I find that fascinating. I find it fascinating that there are people who are doing really smart creative stuff and their kids are kind of so so. I think a lot of that actually has to do with psychology; some of those positive side-effects of the traditional training and some other things.

Here is something that should be pretty funny. I just read an article called “volume versus intensity.” This comes from some study. This should throw a good monkey wrench into your head before you leave. The study was conducted to analyze the effects of 4 weeks of high volume training at low intensity versus low volume with high intensity on physiological and psychometric parameters in swimming. Do you know what the result was? There was no difference between the two groups. There was no difference in their meet results and they tested them for three months after that training. I don’t know what to tell you. It just turned out that way. Maybe 4 weeks wasn’t long enough. That doesn’t seem very long. Maybe you have to do this for a year. We seem to get the same results with very different training ways. That is a good question. Yes, they were high school athletes.

As we near the end I want to share my principles of training age group swimmers. This is generic, but it makes sense to me. First, whatever you choose to do must help improve technique and not worsen it. Next, whatever you choose to do must lengthen, not shorten a career. Third, whatever you are doing must lower, not raise the risk of injury. Also whatever you are doing must impact your swimmer’s development as people more positively than negatively. Unfortunately, we do not have great perspective on what we do because we are inside of it. Do you find that? I think most of us believe we are already supporting those basic guidelines, but are we? Sometimes you need an outsider to come in and look at what you are doing. Just being here may raise some helpful questions to help us recognize what we are really doing. Settings like this can help us recognize if we are really supporting their positive development as best as possible and as well as we think we are. Remember that I mentioned that the team I swam for (I won’t mention the team) brutalized my friends and me. Yet I sense that if our coach was here right now he would say, “Yeah, of course we are doing all that.” We, as the swimmers or as another perspective would say, no you weren’t. So you may need an outsider to help you figure that out. I encourage you to be interested in the questions, not just the answers. Being solely focused on the answers tends to make us dogmatic and gives us a narrow prism through which to see things. Ask and welcome questions to expand your view and the things you consider.

Tomorrow’s talk is going more into the psychology of things. Sometimes I feel like we are training our kids like we program a machine. Sometimes it feels like if we do just the right set, at just the right intervals, for just the right yards and add it all up, the little machine will swim fast. On the other hand sometimes it seems like we are so irreducibly human that we are not like machines at all. We are like an orange. It is all psychology. The psychology seems to trump whatever we do in the water sometimes. They broke up with their boyfriend the night before the meet and there go all your sets. All the training and the good sets can go out the window with a set back in the emotional area. Do we train the psychology enough? Tomorrow I want to get into those issues. I want to thank you all for coming and listening. These articles and these ideas are floating around in my brain. I share this with other coaches. I send out emails about what I am reading and thinking about. If that intrigues you then leave me your email or take my card. I don’t send junk. I only send the good stuff. Thank you and hopefully I will see you tomorrow.

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