INTRODUCTION: Our next speaker this morning is a third generation coach. Both his grandfather and his father of course shared with us for many years. I didn’t know his grandfather, but have spoken to a number of coaches who did. They describe his grandfather in much the same way that I saw Richard’s dad, Nort Thornton. Nort is a coach who has made us think, has made us question the common known theories and has made us wonder if there is a better and different way of doing things. Nort Thornton taught my generation a lot about swimming and made us think outside the box. I believe Richard has the same skills as his father. Richard has talked at ASCA a number of times in the past and has always presented thought provoking ideas, making us think and wonder if there are different ways that we can approach our sport and different ways to make our athletes even better. It is a pleasure this morning to welcome our next speaker – Coach Richard Thornton.
COACH RICHARD THORNTON. I have noticed two things since my last talk twenty years ago – speakers don’t wear ties anymore and I am probably going to need my glasses. I am talking today on neural training which is a word that is flying around lately. The title of the talk is probably a little misleading by comparing and contrasting neural training with physiological training. In reality, you probably need to mix and match and combine them in your programs. I am going to say a lot of names and reference a lot of coaches because many have had a great influence on the way I think and the things I do.
I started coaching in about 1981. The United States had its best Olympics in 1976. It was the most dominant Olympics we had ever had. All we ever talked about in those years (1970’s) when I was swimming was yardage, yardage, yardage. People associated yardage and distance with the difficulty of the workout. This high yardage training was probably pretty good then because the girls were pretty much done swimming by 16 and the boys were done by 19 or 20 years of age. There were no post-grads back then and everything was distance and 400 I.M.-based. We were very successful at that time.
Since about 1980, some programs started to become more speed-oriented and stroke-oriented. These programs have been fairly successful. Through the mid-80’s we started to see two different types of teams emerging in USA Swimming. They are still here today and you probably know them as high yardage teams and high quality teams. Both have their place and both have success in certain events. I have been watching this for about twenty years now. We had a real case study of this in Southern California. We had Mission Viejo Natadores and NOVA Aquatics, coached by Bill Rose and Dave Salo, respectively. I saw certain things emerging in each of these teams. What I tried to do was to pick the best things from both teams and put them into my program. Our program was never on that level in terms of the numbers of athletes in our program, but we do seem to be able to have kids swim fast in all of the events.
I view swimming much like Randy Reese said in one of his talks. He said that he doesn’t train for the mile; he doesn’t train for the 50. He trains everybody for the 100 through the 400 or 500 or 1,000. If he has a miler or if he has a 50 swimmer, he will make adjustments for those athletes. For the athletes that I coach, the high school-aged athletes with an occasional college-aged athlete, this training focus works very well. There is an old saying that you can swim double the distance you train for as long as you pace it right. In other words, a sprinter can race a strong 200 free, if he paces it right. An athlete that trains for the 400 can swim an 800 and an athlete that trains for the 100 can swim a good 200. 200 kids can swim a good 400 if they pace it right. I try to train pretty much 100 through 1,000 or the 100 through 400. Actually, we probably train for 200 and up and then taper for the 100.
When you read things on swimming, you ought to go back to the primary source. You have got to find out exactly what the coach said. If a coach says that they do aerobic training or threshold training, what does that mean? It is different for every coach, so before you put it in your program, find some way to find out exactly what they are talking about. That is important.
What is neural training? The definition of neural training is training the neuromuscular pattern or the technique you are going to use when racing fast. Neural training refers to the nervous system. It means training the stroke that the athlete is going to use in a shaved meet. It is training for the most important race or group of races for that athlete and to train the body, the mind and the musculature or the physiology to do that stroke for the whole race.
Physiological training would be getting in shape using the USA Swimming parameters for energy systems – aerobic, anaerobic, threshold, ATP. Knowing that, you have got to come at the sport from two different angles. You have to get them in shape physiologically and you have to get their stroke and technique ready to be as fast as they can be at this point in their careers. Then, you have to think about the now, the end of the season and their futures. It is not all about today. If an athlete can do some things and go 59.5 in the hundred fly and never get better, is it better to go 1:00.2 and be 56.0 as a college swimmer? As club coaches, we have to be very careful of that.
So, it is an old quote, “You will become what you repeatedly do.” So, based on that, if I am a sprinter and I am swimming base work, or over-distance swimming, all the time, I may be successful but I may not be. To have a sprinter in a distance program is a tricky thing. In addition, there is nothing worse than being in shape and slow. You see this a lot of times in the springtime when college kids come home to their club teams and the coach throws them in the pool because they are not in shape. They swim long course all the time and what is the first thing that happens when they do that? They slow down because they can’t do all of the work. They are in a long course pool, so they get in shape by swimming slowly. What they really need is to get in shape going fast. They have got to be fast by the end of the season. That is important.
Specialization in training: That is a term that has confused more coaches and hurt more careers than any term around because we didn’t understand it. A high school water polo player may never swim long and easy because polo is a sprint sport. Instead, they may just sprint, sprint, sprint, sprint, sprint to get into condition, but it doesn’t work that way. None of you would go out today if you are going to get in shape and run wind sprints. You would run long and easy and you would put some speed work into your program slowly over time. Specialization in training means making sure that at different points of the season and at different points of the week, you get the specific work in that you need to memorize your neural trainings. Specialization in training means memorizing the paces you want to go on meet day. It just seems really obvious to me. You have to train faster every year if you are going to go faster at meets.
Early teens need to be predominantly aerobic in practice and I will get back to little tricks of how to do that; how to be faster and still aerobic. Aerobic does not mean slow. We have a team in our area and their motto is “We don’t swim slow. We swim fast” and that is good. However, they have to do easy swimming as well. What I am saying is that you have to plan different types of training into your week. If you are teaching younger high school athletes and 11-12 year-olds, training needs to be predominantly aerobic with little bits of speed work all during the week. They used to say that 76% of your yardage needs to be below threshold or sub-threshold (easier than threshold). That doesn’t mean it has to be slow. I used to have a shirt that they had at CAL (University of California, Berkeley) and I actually copied it. It said “powered by speed and LSD”. All of the coaches of the distance teams would say that LSD was wrong and that it should be LFD or a lot of fast distance. However, long slow distance was in relation to race speed, not in relation to workout speed.
During the late teens through about 20 years of age, you must add anaerobic work properly. You don’t replace aerobic training with anaerobic training. Instead, you have to add anaerobic training properly. There seems to be two windows for huge improvements. One is at about 13 or 14 years of age. You start adding yardage in workouts properly and they take huge drops. The second is later at about 17, 18, 19, or 20 years of age, depending upon the athlete. If you add the anaerobic work properly and if you add the pace practice and hitting race pace in practice, the athletes will take another massive drop. If you do the speed or the anaerobic training primarily when they are 14, what do you have left when they are 18? I think that is one of the reasons why some kids who were really fast at 12 are frustrated by 16. They go to all the workouts and they haven’t dropped time. It is very important that you do these things properly.
The first thing that I want you to do is provide you with a suggested reading list. One book is Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald. If you haven’t read this, it does present some exciting ideas. You can put the ideas in your program and the kids will love it. They work harder and they go fast. Running to the Top by Arthur Lydiard is another book I suggest. You are going to have to get this on Amazon used because they do not print it any more. Coaches about my age and older know who Arthur Lydiard is. He is a New Zealand track coach during the 1960’s and 1970’s and he was the only guy who could get runners to compete with the Kenyans and the drugged Europeans. He describes great training for running, but it really explains aerobic work and why all athletes need base work. The book provides a little bit of child development and describes what kids should be doing at 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14 years of age. It is a great little book. It is just a half book and the second half is all workouts for track, so it is a really short read. You can read it in one night, but it is worth seeing. The last one is Swim to the Top: Arthur Lydiard Takes to the Water by David Wright and Garth Gilmore. It is really just a translation of the Lydiard book into swimming. I talked to some of the Australian coaches about the coach who wrote the book and they say it is a little tough to do with the athletes. However, we had an athlete from CAL who did the program one summer and he swam great. You have got to be pretty tough to do it. The kids of this decade have a little trouble with their MTV attention span.
So, how do you stay aerobic and swim fast? How do you keep the high school kids predominantly aerobic and still train fast on a daily basis? We do four things. I think we do things differently than a lot of people do. I didn’t realize that until I started talking to people, but it seems to work for us. We train in four zones. We train easy. What does that mean? We do things like stroke drills, sculling, and kicking on your side. I started to figure out that easy, slow swimming has almost no bearing on fast swimming. Slow swimming is not realistic. To swim slow all the time doesn’t do a lot of good. However, what do you get when you swim slow, just counting strokes? Slow swimming is almost a drill as opposed to a form of swimming. With slow swimming, you get balancing. You can really focus on technique.
When you swim fast you don’t want to think. You want to be almost sub-conscious. Nort one time said that when you race, you had better be like a squirrel running across a wire. If you think about what you are doing and where your next footsteps go, you are going to fall. What we have tried to do over the last 10 years or so is that when we swim slow, we think about technique. We think about where the arm is, about holding water, about where the catch is and about the timing of the hip. Then, when we swim fast, we think about the total concept. We think, be fast or quick hips or kick fast and small. There is usually a key word in there for most athletes. While they are paying attention to their best stroke, it will put everything else into position. As coaches, you know each of your athletes. You know that if an athlete gets his turnover up, everything else will fall into place. Athletes need to learn their own key word so that they can fix their swimming mid-race, mid-workout or mid-week when they do not feel good. Be sure that the athletes think about technique when they go slow.
When drilling and swimming slowly, heart rate should be fairly low and athletes should be counting strokes. All that stuff is important. We start every practice with what I call feel and balance work. Every warm-up has feel for the water and balancing work in it. When kids have a bad work out it is usually because their balance is off. When age groupers have a best stroke it is usually the stroke they balance in well. If they balance well, their hands and feet will get into a position to go forward. When they do not balance well, their hands and feet will start getting into position so that they can breathe. They have got to breathe so their best stroke will often times be the stroke they balance well in. It may be on their back. Did you ever try to teach a breaststroker to roll in freestyle? They do not want to come off their balance point. You have got to teach them to get off their balance point if they are going to be faster in freestyle so the trick is to train their technique and not just their workout technique. Train the technique they are going to be using when they go fast.
The next thing we do, and it seems to be a lost art in the United States, is we swim a lot at a 150 heart rate. We take our heart rate for six seconds, starting with 1; multiply it by 10 and go. It isn’t the most accurate, but it fits into our short rest type of training. We probably should be starting at zero and taking it for 15 seconds, but I want it done quickly. We swim a lot in that pace. We also swim at 180 heart rate. Now, I have never understood why when we do threshold we swim a lot faster. It just seems like you are not swimming in the techniques you need to be swimming in if you are a 100 or 200 swimmer and you are in danger of making your stroke worse by doing a lot of threshold work. I learned something related to this in Eddie Reese’s talk yesterday. He said he went and talked to the kinesiologist at the University of Texas who has helped Lance Armstrong’s training. Eddie told the kinesiologist that his athletes had great aerobic background. Now that they are in college, he was curious about how to make them better. The kinesiologist said to train at 160-180 heart rate and increase stroke volume. So, the more threshold we do, the faster we drop time. I told a coach in Northern California this year that our stroke technique isn’t as good, but we make huge drops when we do threshold work. I don’t mean massive threshold. I don’t mean hold 1:01’s after your T-30’s. I just mean fast swimming.
Now, Nort made the comment when we were talking about some of the college teams where they swim really fast and the idea that they do not do that kind of threshold work anymore. Nort said that one of the best things that athletes learn from threshold work is how to relax. If I have a 40 minute hard swim and I have got to make specific times, if I don’t relax I am not going to make it. When athletes learn to relax at high speed, it makes them much better. You don’t always get that with doing short little sets. Sometimes, they have to struggle through and learn. It is important to put them in a position to do that. I don’t mean ten 1,000’s. I am not talking that, but you have to do some challenging sets. The more I look at it, the more Dick Shoulberg’s training looks just awesome. Everything is short, but it just adds up. The rest is short and you have got to go. You have to adjust on the fly. There are four 100’s, eight 25’s super spin backstroke. They just go and go and go but they will put in 45 minutes or 2 hours or 3 hours of this stuff. The kids are improving quickly. The trick is to make sure that on the speed days that they are swimming exactly the way they want to swim when they taper and shave.
We were swimming one summer and I heard through the grapevine that Grant Hackett (or Ian Thorpe) is swimming at altitude. They were doing studies on them and testing their lung capacity. They all were genetic freaks to some degree but they were also very well trained. We were hearing through the ASCA Clinics what the Australians were doing, so we would go home and try to make our athletes hold the same times as those world class athletes. However, it wasn’t that they were holding those times. They key was that they were training fast while holding those heart rates. When you swim at 150 heart rate to 180, swim as fast as you can at that heart rate.
The Americans at one point were training aerobically in training speed or anaerobic endurance. By contrast, the Russians were trying to increase their maximum pace while maintaining a lower heart rate. In this way, an athlete can go out easy in the 200 free without being way behind and come home really fast. So, having said that, we took heart rates, some at 150 heart rate predominantly, some at 180 heart rate. We tried to be as fast as we could be at that heart rate. It was amazing. We had a boy; I think he was 4:56 in the 500 free at the time. In training, he was holding 4:16’s on 400 yards at 150 heart rate. Within two weeks, he was down to 4:04’s. When he was able to hold 4:04’s at 150 heart rate, I knew he was going to break 4:56 in the next swim meet and he went about 4:49. The trick is to swim as fast as you can at each type of training you are doing and keep your heart rate as low as possible at those segments. Some of you refer to that as easy speed.
I have noticed that on some of the high quality teams, they have great athletes swimming really fast but there are always a couple of kids who are frustrated and haven’t improved in a couple of years. I think those kids are frustrated because they go to all the workouts, they work really hard, they do everything as fast as possible. Their coach explains their training as all out effort. However, Bill Sweetenham’s term of maximum speed with minimum effort at that speed is very important. If you can teach that and the kids learn that, they are going to have great careers. When you watch the Olympics, everyone goes out really fast and then all of a sudden the winners just take it up a notch and finish faster. They do that by working the 150 heart rate, the 180 heart rate and the fast all together.
We also talk a lot about race rhythm and training your goal race rhythm daily. Athletes hear different things based on the type of learner they are. Are they auditory learners? Are they visual learners? Are they kinesthetic learners? The good athletes are usually kinesthetic learners. For some kids, you can say you are 1.3 and you need to be 1.1. Some kids do not understand that at all. Sometimes that tempo stuff for them doesn’t make any sense. We talk a lot about rhythm and learning the rhythm. How do you do that? Well, we are on a linear plan of a hard day followed by an easy day (not a fast day followed by a slow day). By the end of the season, most coaches on my staff cannot tell what day we are on by looking at the practice. We go race pace daily. On the hard days, we stick the speed work in the aerobic sets, sometimes separately and sometimes in them. This really works on closing speed. An example is six 500’s, progressive 1 through 6. I might go a 100 for time after numbers 3, 5, and 6. The 100 for time could be kicking, it could be four 25’s all out on the 30, it could be best stroke. It doesn’t matter what it is, but for some reason they really enjoy it. They work hard, but it really (according to the Brain Training for Runners book) calls into play the fast twitch fibers and the athletes continue to use them throughout the distance set. On this type of set, the sprinters do not work too hard on the 500’s until maybe the last one. They still get a lot out of the set, even if they go a 100 for time at 80% and then another 100 for time. It makes the sets very bottom heavy or very hard on the end, but they really get something out of that.
Now on the easy days we do a lot of Fartlek work. We do a lot of 25’s at easy speed. The day is a relaxing day stress-wise more than energy-wise, but they will swim race pace at 120 – 130 – 140 heart rate. An example is six 400’s drill, swim, scull, swim by 25’s. Then, they will do four 25’s on the minute fast, but easy, working on the first 50 of your 200. That kind of race effort with exact stroke after each 400 is important. We let them use equipment, but they have to use the same equipment. They are in practice. They are balanced. They are focused on things. We might do it for an hour on an easy day so that everyone finishes together. The breaststrokers can go breaststroke and not worry about getting behind. They have social time. They hit race pace on an easy day. They get a predominance of aerobic swimming and they are still doing race pace daily. They are really memorizing race swimming. Now, they think the easy days are easy, but they are really stress-free days. They are not pushing, pushing, pushing on the easy days, but it is actually harder because they have to think a lot more on the easy days. They have to think about stroke all the time.
The fast days you just get in a rhythm and find it and go. When you swim, sometimes you focus and then songs go in your head and you focus and you think about something else. That is good because when you are sub-conscious you are learning. Your body is learning around its current equilibrium, its current body dimensions, its current lever lengths. When women’s bodies change through their teenage years, they can continue to improve if they are swimming long. They don’t have to swim hard if they are swimming long. If you are always going short and fast with the stroke you did when you were 12, you may not be able to improve, especially as a female. Guys just get bigger and stronger. Women’s dimensions change, so they have to learn how to swim with their new bodies.
Everybody always says it is important to do perfect technique. Be careful of that. Yes, we want to teach perfect technique to the age groupers. As they get into high school, I start trying to teach them perfect technique for them, for their stroke, for the way they can do things. Remember that many of our World Record holders didn’t swim the way we taught them to swim. Janet Evans didn’t swim bent arm freestyle and if she had had any other coach and he had forced her to swim bent arm freestyle she may not have gone the times she did. Milt Nelms said that one time, he said he was watching Natalie Coughlin swim at the NCAA’s for Teri McKeever. Two coaches said to him that if she had bent elbows in the 100 free, she would be even better. He just started laughing because the straight arm free worked well for her. The straight arms threw the velocity into her hip power and that makes her so fast. So, everybody is different. We want to have a stroke technique framework that we work from, but some people are slightly different and they know what they are doing in many cases, so be careful. Remember me swimming? I had a false breath on freestyle. I turned my head to both sides and I was a decent freestyler. Mitch Ivey told Nort that he should fix my technique. Nort told him that there was something I was getting out of my technique and that we were going to lose something by fixing it. I was rotating my head to keep my stroke balanced and get hip power out of both sides of the body. Diana Munz and Trina Jackson used to swim, breathe three and have a straight arm after their breath. Well, they are aerobic animals so they are getting as much air as they can and they are throwing the arm to get their bodies back into position. It was ingenious that they figured that out. If you are too specific with stroke technique and you reject technique that is not textbook, you might hurt that athlete.
Broken Swims: Is it distance light or is it neural training? I am not talking about the anaerobic 200’s with 10 seconds rest. I read something that John Leonard put in an ASCA newsletter and it was about a guy in Lake Washington in the 1950’s. He had all these distance swimmers and they just went one workout a day during the school year and in the summer they went 5 times a day, two of them in the lake. They played leap frog and follow the leader in the lake. They just swam and swam and swam. They did everything at 3 seconds rest. We started doing something similar. We started doing distance swims with 5 seconds rest, at least on the fast one. I noticed two things happening. First, if they trained 400’s they went 4:30. If they trained 400’s with 5 rest at the 50 they went 4:10 at the same heart rate. So, I started thinking neural training, still aerobic. Second, I noticed that 2-beat kickers would kill the 6-beat kickers in practice, even if they were the same speed in a meet. What the broken swims do is that they allow the 6-beat kickers to come up and race the 2-beat kickers. It made the 2-beat kickers tougher at meets because they always win in practice and it made the 6-beat kickers more successful. As an example, we would do a set of eight 400’s and the first two were counting strokes, the next five were cruise and they were straight, and the last one was fast and broken at the 50, 100 or 200 for five seconds. On the straight cruise 400’s, the 2-beat kickers were beating the 6-beat kickers by almost 30 seconds on each 400. However, on the fast one the 6-beat kickers beat the 2-beat kickers by two seconds. So, we are trying to stay as aerobic as possible at their teenage years so they can have a good college career while staying competitive with the kids they are going to race. So, we do a lot of that stuff and they don’t even need to look at a clock. They can just take two big breaths and go.
Remember the old wall tag swimming with just intervals, intervals, intervals, intervals? That kind of training is easier on the mind. If you go thirty 100’s on a tight interval it’s easier on the mind than a 3,000, but it is harder on the body because when you come in and you go vertical what happens? Your heart rate rises for 5 seconds before it starts to recover. You come in and your heart rate goes up when you leave so that old wall tag swimming or tight interval training has a real place.
The only other thing we make sure we do and we do this a lot at the end of a season and a lot in the morning workouts is we train in the 4 training zones. We do a lot of progressive work around the various zones so that they learn how to vary their speed. In a swimming race, you have to be able to move through your energy systems as you race and if you have got a hole anywhere in there you won’t be able to do it. You either have to wait too long before you pick up your speed to finish and you let them all go by, or you have to go out really fast to stay with them and hope you can hang on and finish strong. You have to be able to compete in each of the energy systems and then blend through them as you race. That is important to teach.
We do a lot of broken swims. I got this idea from Jim Nickell. I was sitting with Mike Ashmore from Santa Maria. Jim Nickell (formerly of Desert Fox, now at Loveland Swim Club) brought his team to the Long Beach Grand Prix and their kids went crazy in all of the distance events. Every kid swam fast and swam right. I have been watching his athletes and one of the women on his team won the 800 at Junior Nationals two summers ago in Minnesota. Mike Ashmore told me that they do a pace practice set for long course. To train 800 pacing, he would go a 300 Free on 4 minutes or about 30 seconds rest. You want them to go fast enough to get rest but easy enough so they can save their energy. Then, he would go twelve 50’s on the 45. If you’re working 400 Free pace, then you do them on the minute so they can hit pace. Those are best possible pace under control. Then, you go 100 for time on the end followed by a 400 easy. I would do 2 rounds of that. I started doing a 400 version of that which was 100 cruise with a slight build. Then, we would go four 50’s on the minute, best possible pace under control. That is the important part there. Then, we would do a 100 race. On the days that we did the 200’s, everyone could do them together. Then, if I did 800 or a mile for the distance guys, I would have the other kids do 200’s again and the 200 would be the same thing, nice and light. Then, they do two 50’s at the best possible pace under control followed by a 50 race. During the long course season, we did aerobic work and we hit these every morning or every other morning when we swam long course.
This set is ingenious because we don’t have enough meets during the long course season and they don’t swim enough 400 Frees and 800 Frees in competition. Often, the kids get lost in the middle of their longer races. During the short course season, we swim 500 Frees for 9 months. During the long course season, they race the 400 Free twice and then they shave. If they are not good enough to make the finals at the Grand Prix meets, then they only get one swim. So, we started doing pace practice stuff like this. It was all the long course we did and all of a sudden, the distance guys didn’t get lost any more. They didn’t go out too fast or too slow. They knew exactly how to swim. They didn’t freak out if they went out fast or got behind during the race. They knew when they were on pace and feeling right. They had a race plan and they did it. This set is especially useful if you have one distance kid who doesn’t have a group to train in. It’s ingenious. It’s anaerobic endurance. It is pace practice. They know what the race will feel like when the meet comes. It’s done just in long course. When the athlete gets to the meet, he feels like he swam twenty 400 Frees that summer. In training during this set, they don’t always hit race pace. For example, we had 400 Freestylers whose best times were around 4:15. In training, they are going 31, 31, 31, 31 or 1:04 pace, and they dropped time over the season. They went 4:15 last year and 4:06 this year. They did this type of training; they had it and they felt it. It was really ingenious.
I heard Jonty Skinner talk about this a while ago. He said that you do not need long course training to be good at long course racing. It is great to have it but you don’t need it. During the long course season, do your speed work long course, even if you have to do it in the morning. Do your aerobic work short course. Your aerobic work can get faster and faster at those aerobic heart rates because the training environment is short. During the short course season, reverse it. Make sure your speed work is done short course for the short course season, unless you are getting ready for something long course. The long course endurance work is good, but we don’t want the athletes to slow down because it is long course. Be very careful of that.
I heard someone say that the Russian physiologists said that you can’t train for endurance and speed at the same time. Now remember when you read studies that a physiological study is so specific because of the way that the body works that it almost doesn’t mean anything when you are done with it. In the human body, the energy systems are blended and work together. Physiologically speaking, you can’t train speed and endurance at the same time because of the muscle fibers and how they adapt. If you get better at endurance you will be worse at speed and vice versa.
However, as I said earlier, we do speed work every day? Why? We are trying to get in shape early in the season, but we also want to learn the techniques of speed and memorize them. Even though our program isn’t based on speed work at that time of the year, we still practice daily the techniques needed to race fast at the end of the season. At the end of the season, they start swimming a lot faster at that speed work during training. If you train nothing but slow swimming until December and then switch over to speed work, turns are going to get slow. Have you ever seen distance kids when their turns become energy saving turns instead of speed turns? You have got to work on that stuff. In other words, the skills that are useful in making a 10,000 workout successful are not necessarily useful for the 200 Free or the 400 Free or even the 1500 Free these days.
So you have got to do some of the speed work but you have got to make sure that you take into consideration the season and the athlete’s long term career. Nort said another great thing this week. He said that athletes need to learn to swim with the technique that the athletes were swimming when they wore the rubber suits. The rubber suits didn’t seem to help the top kids as much as they helped the 20th to 40th place athlete at a meet. I don’t think Phelps did the best time all year in the 200 Fly and he was in a rubber suit. The top kids already know how to swim right. The suits really helped the kids who were getting 20th through 16th at the big meets. The sectional times for 16th through 24th place were faster than they have ever been. The depth got better. So those kids are going to be in real trouble when they take the suits off unless they learn to swim properly. Nort’s statement was, “Learn to swim the technique that the rubber suits made us swim.” I don’t know if that means we should film the Olympics and find out. I know that we need to teach your kids the body positions they had in the rubber suits. Teach them the techniques. A lot of those suits just provided balance. Some of the speed from the suits was related to better streamlining, but a lot of it was related to the athletes balancing for the first time. I saw huge guys who looked like middle linebackers swimming really fast this summer, but I am not sure they swim really well. Remember, eliminating drag is at least as important as power generation. Be careful of that. With the suits we didn’t have to learn that. I think the top kids are going to be fine. The trick is for us to keep the secondary kids interested in swimming when they are not going best times. I think that they can go best times. At the rate our high school athletes are improving, they should go best times without the suit this year.
What I try to do is look back at the 1970’s. We had a lot of great coaches who coached very intuitively. It is amazing that they got to where they were. Some of them had no physiological background and they did some amazing things. Then add to that all the new stuff we are learning from Bill Boomer and Milt Nelms as well as the ideas we are learning from other countries.
Mesocycle training is very important. Break your training into segments. They say after 6 to 8 weeks of endurance work you get diminishing returns. So, you do not have to pound a lot of yardage after that. You can just maintain that and start working on speed. They say after 6 weeks of anaerobic work you get diminishing returns and sometimes they get stale. So, in organizing a season of about six months, it takes about 4 weeks of training preparation to get the athletes ready. Some people call this time reverse periodization. Then, we do 6 weeks of endurance work and 6-8 weeks of speed word followed by a little taper. That is a season. That is 6 months. It takes about that long to really drop time. Don’t plan your training around the swim meet schedule. Plan your training for the maximum development of the athlete over time and then go to the meets that fit your schedule. If there is a senior meet the first week of a new mesocycle and the kids are exhausted, don’t go to that meet. Find a meet that falls during the last two weeks of a mesocycle. They will swim better. Pick your meets wisely. Sometimes it takes a little money, sometimes you have to go out of district, but it is worth it. Don’t just show up to a meet because they put one on that day.
I was telling the kids last year that you can go 20,000 yards a day all year and drop a second in the 200 or you can improve your tempo, your technique, your turns, your streamlines and your breakouts and drop 7 seconds in a 200. Which do you want to do? Now, they do not want to think in practice, but they are all smart enough to choose to make the technique improvements.
Those tempo trainers from Finis are awesome. If you want to change to the tempo necessary to be successful at the end of the season, the tempo trainers can really help. Swimmers always try to feel good. They will always go to what feels good. The stroke mistakes they make feel good to them because they are so engrained. So, you had better have something to get them out of that stroke and into the next tempo that they want to be. The tempo trainer beat provides the cueing that gets them focused to make the needed changes.
Is reverse periodization a good idea? I think so. The idea is to get fast first and then increase endurance as opposed to swimming slow for six months and trying to get fast at the end of the season. For the first month, we swim just slow but we do some speed work, too. The other day we did a great little set. It is one of the few things that I have ever made up. Normally, I get sets from all of you. We did 25’s on the minute, the first 20 yards fast and under control and then the last 5 yards they had to glide and balance into the wall. The kids who balanced well hit the wall real fast. They get there and they don’t slow down at all. They get to talk and socialize. The kids who don’t balance well get to about 23 yards and they can’t move. They have to hold their breath and lie there. So, the better they balance the more fun they have. I do not want to go whole 25’s yet, so I just thought that was a little game they could play and over time it is going to help them balance. Hopefully they will use it in their next fast lap. Hopefully, if they get stuck between strokes on a turn, they will be able to stay fast as they go into the wall. Hopefully there is a skill they learned. The rest of practice is just drills, up and down the pool.
A few years ago, Randy Reese (at Circle C) had awesome 11 and 12 year old swimmers. When I asked him what they were doing, he said that they do underwater kicking at the beginning of practice. Then, they do something fast, holding a target pace. Then, the rest of the workout is drills. I thought that was perfect for 11 and 12 year old swimmers. For example, he told an athlete to hold 31’s for 50 Backs because the athlete was a 2:04 or a 2:08 Backstroker. The athlete not only does it, but figures out the easiest way to do it. They do thirty 50’s at that pace and then the rest of the practice they do drills. Randy Reese said that they don’t add the hard endurance work until they are 13, 14 or 15. It made total sense to me and it was very simple.
Jeff Pearson (Sierra Marlins) told me about his junior group a while ago. He says every day they would do about an hour of variable training. Then, the last hour of practice was always one set, equal to 3,000 yards. This is with his 11 and 12 year old swimmers. That 3,000 yard set was a progressive one. So they did their speed work progressively. They learned at speed. They learned slow, and then they learned with one progressive set. The last repeat was really fast and so even the sprinters came up and gave a good last one more often than not. They learned how to give a big swim at the end of a workout and at a distance of 200 or farther. They were doing things similar to what Salo does. They would do 225’s scull, then 225’s technique, then 225’s race with the second round faster than the first one. They did that kind of work for an hour, which is great for 11 and12 year olds. They got the aerobic work they needed and I just thought that was ingenious.
During the endurance phase, the trick is to get really fit and to build the ability to go a long period of time holding technique in a relaxed way. The speed phase is later in the season. So, in the endurance phase we spend a lot of time in endurance but we make sure we touch those speed things every day. In the speed phase, which is later in the season or during January and February in a short course season, we do light aerobic work, some progressive work, some threshold for the distance guys and their speed work needs to be in their focus strokes. So, make sure that they do speed work in the event or the events that they are going to really pursue that season. Those events can change from year to year.
Nort talked to some of the Australian coaches at the Santa Clara Grand Prix. One of their coaches said that their training cycle about a month or so from the international meet involved speed sessions on Monday mornings, Tuesday afternoons, Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. Every other workout and dryland during the week was to recover from and get ready for the next speed session. Now, they don’t do that all year. That is their training cycle the end of the season. They get a big base and get in really good shape before they go to that. The changes you make throughout the season will enhance your improvement at the end of the season.
Remember, when you are trying to learn a rhythm that your distance swimmers are doing their rhythm training in distance work. Everyone else needs to have speed days to work on their rhythm or the sets have to be designed for them to do that. That is why Fartlek work is so good during all times of the year: a lot of 50 easy, 100 fast, 100 easy, 50 fast, 75 easy, 25 fast. It adds yardage to your day. The workouts get over easier. The kids get to go ten 25’s breaststroke at 200 pace and they get a lot out of that. It is pretty important. We call it active rest. In the early season to keep my yardage up without doing tons and tons of distance work I fill all my rest with swimming by doing a lot of Fartlek work or active rest. They are always flushing lactate and then going fast. I think that is important.
Taper has to fit your system. Kids call home during their first year of college and their coach wants to know what we did with taper. I tell them it won’t matter because it has to fit your training. Some of the things I have found that may relate to everybody but it may only relate to us is that a short taper works better for distance swimmers and a long taper works better for sprinters. The kids in between usually swim really well after one week of taper and really, really well after four weeks of taper or more. Sometimes, they can go up to 8 weeks if they do multiple shaves. Anything between two weeks and three weeks is really dangerous because they get stuck in between a lot. So, we have swum very well with long tapers and we have swum very well with short tapers. For kids who are not confident, keep them on a short taper. Kids who want to swim multiple races and try to get a high point, use a short taper. For kids who are focusing on one swim like Olympic Trials, a longer taper may be better. For the short taper, we just drop the yardage. For the long taper, we drop everything down gradually and then we start building the anaerobic work back up into the meet. For the last 9 days we build the anaerobic but the aerobic work stays down. Every kid tapers differently and tapers differently over time. The way they taper at 13 could be totally different from the way they taper at 18. You have got to figure that out. I do find that if you don’t do maximum peak lactate work, like hundreds on 8 minutes and sets like that, the long taper does not work very well. I have seen more and more maximum VO2-type speed sets like thirty 50’s on a minute or thirty 100’s on 1:45. It seems like a short taper works better for that type of training.
The conclusion from Lydiard’s reference is that neural training is for this season and for performances at the end of the season. The neural training you are doing today should be faster next season if you want to race faster. Base training is for the future. In his book, Lydiard made a great analogy to put it all in perspective. He said to think of neural training as chopping down trees to build your house. Your house is your performance. Base training is the replanting of the trees. The replanting takes a lot longer and you have got to wait for them to grow, but you can’t neglect it. Neural training is for now and it is very important. Base training is for the athlete’s development so he is fast now and throughout his career. As a coach, you need to make sure of two things. First, you want them to go fast this year. Second, you want him to have a great career. So, the better you mix and match physiological training with neural training, the better success you are going to have as a coach this season and in the future. The one trick, especially at the end of the season and depending upon the athlete, is to try not to let the base training ruin the neural training. Where a distance swimmer can swim distance free and then speed work free, a sprinter might need to do some strokes during base training and more I.M. work at the end of the season. The sprinter might need to do kicking with fins. He might need to change his focus in training as he gets tired because he doesn’t want to start moving toward the stroke he always uses in practice when he is tired.
Questions that have come up since writing this talk: Why do swimmers from high yardage teams swim so fast for 3 to 6 months right after they go to high quality teams and why do some of them never go faster than that again? Why do swimmers from some club teams go to college and have a great first 3 to 6 months and after they take their first spring vacation, they never go fast again? You see it all the time. An athlete goes 20.7 and 45 in high school. Then, he goes 19.3 and 42 in college. Then, four years later he is still going 19 and 42 and he is still 4th place. What is not being planned? What is not happening? He made a huge neural adjustment to college. He swam with better people every day. He did something faster, but nothing happened after that? I know it is tough when we have one pool with 6 lanes. What do we do? I think that we have got to plan that into their success.
Can you get physiological work outside the pool as opposed to in the water? There was a time and some people are still doing it, when most of the aerobic work was completed during dryland with med ball sets, dance and Pilates because we don’t want to sacrifice stroke technique during aerobic training. Some people are very successful with that. However, I also noticed that if the athletes are not really talented and don’t really know how to swim really right, it doesn’t work. For the average kid in a club setting he has got to swim. In other words, dryland should enhance the improvement curve or accelerate the improvement curve. Never give up swimming for dryland. Add the dryland to your program. If you swim like Natalie Coughlin, you can do dryland instead of your aerobic work at the age of 20, but for most of us – 99% of us – it is not going to transfer. The best things swimmers learn from over-distance work is how to relax.
If 76% of our weekly yardage needs to be below threshold and yet the faster you train the faster you improve, which type of training is most important? I think you have got to have both. You have got to do the things you need to do and then do them the best speed you can. The general pattern needs to move up and improve.
I am starting to notice that in our area, we have teams with some really fast athletes, but there is nothing behind them. When I approach the coaches, they explain that they transferred from another program and have been with the new team for six months or so. I can’t find the kids who have come through the program from 10 years old all the way through. Where are the kids who have done everything you asked for ten years? Some of the things that we are doing to make our top kids competitive at the Olympic Trials may not be what the second tier kids need yet and while I don’t think, at the club level, you should always split your best athletes from the rest of the team, I do think that you have got to train each athlete individually within a group setting. You have got to make sure that each athlete gets what they need. They have to have certain skills before they are ready to get into high performance and high quality training. They have to be able to do a long set without falling apart.
I saw athletes swimming a lot faster in season and I think much of it was because they were in the rubber suits. I never understood that. I understand you have to get used to them, but when I asked people why they were wearing the rubber suits they said because everybody else was. They were certain that they wouldn’t get into the finals without the suits. I was thinking that we never shaved down because somebody else shaved down. What I saw is that they went to the big meets like Nationals and Olympic trials and they didn’t improve. We are seeing a greater percentage of bad swims at those meets than we ever used to see.
That brings to mind a story. I was sitting at the Washington, DC Nationals at the University of Maryland. I was watching and our top kids were performing better and better. Every team had about 10 kids out of 13 swimming really badly. I started thinking that the coaches who were really specific and who were saying that the athletes needed to do very specific things to be successful were not seeing the results. When that kid is in that specific rhythm he is really good, but when he is out of that rhythm he struggles. If they only swim that way; if they swim only one way or they don’t go fast at all, they will struggle in a big meet. When they get out of the rhythm at their first Nationals when they are scared and nervous or when somebody is ahead of them for the first time in their life, those kids can’t find their rhythm. They really have a lot of trouble at those meets.
I’ve watched some other teams where the coach gives them a big workout and doesn’t watch too closely. Those kids could get up on the blocks and they might go a bad swim because they are nervous, but they are only a few seconds off their best time. They still make finals and they respond by saying that they will do better at night. So, if you are too specific, sometimes you are limiting their ability to adapt. We want to be really good with the stroke they need to do to be successful. However, we do not want to make them so one dimensional that they can’t swim more than one race and if the race doesn’t unfold the way it’s supposed to then they can’t perform. They need to be adjustable. So, I think you want to really pursue technique, but don’t be so set in your ways that the athlete can’t change. Watch Kieren Perkins in 1996 in Atlanta. They had overhead filming of the mile and the guy changed his stroke from 1200 meters on. He changed his stroke during the entire lap. He changes from 2-beat, to 4-beat, to 6-beat, to 2-beat. I have heard that marathoners try to change their stride length occasionally on the last six miles to allow their neural pattern to recover while staying at speed. They are trying to maintain speed using different technique strategies. You can spend the whole race catching them and then they still have speed in that last 50. That is awesome!
I am just thinking out loud here, but I think we need to teach them the fastest rhythm but we want them to be able to adjust. When you swim a lot of long course, the kids have to learn. When we swim some over-distance work, the kids have to learn how to adjust to survive. You can have numerous neural patterns that are fairly close. If you swim yards too much or you always do short stuff so that they stop before doing it wrong, then they don’t learn to adjust their technique. There are some people who just can’t go fast unless they go all full speed. I think we need to teach the ability to swim well at different speeds. I think they need to be able to adjust slightly.
I hope I have done something to help you think.