There are no short cuts to the top. The attributes of success are now, as they always have been, determination, innovation, commitment, a positive attitude, the desire to achieve and old fashioned hard work.
However, traditional ways of looking at training have revolved around – WORK BASED TRAINING: how much work an athlete can do and the intensity level of that work.
Recovery has become an increasingly important aspect of athlete preparation. The demands of training schedules, competition programs and other related activities has necessitated athletes and coaches becoming more aware of the use of recovery techniques in planning and programming.
The process of recovery is still very much that of “catch up” – ie the recovery techniques are generally utilised after the fact (after the athlete is fatigued) and are a peripheral aspect of training and competition.
In some ways this is an ineffective use of recovery principles as the athlete could be exposed to significant stress before a recovery activity may be utilised.
In addition, there is a significant amount of research that has identified the link between training and stress on the body’s immune system leading to illness and disease. Ideally the athlete and coach would take a preventative approach to illness and be proactive with recovery and restoration practices to avoid or reduce the incidence of these problems.
The challenge is to find ways to train athletes to achieve their maximum potential without pushing them “over the edge” into an overtrained or over reached situation with the subsequent health issues.
This paper proposes an alternate model to the contemporary training methodologies which are WORK based by suggesting that programs can be RECOVERY BASED – ie based on the individual athlete’s recovery abilities rather than on the volume and intensity workloads that an athlete can endure in a specific time.
This model proposes that RECOVERY be considered as one of the central aspects of athlete development.
The key to this approach is the philosophy –
THE INTELLIGENT COACH BASES THEIR TRAINING AND COMPETITION PROGRAM AROUND THEIR ATHLETE’S ABILITY TO RECOVER.
A new way of thinking –Recovery Based Training (R.B.T.)
The traditional methods of training, planning, periodisation and programming are based on WORK. The capacity to do work be it training or competition has been and still is the focus of most training programs.
The basic premise for WORK BASED TRAINING is:
Train (work) – Usually the most work that can be done in a given training session.
Rest (recover) – Allowing the athlete’s body and mind time to recover and adapt to the training stress. (Overcompensation or super compensation)
Do more training.
Rest again. Allow their body time to recover and adapt to the training stress.
Continue the process until target or goal is achieved.
But the work based approach had several holes in it:
- Swimmers with other commitments in sport, school and other areas of life may attend training sessions fatigued
- Residual fatigue from previous swimming workouts may restrict an athlete’s ability to perform at high speeds or to sustain hard efforts
- Not all swimmers are able to recover at the same rate
- With the focus on competitive swimming being technical excellence at times of fatigue and pressure, constantly fatigued swimmers are unable to develop and fine tune technique and skills.
- Sprinter body types versus distance body types (ie prescribing the same rest periods and cycle times to all swimmers regardless of their event and distance speciality)
- Not all swimmers are at the same level of fitness
The biggest flaw however in the work based approach to training is that ALL SWIMMERS ARE INDIVIDUALS. The challenge for all coaches is to design effective workouts to stimulate responses and adaptations in individuals who are working in a team or squad environment – “one size does not fit all”.
The basic training principle of individualisation suggests that to make a maximum impact, training programs need to be tailored to each individual athlete in the program.
This is particularly true when working with large numbers of swimmers in a squad training environment. Whilst swimmers of the same age with similar personal best times may appear to have similar abilities, their individual capacity to recover largely determines the quality and quantity of training they are able to maintain.
The work based training spiral.
One of the pitfalls with the traditional training approach where work is the central factor of training is that coaches and athletes can be misguided into believing that work alone is the secret to success.
This is characterised by the classic work based training spiral:
Train – improve.
Train harder – improve more.
Train even harder – improve even more.
Train even harder again – improve further.
And so it goes on.
But performance is a multi disciplinary, multi faceted thing. It is made up of many factors including:
- The Ability to relax
- Pacing ability
- Motor Learning ability
- General health and well being
- Skills learning ability
- Core stability
- Genetic characteristics
- The ability to deal with pressure and stress
To try and solve performance challenges by simply doing more training is not logical. It does not make sense.
Working hard is crucial to achieving success, but so is the ability to maintain technical skill and swimming technique under the effects of fatigue and pressure in competition.
However, the traditional approach of “making time” or “making the cycle” is questionable. From a skill development perspective, one must ask what benefit is a workout where an athlete “makes time” but to do so has sacrificed stroke mechanics, breathing control, good skills in turns and finishes just to make the predetermined work intensity.
It may be a matter of simply reinforcing bad technique, which if it is trained to fall apart in training, will inevitably fall apart under competition conditions where the additional element of competition pressure is added.
If coaches embrace the concept that swimming fast is largely determined by the swimmer’s ability to maintain great technique in a competitive environment, then a more balanced approach to performance improvement other than “just do more training” needs to be developed.
Even though regular, consistent, technique focussed training is vital to achieving swimming success, more work should not be the first answer to every performance question.
People are different. They adapt to change differently. Some adapt quickly while others take longer to adapt to new stimuli.
Why plan programs based on how much work an athlete can do?
Why not turn it around and base training on the recovery ability of the athlete?
Key Concepts in RECOVERY BASED TRAINING.
There are several intelligent alternatives to work based training that coaches and athletes should consider. It is built on these three concepts that:
The program is designed around the athlete’s ability to recover.
That an athlete with an effective recovery program in place can actually train harder and train more often as the natural process of recovery is enhanced.
That by basing training on recovery rather than work, training variables such as technique and speed development can be incorporated into the program at times which allow the maximum possible opportunity for them to make an impact.
Work based training (and why it doesn’t work for the MAJORITY of athletes)
Every coach has got a story about an athlete who made it to the top by training harder, more often and with more intensity than anyone else.
There is no doubt that to achieve success in swimming, athletes need to commit to hard work, to be consistent with their efforts in training and work to the limit of their talent and potential. There are no short cuts.
But for every story about the no guts – no glory approach to training, there are hundreds of stories about swimmers not making it because of illness and injury due to inappropriate training loads.
The most popular coaching theory texts available lead to programming and planning using traditional methods of work based periodisation.
However, this approach assumes that athletes can adapt to training loads and recover at similar rates.
In reality, long term planning and periodisation should be a sensible and logical approach to coaching effectively. By planning how much work can be done well in advance of the actual session, the individual’s ability to complete the session as prescribed is often compromised as it does not take into account their daily fluctuations in recovery level.
Heart rate training is a good example.
There are literally thousands of articles and numerous books on using heart rate as the determinant of exercise intensity and training load.
What we know about heart rate:
- It is extremely volatile and changeable.
- It is sensitive to hydration levels.
- It is sensitive to nutritional variables.
- It is sensitive to psychological variables.
- It is sensitive to chemical variables like caffeine.
Recent studies have revealed that an athlete’s capacity to achieve their own personal maximum heart rate varies day to day and session to session.
Therefore to prescribe training sessions well in advance, based on a predetermined heart rate maximum or base rate, without somehow measuring and monitoring the individuals recovery level on a daily basis (and with it their ability to work in that session), athletes may be working too hard or too easy at any given session.
In addition using a single discipline sports science approach, ie heart rate physiology is not effective when one considers that swimming fast is a combination of issues and perspectives including physiology, biomechanics, psychology, nutrition, skills and motor learning and so on.
Recovery Based training – a gentle introduction
RBT allows training programs to be individualized based on each person’s ability to adapt to the stresses and strains of training.
RBT takes into consideration the genetic variation (such as muscle fibre type distribution – fast twitch / slow twitch) of the athlete by allowing an athlete’s recovery ability to determine training loads.
RBT allows for each individual athlete to be set training loads that are appropriate to their ability to adapt to them.
RBT is situation sensitive. When an athlete is unable to recover between sessions due to work commitments, study commitments, personal life issues and their ability to work in the pool is compromised, RBT allows the coach to prescribe training loads appropriate to the athlete at each point in time.
RBT allows training to be modified to meet their situation on a session by session basis.
In other words, Recovery based training maximises the impact of training activities as it individualises training loads.
RBT requires three basic steps.
Step 1 – Measure the recovery profile of the athlete
Step 2 – Base training programs on the athlete’s individual recovery profile
Step 3 – Revise and review the program in light of the athlete’s ability to recover
The coach has determined that a training set of 30 x 100 on 2:00 minutes at a speed of personal best time plus 20 seconds is the main session goal.
How does the coach know that the athlete is capable of completing the set to the required standard? (ie note – required standard is making the time throughout the set with technical excellence maintained in every stroke, every turn and finish).
Step 1 – Measure the recovery level of each individual athlete. This can be done using traditional “passive” methods (self monitoring using heart rate, quality of sleep etc) and active methods including INDIVIDUAL CHECKING SPEED (see later).
Step 2 – An athlete whose recovery level has been measured as low may still be able to complete the workout, but at a much lower intensity level than prescribed. Alternately, an athlete who has recovered well from the previous workout may complete the workout at an intensity level equal to or even harder than that prescribed.
Step 3 – Review the progress of the athlete during and after the workout and if necessary modify the session and program to match the athlete’s recovery capacity.
An athlete has three basic priorities:
- Do the training session to the best of their ability.
- Immediately after the training session ceases, help their body recover from the training session. Post training recovery techniques include efficient glycogen replenishment – recovery nutrition strategies, rehydration, massage, the appropriate application of ice and heat, sleep and light exercise.
- Help their body prepare for the next session.
TRAIN FAIR then
The aim of every swimmer and every coach should be to maximise the impact and effectiveness of every training session: to maximise the opportunities presented at every training session to help the athlete achieve his or her goals.
With performance being such a multi disciplinary activity, where physiological, psychological and biomechanical variables all need to be considered when developing an effective training program, it is essential that the coach focus on the individual’s ability to achieve the training objectives every workout.
The traditional “no guts – no glory” approach – which focuses on the athlete’s ability to deal with pain and the onset of fatigue any way they can does not take into consideration technique, skills, stroke length and other crucial factors.
The application of RECOVERY BASED TRAINING TO SWIMMING – how it works.
Swimming coaches have traditionally based training programs on one or a combination of the following factors:
- Swimming speed (eg faster swimmers in one lane, slower swimmers in another)
- Event distance (eg 100 metre swimmers in one lane, distance swimmers in another)
- Age (eg younger swimmers together in one lane, older swimmers in another)
- Gender (eg males in one lane, females in another)
- Stroke specialisation (eg freestyle swimmers in one lane, breaststroke swimmers in another).
RECOVERY BASED TRAINING MODEL.
In the RBT model, swimmers are divided into training groups based on their individual recovery ability.
Determine the swimmer’s individual recovery ability by completing an INDIVIDUAL CHECKING SPEED swim in warm up (see later). This concept developed by Australian Coaches Bill Sweetenham and John Atkinson attempts to identify the athlete’s individual recovery level and hence their ability and capacity to work in the particular session.
Swimmers are then divided into lanes based on their individual ability to recover.
Lane 1 – Fast recovering athletes
Lane 2 – Medium recovering athletes
Lane 3 – Slow recovering athletes.
Establish the training intensity using GOAL AND GO heart rate.
Identify two target heart rates for each individual:
HEART RATE 1 is called the GOAL HEART RATE.
HEART RATE 2 is called the GO HEART RATE.
Main training goal:
Technical excellence in a training set of 200 metre efforts done close to threshold pace (note that technique is the key focus in ALL sets).
Training workout distance:
200 metre intervals
Training Set duration:
45 minutes of work within the GO AND GOAL training zone.
It is determined that the GOAL HEART RATE for the training session is 20 beats below maximum. That is, for each 200 metre swim a target heart rate of 20 beats below the swimmer’s maximum heart rate needs to be achieved. The GO HEART RATE is 60 beats below maximum.
The swimmer completes a repetition with the aim of achieving their GOAL HEART RATE, ie an intensity level of 20 beats below maximum.
The rest interval is based on the swimmer’s ability to recover.
In this example, when the individual swimmer’s heart rate drops to 60 beats below maximum (ie it has recovered by 40 beats per minute), the swimmer pushes off for another repetition.
The advantages of using GOAL and GO heart rate in RECOVERY BASED TRAINING.
- Swimmers do as much training (volume) as they are able to recover from on that particular day
- Tired, unfit or injured swimmers do as much training as they can recover from
- Sprint swimmers who arguably will have a lower recovery ability because of the nature of their skeletal muscle fibres and other factors and will do as much training as they can effectively recover from
- Fitter swimmers can do more volume of training if the situation dictates
- Aerobic based, distance orientated swimmers can do more training volume in the same time.
Lane 1 – FAST RECOVERY LANE
Distance freestylers and other well conditioned aerobic swimmers.
In the 45 minute main set time they complete 12-14 x 200 at the GOAL pace with GO rest.
Lane 2- MEDIUM RECOVERY LANE
Medley swimmers, form strokers and some sprinters.
In the 45 minute main set time they complete 10-12 x 200 at the GOAL pace with GO rest.
Lane 3 – SLOW RECOVERY LANE
Most Sprinters, injured or fatigued swimmers and those swimmers getting into shape
In the 45 minute main set time they complete 8-10 x 200 at the GOAL pace with GO rest.
Changing the set:
Over the set it may be necessary to change or modify the original training loads.
The key determinant of making changes is based on the individual’s technique and skills with the onset of fatigue over the set. The coach and athlete will measure technical changes throughout the set through regular monitoring of stroke count and stroke rate and through the coaches skills in observation and feedback.
As the set progresses, coaches can adjust the focus of the workout by:
Changing the range of GOAL and GO, eg if the athlete’s technique is faltering, the coach may maintain the GOAL but decrease the GO to give the athlete more rest. If the athlete cannot maintain technical excellence with more rest, then the coach might consider a reduced GOAL target.
Reducing the rest time by changing the recovery range, eg from a recovery range of 40 beats per minute to 20 or 30 beats per minute if the athlete is performing the set well and is maintaining quality technique and skills.
As the set progresses, the coach can also monitor the time the athlete takes to recover from the GOAL to GO targets. For example:
Repeat number 1: GOAL = 20 beats below maximum GO = 60 beats below maximum
Time taken to drop from GOAL to GO = 30 seconds
Repeat number 7: GOAL = 2- beats below maximum GO = 60 beats below maximum
Time taken to drop from GOAL to GO = 48 seconds
The coach can then use the time taken to recover to change and modify the workout based on the specific goals of the set.
The result is a flexible method of controlling training loads based on specific needs of the individual.
Swimmers with the capacity to do more work do it; those with a compromised capacity to work on this particular day do less. Training is individualised within the squad training environment.
In large squads it is vital to initiate an athlete education program which teaches athletes how to self monitor and drive their own personal RBT. The ability of athletes to self monitor frees the coach to “coach” and to provide quality feedback on technique and other performance issues.
Testing for recovery
For RBT to be effective, it is important that simple effective methods of measuring recovery are utilized in every training session.
Passive tests of recovery
Traditional methods of recovery have been:
- Smiley Faces
Athletes recording basic self monitoring information in a training diary or on a training chart.
- Draw this face if you feel great.
- Draw this face if you feel OK – just average.
- Draw this face if you feel really low, slow, tired and fatigued.
- Taking Basal heart rate (BHR)
Just as the heart is an excellent indicator of how hard their body is working, it is also a good indicator of how well their body is recovering from hard training and a tough competition schedule.
Basal Heart rate is a concept that has been around for a long time. Athletes take their heart rate every morning just after they wake up.
While lying in a relaxed and comfortable position in bed, the athlete places two fingers lightly on the outside of their wrist near the base of their thumb. The athlete will feel a little pulse rhythmically beating away. This is called their BHR – Basal Heart Rate.
Teach the athletes to count the number of beats they feel for 30 seconds then double that number to get BPM – Beats per minute.
As athletes get fitter and stronger from training, their BHR should get lower and slower. This basically means their heart is getting more efficient at doing what it has to do. Fit swimmers will have a consistent BHR every morning that will not vary more than a beat or two.
However, if athletes are training too hard and not getting enough rest, their resting heart rate will actually increase. It is not uncommon for a swimmer training too hard to experience increases in their resting heart rate of 5-15 beats per minute.
It is important that coaches and athletes do not put all their eggs in one basket and make variations to training based on BHR alone. There are many other issues that need to be taken into consideration.
Being “moody” is also a good indicator of how an athlete’s body and mind are adapting to training and competition.
Use the mood scale – a rating scale of 1-5 where “one” is feeling really low and in a bad mood and “five” is feeling great and fully charged – ready to take on the world.
Athletes who are in a bad mood, feeling flat, negative and angry are often just showing the signs of over training and over straining in the pursuit of excellence.
Tired athletes for some reason often sleep poorly. The short answer might be that the bodies of tired athletes are still working even when they are resting, ie their bodies are using rest time to repair, rebuild and regenerate and constantly stay in an active state.
As a tool for evaluating recovery, have the athlete rate the QUALITY of their sleep out of 5. “One” is a terrible sleep – one of those terrible nights where athletes tossed and turned and struggled to get any sleep. A “five” sleep means athletes fell asleep quickly and slept soundly most of the night.
Rating the quality of their sleep rather than the quantity makes sense as it is virtually impossible to remember exactly WHEN athletes fell asleep.
Athletes should get in the habit of weighing themselves – usually in the morning after going to the toilet but before eating or drinking anything. The main reason for doing this is to make sure athletes are not LOSING weight. Fit, healthy, growing swimmers generally keep a fairly even, constant weight. However, sudden weight loss over a 24 hour period can mean one of three things:
- Athletes are dehydrated
- Athletes are fatigued and their body is struggling to maintain normal functions
- Both of the above.
Get in the habit of aiming to weigh the same just before going to bed as athletes did just after waking that same morning. Weight loss over the time athletes are awake is generally just water loss – water loss that needs to be replaced.
It is crucial that the coach “sell” this concept positively to all athletes as a practice which is designed to assist in the measurement of recovery and not as a daily obsession with body fat and body image.
- Muscle Soreness
When muscles work hard, sometimes they feel tight and sore. Sometimes this soreness will not become obvious until a day or two after a tough training session or following hard racing. This soreness is called D.O.M.S. (Delayed Onset of Muscle Soreness) and can literally be a pain in the neck (or butt or arms or legs or somewhere else).
In their diary, athletes should record muscle soreness. A rating of “5” means their muscles are feeling strong, loose and relaxed and a “1” means their muscles feel like athletes have gone ten rounds with the world heavy weight boxing champion (and lost!!!).
Passive test data can be summarised in a table or chart to give an overall perspective of the athlete’s recovery status:
Self Monitoring Recording Sheet (example)
It is important to note that one of these signs may not mean anything at all. For example, their morning heart rate can be higher than usual if athletes have drunk a little too much caffeine the night before, gone to bed dehydrated or had a scary dream. However, two or three of the warning signs happening at the same time, may mean athletes have a problem on the way.
These passive tests provide the coach and athlete with an overall general perspective of the athlete’s recovery level.
However the key focus for competitive athletes is to find ways of measuring their ability and capacity to perform training activities in each training session.
Active Tests for recovery – Individual Checking Speed and similar active recovery tests.
Individual checking speed (ICS) is a concept which attempts to evaluate how recovered an athlete is and how prepared they are to complete a set training activity by measuring their responses to a sub maximal swim.
The key variable in the ICS process is swimming PACE. From a set pace, the athlete and coach then ascertain HEART RATE, STROKE COUNT AND STROKE RATE at that pace.
The coach is attempting to assess what is the athlete’s physiological capacity to complete the session or how hard is the athlete working to maintain the target pace (Individual Checking Speed).
The additional element is that of stroke mechanics. By considering stroke rate and stroke count (and thereby stroke length) in the assessment of an athlete’s recovery ability, the coach can in some way make a practical determination of the athlete’s level of efficiency.
Towards the end of the warm up, the athlete performs a swim at a pre determined pace and heart rate, stroke count and stroke rate are measured as a result of swimming at that pace.
ICS Baseline swim.
400 metres at 15 seconds per 100 over PB pace, eg if PB swim is 1:00 for 100 freestyle, target pace is 5:00 minutes for the 400 being 4 x 1:15.
The ICS is performed with an even pace (eg 1:15, 2:30, 3:45, 5:00) and with a push start.
The coach measures heart rate, stroke count and stroke rate at 5:00 pace, (ie heart rate at the end of the swim, stroke count and stroke rate over the final 50 metres).
One variation in the protocol is to measure stroke variables twice of the swim, for example between 100 and 150 metres and 300 and 350 metres to assess changes in stroke mechanics with fatigue over the even paced swim.
In addition, the coach measures heart rate every 30 seconds for two minutes and measures how much the athlete’s heart rate decreases (recovers) over that period.
The ICS baseline swim is completed regularly (eg monthly) ideally after a day or two of relatively easy work so that the athlete is performing the test relatively unfatigued. This speed is then used as the baseline figure from which to establish training loads – volume and intensity: speed or pace is the key/constant from which the other variables are measured.
|Swim||Time||Heart rate (bpm)||Stroke count||Stroke rate|
|BASELINE SWIM March 15th||5:00||172||45||47|
|CHECKING SWIM March 20th||5:00||169||45||46|
Post Swim Recovery
|0||30 SEC Post swim||60 SEC
|15th Mar||172 bpm||158 bpm||132 bpm||114 bpm||93 bpm|
|156 bpm||129 bpm||114 bpm||91 bpm|
|Swim||Time||Heart rate (bpm)||Stroke Count||Stroke rate|
|BASELINE SWIM March 15th||5:00||172||45||47|
|CHECKING SWIM March 20th||5:00||194||56||55|
Post Swim Recovery
|60 SEC||90 SEC||2 MIN|
|15th Mar||172 bpm||158 bpm||132 bpm||114 bpm||93 bpm|
|20th Mar||194 bpm||188 bpm||180 bpm||167 bpm||154 bpm|
In this example, the athlete has performed an ICS on March 15th. Prior to the commencement of two subsequent sessions, the coach asked the athlete to swim the same distance (400 metres) at the same speed (5:00 minutes even paced).
On March 20th, the athlete’s ICS indicated he was relatively unfatigued having matched or bettered the measurements of the baseline swim.
The athlete in this case could proceed with the training session at the intensity level prescribed by the coach.
On March 20th however, the athlete’s ICS showed signs of fatigue, ie heart rate 22 beats higher at the same speed with a stroke count and stroke rate indicating a less efficient stroke at the same speed.
In this instance, the coach may take several actions. These include:
- Ask the athlete to swim the same volume but at lower intensity.
- Talk to the athlete about other aspects of their recovery, eg results of the passive tests.
- Ask the athlete to complete a lower volume of the workout at the target intensity.
- Break the workout up and allow more rest between efforts for the fatigued swimmer.
- Have the athlete rest from the workout. This would be particularly relevant if the athlete showed other signs of fatigue from the passive tests.
The Post swim recovery also indicates the relative recovery status of the athlete. In the recovered athlete, recovery was relatively fast with a reduction of 79 beats over the two minute monitoring period. Alternately, in the fatigued scenario the athlete’s post swim recovery is only 40 beats per minute after a two minute rest.
When combined with the PASSIVE indicators of fatigue, the ICS protocol is a useful monitoring tool for coaches and athletes using recovery based training techniques.
It has been said that the intelligent coach bases their training program around the individual athlete’s recovery ability.
Whilst there are no short cuts and no easy ways to achieve swimming excellence, there is also no point in “flogging a dead horse”. The old philosophies of driving a fatigued athlete to achieve a target training pace regardless of sacrifices in technique, skills and other key performance characteristics need to be reassessed in terms of the multi disciplinary performance model.
Coaches should be wary of using only measurement in the training of athletes. Heart rate is a good measurement tool but only when used in combination with other passive and active indicators. Similarly stroke mechanics are important but need to be considered with other measurements like speed, heart rate and recovery to provide the coach with the full picture.
The advantage of developing a training program based on the athlete’s ability to recover rather than how much work they can do in a specific time is that every training session becomes an opportunity to maximise performance through an individualised training prescription.
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