Swimming Fast in Practice


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Looking back in the history of swimming, one piece of the picture is remarkably clear. Over time, the percentage of time that serious athletes have trained at close to race pace, has dramatically increased. Accurate reports from the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s will show that only rarely in practice, did athletes come close to race pace swimming in training. During the 60’s and early 70’s distance was king and coaches compared notes about how much yardage they put in each day (and probably told a few whoppers along the way….) which resulted in an escalating distance war…..but the fact is, in the USA, training two hours before school and about 3 hours after school is about all anyone can do….if there is homework to done, meals to be eaten; etc. Now 5 hours a day, divided by a very fast 12 minutes per 1000 yards average, and you are going to top out quickly at 25,000 per day. (Reports tell us that 20K per day was not uncommon…but 25K might be the absolute tops.)

Now once that practical limit of 20K a day is reached, how do you “improve” by changing the stress? Naturally, you swim faster.

What are the consequences of 20K a day? A few that coaches and athletes experienced were mental fatigue with the sport (is that burnout?) physical fatigue and an inability to get to race speed very often for events shorter than a 1500, and of course at some point, the body (usually the shoulder….) goes into rebellion and bio-mechanics of even slightly flawed strokes taken over 20K a day takes its toll.

Meanwhile, our international rivals in the old Eastern Bloc countries, especially East Germany, were kicking our butt during the 70’s and 80’s. Coaches in the USA beat up on each other about “what are we doing wrong.” Over time, we heard the East Germans say, “we train harder than anyone.” And a few Eastern Bloc coaches and scientists came to our ASCA Clinics and talked to us of “accelerated methods of recovery” and related topics. Still, we didn’t get the full picture. Then we watched many of their best athletes do a meet warm up at major international competitions that consisted of 30 minutes of stretching, a 100 stretch out in the pool and a couple of very fast 25’s or 121/2s and get out! What did that mean?

Eventually, we came to the realization that our rivals were beating us by training far more INTENSELY (more yardage at race pace or faster) and far less VOLUME, than we were doing in the USA.

The “scratch your head” part of this was that every American Coach knew that more intense work fatigued swimmers faster than long, steady, smooth distance training. And when you did train intensely, it took longer to recover than it did from those 20K a day sessions of low intensity.

So how were they doing it.

By the late 80’s our suspicions were confirmed definitively. The entire eastern bloc, led by a magnificently efficient system in the old East Germany, were using drugs to recover more quickly beyond the ability of the human body without drugs to do so. So they could do “more intense work, more frequently, than their rivals in the west.”

Then the eastern bloc shattered at the end of the 1980’s. And only China emerged in the 90’s as progeny of the old East Germany, though they were much less perfect in their doping execution than the East Germans. (that is another long story of its own….) Scattered others used drugs but the day of an entire section of the world using something that others were not using was over.

Meanwhile, an interesting development and experiment was taking place…..in various clubs, universities and training situations around the USA, in reaction to the “limits” imposed by American society on the 20K a day training methodology, various coaches began experimenting with the idea of increasing the amount of race pace training in their training plans.

The same experimentation was going on in the land down under, our rivals in Australia.

Surprisingly, over time, we can deduce that today, many world-class programs do MORE intense work than the old East Germans did in the 70’s and 80’s or the Chinese in the 90’s. (more in terms of percentage of training at race pace and above.)

How can that be? Is the entire world on drugs now? I think not. But coaches have learned that we can expect MORE in terms of high performance in practice, than we thought we could, and recover in time to do it more frequently during the course of the week.

ALL of the old doped records are gone…..beaten by (we hope) clean swimmers of today. (OK, so some of today’s records might be compromised also…but no where near as many as in the past.)

With few in the world doing the 20K a day training efforts, we have swum faster. We are stronger, faster, and we train HARDER than ever before.

We hear of the “magic number” of 14K a day now, for swimmers ranging from sprinters (100/200) up through the milers. And a large percentage of that 14K is now done at velocities much closer to race pace. And a significant percentage of that 14K is done at FASTER than race pace.

Athletes eat better, rest more and have learned to recover faster.

And maybe, we have learned that some of the limitations we assumed from the past in terms of what athletes are capable of, were self-imposed limitations.

What are the “magic percentages” of race pace work? They perhaps vary from coach to coach, program to program, time in the season to time in the season, but they are significant. Much more work is done at the edge of aerobic/anaerobic interactions than ever before. And more is being done at velocities that are beyond that which will happen during the race.

Why this last? Why faster than race pace? One of the key bio-mechanical and physiological interactions that we now recognize is that as body velocity increases, the ability to streamline the body and get it out of the way of the water in front of it, is critical to continuing to increase speed.

When we train at race speed “plus,” we teach the body to get out of the way of the water. Many coaches use fins, paddles, assisted towing; etc. to stimulate the body to “learn” by feel, how to retain its least resistant shapes.

Now what does this mean if you are an age group coach today and you are preparing an athlete for the next stage in their development?

Some things DO NOT CHANGE….first, bio-mechanics (good stroke technique) comes first. We have to learn to swim slowly WELL, first, then swim faster with good technique. Then FAST with good technique and then, “race pace PLUS” with good technique. But the first job of an age group coach is teaching good technique.

Second, laying down a good endurance base between the ages of 10-14 for girls, and 12-16 for boys, is critical. And again, this is not about long, slow swimming. Its about developing the ability to swim faster on less rest. Slow 1000s won’t do this. The ability to “cruise” (to use an old term) on less rest is critical. If your cruise speed is 100’s on 1:09 (on a 1:20 base) today, six months from now, you’re trying to be 1:07 or 08 on a 1:15 base, etc.

Timeout: remember, the world record pace in the 1500 for men now is 57 seconds plus per 100 meters. Is that slow swimming? No, there is no “slow swimming” in races anymore.

Finally, whether you are training 8 and unders, or training senior swimmers, fast swimming in practice is how today’s elite athletes are improving their racing skills.

The major issue with young swimmers is that they are typically in “horrible” physical condition when you get them. They may NEVER have moved fast in their lives….you will have to teach them to be BETTER athletes, which means better limb speeds on land and especially, in the water. The ability to move LEGS in kicking and arms in pulling, and the ability to maintain body “integrity” (good body position) are all muscular and endurance components for young swimmers. Each day, they need some work at race effective speed and pace. For most of these young swimmers, that means some time per stroke cycle work in the 1.0 to 1.6 seconds per stroke range. Slower than that, and they won’t race well, faster than that and they won’t hold the water well.

Of course, no matter what age the athlete, no radical or sudden changes will work out well.

First, understand how much actual yardage per day/week/month, you are doing at race pace, or above race pace (or both).

Next, very gradually increase those percentages. How much is gradual? Probably 5% per week is acceptable.

Next you will want to know, increase until what percentage of practice is at or above race pace. Good question.

Enjoy the challenge of deciding that for yourself. Consult with those you admire in terms of how their teams swim. Decide where today’s “box” of accepted practices is…and then decide if you want to stay “within the box” or go outside the box.

Remember, nothing GREAT was ever achieved by staying inside someone else’s box of expectations. Do you want GREAT, or will you settle for Good?

All the Best for Great Coaching.

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