The Effective Monitoring of Training with Science by J. Olbrecht, Ph.D. (1999)


Winning and losing, two words charged with very contrastive but actually so close feelings and emotions. Indeed, in swimming only a few hundredths of a second may decide upon success or defeat, upon fame or failure. In former years, talent used to be a guarantee for success, but since the sporting performances have reached very high levels, it is not sufficient anymore to push out the human limits. Today, competition sports are still a matter of talent of course, but even more of training and especially of “training efficiency” which depends on:


  1. the determination of the right training objectives according to the actual physiological profile of the swimmer (weak and strong characteristics) and the races he is preparing for (= “what” do I have to train)
  2. the choice of the right type of workouts with carefully chosen intensities, volumes, rest breaks and intervals according to the training objective (= “how” do I have to build up the appropriate exercises)
  3. the correct sequence of the various exercises within the different training periods (= “when” do I have to plan these exercises)


Since not every swimmer reacts and adapts in the same way to the same training program, an ongoing individual evaluation of the evolution of the conditioning level (based on training, competition and testing results) according to the completed training program is absolutely required. A lot of reliable “tests” will therefore be included in the training program to assess the changes in the athlete’s conditioning profile. As a result of this evaluation and for an optimal training process and a continuous improvement of the “training efficiency” the objectives, the types of exercises and their sequence may need some adjustments.


The training is thus a very dynamic process (fig. 1) of:

Step I:   setting the training objectives  Step II: choosing the appropriate exercises Step III:  periodizing the exercises

Step IV: evaluating the completed training and adapting  if necessary in which the sciences play an increasingly important part.


In this article we will show you how sciences can extend support to each of the 4 steps in the training process. Sciences may then well provide:

*knowledge: results from research and studies will help the coach understand his swimmer’s adaptation on training.

*methodology: measurements with scientific evidence. The essential scientific evidence about the “objectivity” and “validity” of the measurements often takes years of   intensive

research to get established. Blood lactate concentrations, for example, have been used for many years (and are still used) and interpreted without really knowing what they reflect. Consequently conflicting results and contradictory interpretations have confused the coaches more than helped them, lactate becoming so wrongfully a very negative and unreliable monitoring parameter


It is however clear that not all the training adaptations can be scientifically (objectively and validated) measured. The coach’s experience (subjective observations) remains a very important evaluation parameter.


Step I: setting the training objectives


Goal: determination of the training objectives (“what” has to be trained)

Scientific key measurements (from high to low validity):

*lactate tests

*endurance tests

*all-out tests in training or competition


  • Determination of the conditioning profile


Besides technique and mental strength, the physical conditioning of a swimmer is one of the essential components leading to a high competitive performance. Indeed, the better the swimmer’s conditioning, the more energy will be metabolically provided and the faster he will swim.


We distinguish 4 aspects in the metabolic conditioning:

  1. the aerobic capacity: which represents the maximal rate of energy supply delivered by consuming Physiologically this capacity is expressed as VO2max and is directly measurable; but due to the specific dynamics of the oxygen uptake, no test protocol will ever be able to assess directly the real VO2max; the measured VO2max will always be underestimated. Moreover, the equipment for oxygen uptake measurements is very expensive, delicate, sensitive for error readings and quite inconvenient for the swimmer who has to wear a mask which considerable increases the water resistance. To avoid all these measurement problems we will rather use a simulation program to estimate the VO2max
  2. the anaerobic capacity: which represents the maximal rate of energy supply delivered by the anaerobic (lactic) process (=glycolysis whether or not with production of lactate). Physiologically this capacity is expressed as Plamax or Vlamax and is not directly measurable


Since we are able to calculate the aerobic and anaerobic capacities based on blood lactate readings, we give  preference to this methodology instead of using lactate thresholds (MaxLass) or other individual or fixed thresholds derived from lactate tests. These thresholds depend to a large extent but not exclusively on the aerobic capacity. Indeed, recent studies have shown that the anaerobic capacity too plays a decisive part in the origin of the metabolic thresholds. A shift of the lactate curve to the right, for example, can therefore not always be traced back to an improved aerobic capacity

(fig.2) but can as well be due to a deterioration of the anaerobic capacity (fig. 3)


Both capacities are to be considered as the maximal performance limit. In competition only a percentage of these capacities will be involved. This percentage can, to a certain extent, be improved by specific training exercises. The ability to use the capacities is labeled as “power,” so consequently both remaining aspects of the conditioning profile are:

  1. the aerobic power: which represents the percentage of the aerobic capacity that can be used in competition
  2. the anaerobic power: which represents the percentage of the anaerobic capacity that can be used in competition


  • Detection of the weaknesses in the conditioning profile At this stage it is good to have some references to evaluate the quality of the lactate readings, e.g. the 4 mmol/l lactate speed on a 400m for the assessment of the swimmer’s aerobic performances (tab. 1) and the calculated aerobic and anaerobic capacity (fig. 5, VO2max and Plamax).


  • Determination of the training objectives


Finally the objectives will be fixed according to:

  • the observed weaknesses
  • the periodization
  • the alignment with other weaknesses; for example, it is pointless for a breaststroke swimmer with a poor technique and a weak anaerobic power to spend time improving his anaerobic power as long as he is not able to maintain swimming efficiency when increasing his stroke frequency


Step II: choosing the appropriate exercises

Goal: choice and design of the training exercises that fit

with the previously determined training objectives in   step

  1. Scientific key measurements:

* lactate tests



*interval length

*rest periods


II.a types of exercises

To match the training exercises with the previously determined objectives, we set up criteria to classify the different training exercises in 4 groups. Each group has a main training effect on one of the 4 aspects of the conditioning profile:

1. Aerobic capacity exercises

  1. Anaerobic capacity exercises
  2. Aerobic power exercises
  3. Anaerobic power exercises


The criteria are based on 4 elements which can vary according to the biological adaptations the coach wants the exercise to induce. These features are:


  1. the distance (or volume) of the exercise
  2. the intensity (=speed)
  3. the rest
  4. the interval (length of the exercise = fraction)


Thanks to this classification system the coach can “give full vent” to his fantasy and ingenuity to create whatever training workout; as long as the exercise meets the requirements of the class corresponding to the planned training objective, he can be assured that the exercise induces the training effect he wished for. Designing an exercise to induce just one specific biological adaptation is impossible. Most of the time there is a major effect (= class effect) coupled with a secondary (minor) effect whether desired or not. For example, the aerobic power exercises will not only improve the aerobic power of the swimmer (= main training effect), but will also reduce the anaerobic capacity and possibly the aerobic capacity too if the aerobic power workouts are maintained over a longer period. If this happens for a long distance swimmer with a strong anaerobic capacity, the secondary training effect is even wished for. If however, the swimmer’s anaerobic capacity is very/too low, the secondary training effect needs to be counterbalanced. Sprint and technique exercises cannot be classified in this system but have of course to be planned.


II.b. Determination of volume and intensity

The volume and, even to a greater extent, the intensity of an exercise depend on the swimmer’s level of aerobic and anaerobic capacities. As a result, the speed but also the lactate values during a training exercise will vary depending on both capacities. For example, a swimmer with a good aerobic, but a weak anaerobic capacity, which is the case for most long distance swimmers, will have to remain at low lactate values (even if he can reach higher values without any problems) to avoid overtraining. Indeed, due to his low anaerobic capacity the onset of lactate accumulation in a workout will occur at a much higher intensity than in swimmers with the same aerobic capacity but with a higher anaerobic capacity. The swimmer with the lower anaerobic capacity will come much closer to his maximal aerobic and anaerobic capacities at a subjectively easy effort and a low measured lactate level. Moreover, this swimmer seems to have no warning system to suggest fatigue and will therefore “easily” swim too fast in training and break down his anaerobic capacity even further so that the above situation becomes exacerbated. If such a swimmer, with a low anaerobic capacity, is not forced to slow down in training or if the breakdown of his anaerobic capacity is not counterbalanced with anaerobic capacity training he is making a beeline for overtraining.


To determine volume and intensity we first use the fix 4 mmol/l lactate speed on a 400 m (Olbrecht et all 1985). The calculated intensities will range from 1 to 5 mmol/l lactate. The intensity for a given training exercise will then be individually adjusted according to the level of the swimmer’s both capacities. So not every swimmer will do for example, his aerobic capacity training at the same lactate level. The lower the anaerobic capacity or the higher the aerobic capacity, the lower the lactate after the aerobic capacity training. The simulation program used for the determination of both capacities based on lactate readings will clarify the intensity (lactate and speed) of the exercise.


You certainly noticed that we don’t use the heart rate to determine training intensities nor types of training exercises. Indeed, it can scientifically be proved that the heart rate is no reflection whatsoever of what happens in the muscles.


The heart rate is thus for several reasons a coarse and inaccurate parameter for fixing training intensities:

  1. The heart rate reflects the heart’s reaction to numerous internal and external The physical stress during training is certainly an important stimulus, but is not the only factor which influences the pulse rate. Indeed, at a same training intensity the swimmer’s heart rate may vary depending on his mental stress, his degree of tiredness and the condition of his health but also according to external environmental factors, such as the temperature, the wind, and the length of the set. It reflects therefore more than just a degree of metabolic reactions during exertion
  2. Slight differences in heart rate during training can, furthermore be coupled with great shifts in the nature of the Training with the same heart rate can, therefore, mean a different sort of training from day to day. If you also take into account the influence of the external environmental factors mentioned above, then despite accurate measurements, the heart rate cannot be regarded as a reliable means of checking training intensity or defining the type of exercise.


The preceding arguments do not mean, however, that the heart rate is a useless control parameter. Indeed:

  1. It is of great importance to convince the swimmers to vary their training Coupling training tasks to different heart rates can encourage the swimmer not to train constantly at the same tempo
  2. The fact that the heart rate reflects more than the metabolic reaction to an exertion stimulus certainly causes the heart rate to be a valuable means of evaluating the general condition of the whole Heart rates can tell us how well the body handles training in combination with other factors such as strength training, acclimatization to altitude, health, tiredness and so on…


Step III: periodizing the exercises

Goal: planning the exercise at the right moment

Scientific key measurements:


With the exception of the aerobic and anaerobic capacities, there are not much scientific measurements that directly tell you when to perform the different types of exercises. We empirically observed that:

  1. the better the aerobic capacity, the longer the working phase of a mesocycle can be
  2. the weaker the anaerobic capacity, the less often intensive workouts may come up per week


Beside these observations the general rules of the training science prevail:

  1. a lot of time will be spent on capacity training during the build-up phase and on power training exercises in the pre-competition period to fine-tune both capacities and to improve the aerobic and anaerobic power
  2. Finally, the water training will be aligned with dryland training


The principle of super-compensation rules every step of the training process. The planning, the periodization, even the type of training set and its volume and intensity will be continuously adjusted according to the individual super compensation pattern.


Step IV: evaluating the completed training and adapting if necessary

Goal: Evaluation of the “training efficiency” by considering and weighing the training actually completed and the effects it induced (assessment of the training adaptations). Depending on the rate of success in achieving the desired adaptations the training, testing and competition progress

  • the training for the next period will be adjusted, e. the sequence, the frequency and volume of the different exercises will be adapted.


Scientific key measurements:

  • analysis of changes in the conditioning profile
  • analysis of the completed training
  • heart rate measurements


Once the coach has completed Step I till III the swimmer can start training. The morning heart rate, the training intensity as well as the heart rate during the main workouts have to be recorded. After 6 to 8 weeks of training Step I needs to be repeated. The new observed conditioning profile is evaluated. If the changes match the training objectives the training structure will be maintained for the next training period, as long as, of course, the training objectives remain valid. If on the other hand the training objectives are not reached the training planning will be adapted.

At this stage it becomes obvious why we need objective and valid measurements. Indeed, the adjustments of the training structure for the next period are based on the observed


changes in conditioning profile in combination with the frequency of different types of training as well as the volume and the intensity at which they have been swum. A misinterpretation of the shift of the lactate curve (e.g. a shift to the right = a deterioration of the anaerobic capacity instead of an improvement of the aerobic capacity) may totally mislead the evaluation of the training effect and bias further adaptations of the training structure.



  1. Top performances are a matter of talent but even more of

“training efficiency”

  1. Sciences can extend support in the training process by providing:

*knowledge from studies

*validation of measurements

  1. The training needs to be structured:

*set the training objectives for each mesocycle

*regularly verify the achievement of the objectives

*continuously individualize/optimize further training program according to the completion of the training objectives

  1. Lactate is a valid parameter to structure the training process and so to optimize the “training efficiency” provided it is used to understand and o reveal the underlying capacities of the metabolic


































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