The Scientific Basis and Benefits of Reduced Training Distance

Guest contribution by Rod Havriluk, Ph.D., Swimming Technology Research, Joel Stager, Ph.D., Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University

TALLAHASSEE, Florida, November 22. SWIMMING World recently published articles on drastically different approaches to training distance — a case for high volume (Stott, 2012a) and a case for less volume (Stott, 2012b). While the supporting anecdotal information is interesting, science should serve as a solid basis for choosing, developing, and justifying a training strategy. A previous article outlined anatomical and biomechanical issues with excessive training distance (Havriluk, Becker, Miller, & Rodeo, 2012). The current article presents the physiological basis and skill-learning benefits of reduced distance training.

Before addressing the science, let's set the record straight about the scientific terminology appropriate for totaling how far a swimmer swims. “Training volume” is commonly used by the swimming community to describe “training distance.” While “volume” has informal definitions that include distance, intensity, and rest, it simply isn't an appropriate term to represent the length a swimmer traverses. According to the international convention for units (SI), volume is a unit of measure with three dimensions: height, width, and length. Distance, in contrast, has only one dimension: length. For the purpose of this article, “distance” will be used instead of “volume.” We'll reserve the use of the term “volume” for how much water a competitive pool contains!

Another point to clarify is the magnitude of excessive training distance. Stott (2012a) cited mega-yardage values in excess of 100,000 yards per week in the 1970s, with current distances ranging between 60,000 and 95,000 yards. In his second article, Stott (2012b) cited 75,000 meters per week as less than “ultra-high mileage.” Evidently, there is a sizeable range in maximum distance, but all definitions offer training distances that can be considered to be substantial. Reductions, it will be argued, from the cited training distances are appropriate from both the physiological and skill-leaning perspective.

Physiological Basis of Reduced Training Distance

It has always been difficult for coaches to decide “how much training distance is enough?” Some of the earliest recommendations on training distance (as early as the late 1800s) avoid answering this question by posing the converse question; “How much distance is too much?” More than a hundred years later, we're still asking these two questions. Clearly, there isn't one answer. Rather, it depends upon multiple factors: the intended competitive event, the individual characteristics of the athlete (e.g. age, experience, skill level), the training phase, and in some cases, the simple availability of pool time.

There are physiological guidelines that can be used, however. Younger swimmers and high school swimmers primarily compete in sprint events. High school competition consists mostly of 50 and 100 yd events. Even the older and more experienced swimmers mostly race distances of 200 m or less. The time duration for the majority of individual events is, therefore, less than three minutes. As such, performance in these events is influenced considerably more by power than by endurance. Thus, training (at specific, key periods within the training plan) should emphasize the development of power and refrain from activities that might compromise power.

Physiologically, the voluntary skeletal muscles seem to have two opposing functional traits: power and endurance. Research suggests that when you train for one, you might influence the other to some extent. However, it appears that when coaches emphasize endurance, the effect is to inhibit power. Let's not forget that by definition, power is the ability to do physical work quickly. Strength, in comparison, has no time component and is simply the ability to do work. Swimmers don't have to be the strongest; they have to be the fastest. Oddly, the quickest way to improve muscle contractile speed is to stop training altogether! This would hardly be recommended for the serious athlete. That does, however, sound remarkably similar to what takes place during taper.

Briefly then, let's consider the purposes of training. Obviously, the first purpose is to swim faster. One tenet of coaching is “to swim fast, you have to train fast.” But, if all the swimmer ever does is swim long slow distance or swim fatigued, when do they learn to swim fast? The second purpose for training is to be able to recover faster. This seems especially important when swimmers compete in multiple events with limited rest between events. The ability to endure a six or eight thousand-yard practice has very little to do with swimming a fast 50 or 100 yard race.

Most research suggests that many of the desired training responses are achieved within about six to eight weeks of beginning to train. At that point, to continue to improve (also a difficult term to define!) you have to change the training stimulus as a means to continue to adapt to the training. For sprinters then, there is little support for increases in cardiopulmonary performance beyond what takes place in the first six to eight weeks of training. From this point on, the cellular metabolic machinery can be maintained by several aerobic bouts a week. Continued emphasis on aerobic capacity will do little to improve power output and may, in fact, be detrimental. Instead, the development of power and then the application of that power to the water should be the focus.

Another way to look at this is to separate 'training' from 'practice'. Training is more about accumulating distance and focusing on cardiopulmonary performance. Practice is more about technique, tactics, neurological improvements, and the development and application of power. Thus, early season pool sessions are centered upon training and mid to late season shifts much more towards practice. The taper is almost exclusively practice.

Practice is terribly demanding (in a different way than training) and takes cooperation and focus by both the athlete and the coach. However, the benefits of practice in contrast to the benefits of training are key to continued improvement.

Skill-Learning Benefits of Practice or Reduced Training Distance

In addition to the sound physiological basis for reduced training distance, there are a number of skill-learning benefits which can each produce a substantial improvement in performance.

Examples of the benefits of reduced training distance include:

Less distraction caused by shoulder stress. In contrast to an over-distance program, a reduced training distance means fewer stroke cycles. Since continued overuse stresses the shoulder, fewer cycles mean less cumulative shoulder stress. Shoulders that are not stressed and not suffering from inflammation are not as likely to interfere with focus on technique.

More coach-swimmer interaction. Another advantage of a reduced training distance is that there is more time available during the workout for coach-swimmer interaction (practice). Coaches have more time to explain technique concepts and give feedback to swimmers as they work on skills. If time is specifically dedicated to interaction, swimmers may be more comfortable engaging in dialog with the coaching staff.

Less fatigue allows better focus. Minimizing fatigue is essential to adequately focus on improving technique. Without the burden of having to swim every possible lap in a training session, some time can be dedicated to swimming slow to avoid fatigue and allow better focus on technique. Coaches can implement a regular routine of short, slow swims with the priority on skill improvement.

Less frequent breathing to improve visual input. When swimming slower, a swimmer can minimize the number of breathing strokes. If the head is motionless on nonbreathing strokes, swimmers can better focus on visual input. They will be more certain of what they see and be better able to control their movements using visual feedback.

More effective practice to develop expertise. Research shows that it requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of performance (Ericcson Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993). Strokes performed with an ineffective technique (because of fatigue, speed, breathing, etc), however, are not likely to reinforce expert technique. It is essential to practice many thousands of repetitions of effective technique to develop expertise.

More time for analysis. Less time for training distance allows more time for testing, analysis, and most importantly, feedback to the swimmer. Once an analysis procedure becomes routine, swimmers are processed more quickly and can receive regular (e.g. weekly) reports about improvement (or lack of improvement).

More time for race-specific practice. The ultimate goal of skill-learning is to maintain the most effective technique throughout an entire race. A reduced distance regimen allows more time for swimmers to practice under simulated race conditions (i.e. practice meets). Training sets that include: a start from the block, a long rest between swims, and one swimmer per lane provide swimmers with the opportunity to practice maintaining effective technique for an entire race.

Conclusions

A reduced 'distance' program has both a sound physiological basis and numerous skill-learning advantages. As the majority of swimming events require a relatively short amount of performance time, an emphasis on power production (as opposed to training distance) is vital to maximize these swim performances. While reduced training distance is consistent with the most specific physiological emphasis, swimmers also benefit from technique improvements. The assumption that 'more is better' needs to be re-evaluated by coaches on a daily, weekly and annual basis. It is completely possible that in this specific case it is less about what coaches do with their swimmers than what they don't do.

References

Ericcson, A., Krampe, R. T. & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363-406.
Havriluk, R., Becker, T., Miller, J., & Rodeo, S. (2012). Medical concerns of mega-yardage training: strategies to prevent and rehabilitate shoulder injury. Retrieved from: http://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/lane9/news/Commentary/30442.asp
Stott, M. (2012a). The case for volume. Swimming World, 53(2), 26-27.
Stott, M. (2012b). The case for less volume. Swimming World, 53(3), 29-30.

Author Notes

Rod Havriluk is president of Swimming Technology Research and a former coach. Joel Stager is currently a coach and director of the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming at Indiana University.

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