Swimming Technique April - June 2002 Feature Article

While overloading and base training work are still very important, underloading is, perhaps, just as important in achieving super results.

By Ron Johnson

In swimming, there is no simple recipe for success. There are as many ways to prepare for championship performance as there are programs that produce champions. There is no one "right" or "wrong" way. However, some long-held assumptions about training have been challenged in astonishing ways over the last few years. One of these is the widely-held belief that one has to train so hard as to be "broken down" before a taper can produce the best possible performance. Intelligent and progressive programs worldwide are showing us that it is possible to swim very fast several times each year. One only has to look at Ian Thorpe and Inge De Bruijn, the two most outstanding competitive swimmers in the world today, and their excellent pre-Olympic performances. Then we witnessed another dramatic drop in times at the 2000 Olympics. This has been the pattern with the top competitors in all events over the last few seasons. It's crystal clear: if you swim fast in workouts, you can step up and swim fast in meets, even while competing tired. On the other hand, a well-planned taper will produce an even higher level of achievement. One of the main ingredients to great racing is an enthusiastic mindset and decisiveness. At the recent World Cup tour, virtually all the top swimmers got progressively faster as the tour wore on. It culminated with world records by Ed Moses, Geoff Huegill, Thomas Rupprath, Martina Moravcova, Zoe Baker and Oleg Lisogor, and American records by Lindsay Benko on the tour's final stop in Berlin. All the ideas that follow are as true for age groupers and Masters swimmers as they are for top-level, world-class athletes.

Focus on the Long Term

To train very hard, be broken down for months at a time, and then to miss your taper is an explicit formula for major demotivation. Do it a couple of times, and you've probably lost an athlete. Burnout should be a major concern of swimmers and coaches who wish to have their athletes enjoy a complete and successful evolution over the long term of their sporting life.

I don't believe that most athletes reach their full capability until their late 20s or even the early 30s. We see this happening in all sports, as a general trend, as professionalism, wise training methods plus patience have allowed men and women to continue pushing forward for well past what we formerly thought was their prime.

Recently, we are seeing amazing progress in the 50s, 100s and 200s of all the strokes, while seeing only limited progress in the 400s, 800s and 1500s (with the extraordinary exceptions of Ian Thorpe and Grant Hackett). Depth and quality in the shorter speed events is greatly improved, and depth in the distance events has languished.

There are several reasons for such great strides in the more speed-oriented events_far too many to cover in this article. However, I believe that one of the principal reasons for this trend in the 200 yard/meter events and down is that skillful coaches are rotating the more traditional "overload" training with liberal doses of "underload" training methods with surprising results.

Let's discuss the terms, "overloading" and "underloading."

  • The long-held theory on the overload principle was that, whether we are concerned with strength, muscular endurance or circulo-respiratory factors, improvement in function occurs only when the system involved is challenged. Improvement occurs when_and only when_the workload is greater than that to which an individual is accustomed.

For many decades, most of us in our sport took this to mean one would only improve with more, tougher and harder sets. The old paradigm was that the more we depress a spring, the greater it will bounce back once we release it.

That has turned out to be pretty simplistic. Sometimes we overload and overtrain to the point of breaking the proverbial spring, and it just lies there, so to speak, never to bounce back even to normal levels.

  • In recent times, many innovative coaches have introduced a greater percentage of underloading elements into their training schemes (i.e., ways of training very fast_at race speed or even faster_that add variety, novelty and real value to the overall program).

There are too many excellent coaches to name in this country who have come to realize that while overloading and base training work are still very, very important, underloading is, perhaps, just as important in achieving super results.

How Do We Overload?

  • Use drag suits for more resistance and to make swimming sets more difficult.
  • Use pull tubes_small wheelbarrow tire-size tubes interlaced at the ankles for more drag.
  • Use oversized hand paddles for specific strength training in the water for upper body development.
  • Do training sets designed to make achieving a set goal more difficult (i.e., shorter rest intervals, etc.).
  • Kick vertically, holding a weight.
  • Kick hard against the wall.
  • Kick with the kickboard inverted vertically to make it more difficult.
  • Swim with shorts, panty hose, T-shirts or tennis shoes.
  • Do general long aerobic base training sets in most of their forms, to the exclusion of other forms of training.
  • Swim in a flume or against a current.
  • Use wrist weights to make the arm recovery more difficult.
  • Swim against stretch cords or surgical tubing or do stationary swimming.
  • Train in very turbulent water.
  • Do all sorts of breath-limiting or hypoxic sets.
  • Train with short-bladed/heavy fins.
  • Use weight-resistive training devices such as buckets or weight racks.
  • Do tension drills or contrast drills, where the swimmer purposely tenses all muscles in the body to make the stroke more difficult, then on the next repeat, relaxes as much as possible while still maintaining good form.
  • Do most types of land-based strength training, especially traditional weight room work.
  • In short_do or use most anything to make training more difficult.

How Do We Underload?

  • Use pull buoys to improve balance and floatability.
  • Swim with medium-bladed, light-weight or surfing fins for easy speed.
  • Vary the size of the training course_swim the width of the pool, move the bulkhead or swim in the diving well.
  • Extend the rest period on training sets_for more recovery time, look for faster pace times in a given set.
  • Add variety with cross training_this can result in a psychological and/or a physiological underloading.
  • Do speed-aided sprints with long bands and belts or pulley machines to achieve speeds faster than racing speeds.
  • Do center-fixed snorkel training to make breathing and balance easier. This also helps with streamlining.
  • Do training sets designed to achieve fast times easier rather than harder.
  • Do short-sprint diving (from the 1-meter diving board or from the deck).
  • Do pace-line swimming (like a pace line in biking), where the swimmers follow each other very closely and purposely try to draft. A new leader takes over on each repeat, with the previous leader dropping to the end of the line after his or her turn at pulling the line. Very fast repeat sets can be achieved this way for the whole group, as long as the swimmers in each lane are of similar ability.
  • Draft off other swimmers, in general_this should occasionally be encouraged, especially with swimmers who are slightly injured.
  • Perform broken swims of all sorts_broken in multiple ways.
  • Use monofins (for core strength and speed development).
  • Train in racing suits in order to get used to the feel of the suit and to increase speed in training.
  • Swim with a current (artificially made or natural).
  • Shave down (multiple times during a season).
  • Use anti-paddles or closed-fist training to improve tempo and take pressure off the shoulders.
  • Do tempo drills_priority on R.P.M. and on learning to stroke at a quicker rate (purposely not holding a lot of water, or spinning).
  • Try tai-chi swimming_swimming with perfect form but at a very slow rate, like a slow-motion film.
  • In short_do anything that makes efficiency, speed, technique and recovery easier.

Practical Application

Both overloading and underloading are essential in a complete training program, and an overemphasis on one or the other will not permit an athlete to realize his or her full potential.

It is this writer's opinion that many excellent coaches in the United States, as well as around the world, are realizing the importance of underloading for the speed events and are blending overload and underload into ideal training systems for the shorter events. There is much innovation and change among coaches and swimmers who are creative and not afraid to break away from the commonly accepted ways of conditioning.

Great strides are being made in the shorter events as a result of experimentation_primarily in underloading, which allows the athlete to train more frequently at or near racing speeds, without breaking down physically.

However, I believe that underloading in all its multiple guises could and should be employed to a much greater extent in training for races of longer duration. Base work is important in training for all distances, but I believe we are still bound by traditional training concepts in preparing athletes in the more distance-oriented events.

One must train fast in order to race fast. You must be able to maintain your race pace frequently in practice to be able to duplicate it in competition.

In order to learn about more advanced racing paces, they must be done with greater frequency in workouts. The desired race pace must become "easy speed" (i.e., one that can be maintained without undue anaerobic distress). For most advanced athletes, that usually is a pace that can be carried at a pulse rate in the range of 160-170 beats per minute (every person has a specific anaerobic threshold, of course, and age adjustments should be made). Then in the latter portion of a race, the swimmer rockets up to near-maximum pulse rate during the final sprint.

A much greater percentage of the training should be done in the underload mode to allow "easy speed" to be learned. One must constantly rehearse what he wants to happen during the race for the body to accommodate new demands. That doesn't mean we are training "easier" by underloading_only differently. We are teaching the body to swim at faster paces with lower pulse rates. In general, the swimmer who is in contention at the three-quarter mark of a race_and who has a lower pulse rate than his competitors_will win.

Sprinters have learned, or are learning, that they have to achieve desired racing speed many times per week. In constrast, most distance-oriented athletes are doing an abundance of base work, but are short-changing themselves on underloading techniques that teach speed at all distances.

In every race, one's greatest limitation for continued improvement is raw speed. There are no pure endurance races in the pool. If you can't swim fast for 100 meters, you can't swim fast for 200 meters, 400 meters, 800 meters or even 1500 meters.

Look at the best swimmers in the world at 800 meters and 1500 meters. They all can achieve sprint times that are at or near world-class. Training in the pure overload mode_or with an overemphasis on overloading_likely will result in very bored athletes who probably would be best at the 25K open water races.

To swim fast in practice is exciting, motivating, fun and difficult, but never boring.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both underloading and overloading. What we need to develop is a more intelligent way of incorporating these two principles to produce better results. The mix is part of the art of the sport.

Ron Johnson, former head men's swimming coach at Arizona State University from 1975-92 and co-coach of the women's team in 1977-78, currently coaches the Sun Devils Masters Swim Club in Tempe, Ariz. Johnson has also been named NCAA and USMS Coach of the Year.