The Distance Debate: How Much Swim Training Should We Be Doing?

By Wayne Goldsmith

Introduction:

Over the past year, I’ve had numerous pool side conversations, attended over 50 hours of lectures and workshops at major swimming conventions in the US, Australia and Great Britain, enjoyed many many long phone calls and SKYPE calls, had countless coffee, breakfast, lunch and dinner discussions, shared hundreds of emails and texts with coaches, sports scientists, researchers and swimmers all over the world – and the hottest topic on the swimming planet – the one issue that seems to be on everyone’s mind right now is the Distance Debate: How Much Swim Training Should My Swimmers be Doing.

This goes way beyond the “energy-system-specificity” discussions that have periodically challenged the coaching philosophies of the sport over the past 50 years.

I’m in a very fortunate position.

I’ve discussed and debated this topic with world-class coaches and leading sports science minds in Australia, the US, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and many other swimming nations. My views are not tied to those of any one nation – coach – philosophy – doctrine – product or company.

These are my views on the topic after carefully considering the hundreds of hours of debate I’ve been involved in over the past year regarding appropriate training distances and optimal physical loading for swimmers.

The State of Play – The Distance Debate’s Past.

To look forward, sometimes you have to look back: back to understand why it is we do what we do.

Many of the great swimming coaches of the past 50 years around the world based their greatness on the values of hard work, discipline and the relentless, uncompromising commitment to training longer and harder than anyone else was prepared to.

Coaches took pride in knowing that their swimmers did more sessions, swam more laps and worked harder than their competition – and that it was this commitment to high training loads that built the foundations of competitive swimming success.

The hard work-high volume concept was – and is – relatively simple to understand and for the most parts it’s an extremely effective swimming coaching philosophy. It goes like this:

If my swimmers work harder more often than your swimmers – so that the average “fitness” of my swimmers is higher than the average “fitness” of your swimmers, then – on average, my swimmers will defeat your swimmers in competition.

In addition, swimming sports science was coming of age in 60s, 70s and 80s and many of the sport’s leading coaches, writers and thought influencers of the time: Carlile, Counsilman, Colwin, Maglischo and others all wrote about the importance of developing an early season “base” of aerobic type training. In (Forbes) Carlile’s case, his “speed-through-endurance” philosophy influenced the thinking and coaching methods of several generations of Australian swimming coaches.

This “aerobic-base” concept has flourished in all endurance sports and in reality is still the dominant swimming coaching philosophy applied in most parts of the world.

However, as the world outside swimming seeks to find faster, better and more efficient ways to do things – the traditional hard work-high volume philosophy has increasingly come under scrutiny.

bronte-campbell-world-championships-2015

Photo Courtesy: R-Sport / MIA Rossiya Segodnya

Change – The Swim Training Distance Debate’s Present

As society strives for new and better and faster ways to achieve success in all fields of endeavor, it is natural that swimming coaching methodologies similarly face challenge, review and debate.

In recent years – partly due to some good research, innovative coaching and occasionally as a result of some clever marketing, swimming has experienced an unprecedented influx of new ideas, new training approaches and new coaching methodologies – all seeking to help coaches and swimmers realise their potential effectively and efficiently – i.e. the “more with less” philosophy.

Some of these new approaches offer great potential to progress the sport and may even provide the catalyst to inspire real breakthroughs in the coaching of competitive swimmers in the future. These include

  • H.I.I.T. (High Intensity Interval Training)
  • P.T. (Polarized Training) and
  • U.S.R.P.T. (Ultra Short Race Pace Training)

However……to someone with a hammer – every problem seems like a nail.

Is H.I.I.T. the best way to go? It’s got some good things going for it as a concept – but it’s unlikely to be the best.

Will P.T. prove to be the only way of developing both speed and endurance in competitive swimmers? It’s an interesting method of training but will it prove to be the only way swimmers can achieve success. No.

U.S.R.P.T.? I’ve known U.S.R.P.T. master-mind Dr Brent Rushall for a long time. He’s a smart guy – a brilliant scientific mind and an outstanding thinker. There’s a lot of great stuff in the U.S.R.P.T. philosophy – particularly in regards the need for consistent, precise, deliberate coaching but is it the only way to develop swimmers. I personally doubt it.

When you have the great honor of working with many leading coaches and sports scientists around the world, one thing is clear: there is no one way of doing things.

There is no proven, infallible,  all-encompassing – all-knowing – all successful philosophy that will work for every coach and every athlete – (i.e. all ages, all strokes, all events and both genders) on the planet.

A World Wide Shift in Swim Training For Sprinters.

There is however a very clear shift around the world in the swim training of senior sprinters (i.e. late teens and older) towards relatively low volume – high intensity training.

Some of the world’s fastest 50 and 100 metre sprinters in Australia, the US, France, Great Britain and the Netherlands are swimming in some cases half (yep – you read it right) – 50% of the volume of more traditional hard work – high volume programs.

But…before you excitedly jump on the “let’s do a lot less training” bandwagon, here are some important issues to consider.

  1. The sprint programs that have adopted the low volume – high intensity training philosophy are still training very hard. They may have reduced in-pool training volume but their commitment to dry-land, running, general-athleticism, fitness, core-stability, strength-training, etc – has increased dramatically. The programs which have successfully adopted a reduced pool-training load have – if anything – significantly increased their overall training commitment and their adherence to the principles and practices of good nutrition, recovery, sleep management and psychological / emotional well-being. There are no short cuts in the journey to swimming success – just different paths.
  2. The effectiveness of the low volume high intensity training philosophy is uncertain in distance swimmers, medley swimmers and 200 metre form strokers. At present – the leading athletes in these events are still – for the most part – coming from coaching programs with more traditional approaches to in-pool training loads.
  3. Whilst the “selling” of a low volume high intensity training program to young swimmers (and their parents) is easier than trying to convince them that 10 sessions a week is the way to go – coaches need to be clear why they believe a reduction in pool training volume is their new coaching philosophy.

The message is clear.

Having spoken with and observed the programs of some of the world’s leading sprint swimming coaches, just doing less volume in the pool is not the answer.

Decreasing pool training volume necessitates a more holistic, intelligent, logical and innovative approach to coaching and a very deliberate and purposeful philosophy behind swimmer development: it’s so much more than just cutting back on laps and pool workouts.

Photo Courtesy: Gian Mattia Dalberto/Lapresse

Photo Courtesy: Gian Mattia Dalberto/Lapresse

Forward Thinking and Looking – The Distance Debate’s Future For Swim Training

So….where is the distance debate heading?

Where is the sport of swimming shifting in practice philosophies and training methodologies?

It’s impossible to say with any certainty.

However, what does appear certain is that as a coach you can sit back and wait for the future to come to you and follow the thinking, innovations and practices of braver, bolder, brighter forward reaching coaches.

Or you can forge your own future: you can cut your own path and find ways of helping your swimmers to get faster – sooner.

From my perspective after a long, long year researching and thinking about this issue, I believe that we need to shift away from the obsession with the volume, intensity and frequency debate, (i.e. the physiology of swimming) towards more holistic, integrated training methodologies where psychology and swimming biomechanics are emphasised to a far greater degree than they are in most programs at present.

A quick look into the swimming crystal ball might show for example…

  1. A far greater emphasis on mental skills development and emotion management strategies for swimmers of all ages;
  2. An ongoing journey of experimentation of ways to intelligently connect and integrate pool training with non-pool training;
  3. A much great emphasis on quality coaching and deliberate intervention in training – where the art of coaching becomes the unquestioned driver of the science of swimming;
  4. A requirement for all coaches to have a greater understanding of technique and skills development – above and below the water;
  5. The development of closer working partnerships with parents and partners to provide swimmers with a “whole of life”, holistic development framework.

No matter what happens – looking at how performances have progressed over the past 100 years of swimming history we know that the future will be faster.

Summary

  1. Regardless of the science, “pseudo-science”, “myths”, “sales-pitches” and “anecdotes” that thrive in this sport, it’s important to figure out what it is you believe in and why you believe in it. Then – once your coaching philosophy is clear, become the best you can be as a practitioner and as a professional in implementing that philosophy in every aspect of your coaching. “if you stand for nothing – you will fall for anything”.
  2. In the end – no matter what the sales-staff who are promoting one particular training system over another say – 25 years working in swimming at all levels and all over the world tells me that there is no one perfect, guaranteed to work, one-size-fits-all training system to suit all athletes of all ages and of all levels of ability. Coaches need to work closely with their athletes, spend time trying to understand them and continuously strive to find unique, engaging and effective ways to help their individual athletes realise their full potential.
  3. Fads, ideas, innovations, challenging new research findings and new products will always be finding their way into the sport. As a coach, look, listen and think about everything you see and hear – carefully assess its value and relevance to your coaching and continuously make intelligent, systematic changes to your program based on its potential capacity to help your program and your athletes improve.

Wayne Goldsmith

27 Comments

27 comments

  1. avatar
    Chicago Scott

    USA marathon get tried cutting mileage in the late 80s and 90s, after the glory years of Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar & Frank Shorter. It didn’t work.

    The elites are now running around 125 miles a week, with lots of LSD (long, steady distance). Brian Sell of the Hanson-Brooks Project, was known to log more than 150 per week, with a 2:10 marathon best.

    • avatar
      JL

      You are comparing swimming(longest race 15-17min.). To a true distance event lasting in the hours. Not a fair comparison.

      • avatar
        a t

        and you are comparing marathon running (longest race ~2-hrs) to true distance swims lasting 10+ hours? not a fair comparison.

  2. Brian Culver

    It’s not the # of yards it is the quality of each yard

    • Brian Culver

      Old school was rack up the yards. Swimmers developed bad habits. Now more focus on technique efficient strokes

    • Trevor Morton

      I wish my coach would understand that

    • Karlo Vukic

      Trevor Morton if u are questioning your coach u should change him

  3. avatar
    John Dussliere

    Brian Culver that is unfortunately a poor observation of the program you so easily dismiss. When in a proper higher mileage program the technical aspects of stroke and race strategy are meticulously worked on throughout every training session. “Old school” is still winning medals and breaking records. It might need an updated label. “Effective school” sounds about right. There are many ways to get to the podium.

    • avatar
      Coachie

      Well said Coach and so true. Wish some of our younger generations of coaches understood this.

  4. avatar
    Cynthia mae Curran

    It depends if you want to be Gary Hall Jr or Katie Ledecky.

  5. avatar
    Curt Altschul

    One aspect for improved performance was left out of the article and that is the application of science for planning proper race strategy. Few swimmers split their races properly and that is 100% the fault of the coach. Far too many coaches fail to help their swimmers plan races and train them in a fashion that prepares the swimmer for proper race splits.

    • avatar
      coacherik

      You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. Ultimately the swimmer needs to decide if they are going to implement a race strategy and split it well. If a coach gives the right work, has the conversations, gets the confirmation of understanding yet it doesn’t happen, is it still 100% the coaches fault?

      • avatar
        Curt Altschul

        I can’t get in and swim the races. However, through proper classroom instruction and instructional / demonstration sets, the swimmer will learn.

        But … OK, if the swimmer refuses to follow instructions, it is the swimmer’s failure. I’ll give ya that one.

  6. Richard John Sleight

    Yes the answer is read, network, study and determine your philosophy. One of my mentors Paulus Wildeboer said it took him years to develop a philosophy that he really believed in and worked. I am still finding mine but getting their!

  7. Gordon Belbin

    Interesting how the article singles out Carlile’s speed through endurance philosophy but fails to mention that Carlile’s current view is that USRPT is the “only coaching model worth adopting”.

    • avatar

      Thanks for your comment Gordon.

      Forbes is a living legend. A great man – brilliant mind and it humbles me to say – a good friend. I’ve had the honor of sitting with him and debating this topic face to face on several occasions.

      You are 100% correct – Forbes now publicly refutes Speed Through Endurance and is a fierce critic of many other traditional training philosophies. His greatness has always been based in his intelligent, science-based fearless views on coaching practices that do not advance the sport.

      The point of the article is to challenge coaches, swimmers and others to think broadly about the sport, to consider their philosophies carefully and continue to seek better ways of helping every swimmer they work with realise their potential whilst striving for continuous learning and improvement throughout their coaching careers.

      Thanks again.

      WG

  8. avatar
    George Schmidt

    As a 66 yo Masters swimmer who has embraced a personalized Tabata HIIT for more than 10 years, I agree that no one training system is good for all swimmers. Tabata was for elite Olympic athletes who are 20 years old, the same as USRPT. I train by myself and listen to my body, and am swimming as fast as I did 10 years ago (allowing for the loss of tech suits and injuries). I feel training at race pace with adequate rest intervals is much more efficient than swimming “busy laps” to get lots of yards in.

    • avatar
      Glenn Gruber

      George, I will agree with you except the part about USRPT being for swimmers 20 years old. You know very well that this 66 year old body has been kicking butt since he started training exclusively with USRPT 3 years ago.

  9. avatar
    James

    Get the right coach.

    Find a coach who is personable, smart, technically sound, and interesting…and who doesn’t flog their swimmers within an inch of their life. Great coaches know that it’s important to do the right volume of training, with emphasis on excellent technique at all times. Too much endless, pointless training leads to frustration, boredom and injuries. If you find yourself saying, “Oh no, not swimming training again”, then you’re attending too many sessions, cut a session off over the next few weeks. Be physically and mentally sharp. Shoulder injuries are a sure indication of too much training and/or poor technique or both.

    Don’t settle for a coach who is uninterested, unenthusiastic, boring, uneducated (minimum school leaver qualifications), technically naive, threaten swimmers (especially Age Group Swimmers) with if you don’t do ‘this’ then you can do 200m Fly.

    Watch out for any coach who presents the classic ‘fish and chip’ pose i.e. arms crossed looking aimlessly down the pool trying to look engaged when actually they’re thinking “Hmmm, I wonder if I’ll have fish and chips or chicken and chips for tea tonight”. Those coaches are at every club, somewhere. Those coaches are always first to take credit for any minor or major improvements made. Those coaches are always looking to use the achievement of their swimmers to advance their own agendas and careers, rather than improve their swimmers.

    If swimming is your sport, select your coach carefully. It all starts with the right coach.

Author: Wayne Goldsmith

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Wayne Goldsmith has been an influential figure in world swimming for more than 20 years. He has written more than 500 articles on swimming, swimming coaching, swimming science, triathlon and swimming performance which have been published in books, magazines and online all over the world. Wayne has been a staff writer for Swimming World for the past ten years. Wayne lives, writes and coaches on the Gold Coast, Australia.

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