Planning the Training
The sport of swimming demands athletes and coaches who are very meticulous in their preparation for competition. In no other sport is the level of preparation, tapering for the big day and rigid control of training intensities quite the same. One aspect that contributes to this accuracy in training pace is the uniformity of conditions. Apart from having a warmer or colder pool or one that is 25, 33.3 or 50 metres in length, there is little difference in the training environment. Let us face it, you are all staring at a black line on the pool floor for length after length.
Demands of the sport
There can be variety within the sport, however, depending quite simply on which stroke(s) are your best and you use in competition, as well as on what distance you travel on race day. This means that there is an element of specialisation in swimming, much as Linford Christie and Rob de Castella have somewhat diverse approaches to running. A 25 metre swim would give a similar competition time to the 100 metres sprinter, while a 200 metre effort could give a race duration between 1½ to 2 minutes, and an endurance event of 1500 metres may require between 14 to 20 minutes, depending on age, standard and gender.
This range of events means that a variety of forms of conditioning are needed to match the demands of the race event. Although a training regimen of mixed paces will be used by all swimmers, the sprinter will clearly be logging fewer but faster training lengths for preparation, while the endurance counterpart will log considerably more lengths at a more sedate tempo.
Phases of training
Planning the perfect peak, to coincide with the most important gala on the yearly calendar, is the hallmark of the world class swimmer and coach. The training year will typically start from the active rest enjoyed at the end of your previous season. The planning of various training phases, however, will work back from competition day of the following season. The key variables to play with are volume and intensity, while the influence of land work, especially strength training, will also sculpt your swimming fitness for a crescendo on the important race day. This could be anything from the Olympic Games (in which case a full peak would not be possible for the trials) to a national championships, county championships or local gala or club event. You must choose when your own big goal performance is to be.
It may be that you plan two peaks, one for the short-course season in winter and another for the long course. This double periodisation could mean that you have two general endurance periods, two specific endurance periods, the two competition periods, as well as two taper periods, all within a year. Naturally, these periods will be much shorter than in a single periodised year.
How you structure your training within these periods is a matter of preference, but there will probably be greater volume in the general endurance period, followed by a period of moderate to high volume with increased intensity. This is then followed by a period of taper, which leaves your body fresh and ready for competition, with lots of training banked up from which to draw.
The training week
A whole host of different types of training sessions can fit into the week of the swimmer, giving the coach and physiologist many opportunity for workouts of slightly different intensity. The structure of the week will vary according to the particular phase but it is important that all aspects are covered to different degrees, all year round.
Four major intensities can he established and these in turn may well be sub-divided to give a greater range of options. In Base Endurance sessions, you work at very low intensities to enhance the oxidative capacity of the muscles and increase the ability to metabolise fats as an energy substrate. Aerobic maintenance sessions will form a large bulk of volume, where the intensity is a little harder to give a greater stimulus to the heart and lungs. Threshold work should give the optimal aerobic training effect, provided the intensity is right. If you are too fast, there is a greater contribution from anaerobic metabolism, and if you are too slow, you could be going faster. Speed endurance, or lactate production and lactate tolerance sessions are far more intense and so need to be done in interval workouts to keep sufficient volume.
Added to these conditioning sessions should be flexibility work, before and after pool sessions, and in sessions in their own right. Technique work is also vital in a sport where hundredths of a second really count. Work in the weight room can increase strength and power, a crucial factor in swimming success, but it is important to choose exercises that are actually going to contribute to an increase in swimming velocity. If they are not specific to your sport, then the value of time spent on such work is, at best, questionable.
Depending on which training cycle you are in, you will often cover varying sessions on endurance/ stamina work and speed/power work. There are hundreds of different swim sets you could carry out through a certain training cycle. Below are examples of what to include in those sessions, at what intensity, and how much rest should be given. These examples are to be used as a "main set" for a single training session. A quality warm-up and "lead-in" set should be completed first, followed by a recovery set and cool-down, depending in the length of the session, training cycle, etc.
Any competitive swimmer must incorporate this type of training throughout their season or given cycle. This will build their physiological aerobic base from which to develop more specifically for their needs, whether it is simply fitness or distance based swims (400 metres or 1500 metres) or sprint-based swims (50 metres or 100 metres).
This involves working at a heart rate level of 65 to 75% HRmax for a period of 15 to 60 minutes. Rest within the sets should be between 10 to 30 seconds depending on the distance repeats you are swimming.
This involves working at a heart rate level of 80 to 85% HRmax, for a period of 15 to 45 minutes. Rest within the sets should be between 10 to 30 seconds depending on the distance repeats you are swimming.
Occasional endurance sets should involve this type of training, whereby you swim at a heart rate level of 85 to 90% HRmax for a period of 15 to 30 minutes. Recovery within the set should be no longer than 30 seconds depending on the distance repeats you are swimming. The main aim of this type of training is to work for a solid length of time at a high intensity with little rest to ensure the working muscle groups achieve overload. As you know, without achieving overload, progression will not occur within a given time scale.
Sprint training adds the anaerobic fitness base to the aerobic base you have developed with your endurance training. It works on the two anaerobic energy systems: the creatine phosphate energy system and the lactate energy system. Training involves short, fast repeats with good rest intervals to ensure you can overload both these energy systems. The additional benefit of sprint training is muscle adaptation to the speed type exercise, as well as the aerobic benefits trained earlier. Working the fast twitch muscle fibres will increase their number and size in a given muscle as well as the speed of excitation.
The following examples of training sets are to be used as a "main set" as with the previous endurance examples.
This involves working at a heart rate level of 90 to 95% HRmax, with substantial rest periods within the given set. The aim is to work close to maximum speed and then to rest (for between 3 and 5 minutes) in order to give time for some lactate to be broken down and eliminated.
The aim of this type of set is also to exercise at close to maximum but with less rest (between 1 and 3 minutes) in order for your body to experience exercising with lactate build-up in your system. This therefore involves working at a heart rate level of 90 to 95% HRmax.
One final area of a training session is swimming "drills". The aim is to slow the stroke down and to concentrate on and practice the key areas of technique, whether it be the high area recovery on Freestyle, the symmetrical arm cycle of the butterfly, the timing of the kick and pull on breaststroke, or the shoulder roll on the backstroke arm cycle. These can form part of the warm-up or lead-in set or even the recovery set.
Work that is more specific can be done with the use of a float and a pull buoy. For example, kicking drills with or without flippers/with or without a float, speed or endurance kick sets depending on your current training cycle. Pulling sets can work very well on technique, endurance as well as power development in the arm cycle. Again, these sets could be used as part of the warm-up, lead-in set or recovery set.
To optimise strength and power, competitive swimmers need to supplement their pool training with land based training in the gym. For best effect, the program of strength training exercises should replicate the actions in the water as closely as possible.
A common practice used by swimmers and coaches is the well established technique of tapering, whereby the volume of training is reduced before competition. When planning a tapering program consider the following points:
The information on this page is adapted from Dunbar (1994) with the kind permission of Electric Word plc.
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