The Limits of Today’s Swimming Programmes

The majority of swimming programmes used for training swimmers of all ages, across the world, limit themselves in one way or another. Although many coaches are embracing the ever-increasing research into swim training, a huge number are still using yesterday’s methods to train their athletes – inhibiting them from progressing further in their sporting careers. I have addressed the training methods which create these restrictions and introduced how coaches and clubs can move into using tomorrow’s practices, today.

Traditional Training – Garbage Yardage

Firstly, traditional training programmes are based on long slow swimming, or in other words, “garbage yardage”. Swimming at speeds of low intensity does not enable a swimmer to meet the demands of any pool events, in both physiological and psychological terms. As technique is directly related to the velocity swum, swimming at slow speeds will not allow the transfer of the swimmer’s technique into faster swimming. Studies have observed that, although, swimming at speeds of a low-intensity will improve the slow component of aerobic metabolism – a feature useful perhaps to open water swimmers – this is not associated with performance in in-pool events.

Hellard et al., 2010, identified that the slow component of the aerobic pathway is related to long-distance slow swimming – supporting that this is a capacity which would not be useful to anyone other than open water swimmers. Matsunami, M et al., 2012, observed that endurance training, after a lay-off period, improved endurance factors quickly in the first four weeks, however, no further improvements occurred. There have also been research papers which conclude that higher-intensity training causes quicker and higher levels of adaption than low-intensity training. Johansen et al., 2010, demonstrated that “Twelve weeks training consisting of doubling the amount of high-intensity training and reducing the training volume by 50%, increased abilities,” “to reach higher maximal velocities (~5% increase) over 100 m without compromising endurance capacity.” This is supported by numerous other studies which promote high-velocity swimming over lower-intensity.

High Intensity Swimming is Not Enough

However, merely creating a programme which is solely high-intensity work, with a reduction in total distances than traditional training, is only one step in the ladder. Don’t get me wrong, hearing of any coach who has moved their programme into the 21st century is a delight and their swimmers will certainly reap the benefits – but only so far. Training, if it is to improve performances consistently, must be conducted at race-velocities. Swimming slower, however fast, does not meet the crucial principle of specificity. An athlete who has a very impressive VO2max or who can swim or long distances at 80% max heart rate may be very fit but what has that got to do with performance?

Well, not a lot. Although a few (and I emphasise the latter word) studies have shown a correlation – a poor one may I add – between VO2max and other such measures concerning performances, there are other studies which demonstrate why time should be better spent swimming at race-pace. For one, as mentioned above, technique is directly related to the velocity at which one swims; due to the neuromuscular element of swimming. To perform desired technical movements in a race, the swimmer must repeat the actions, in training, at race-pace. Pelarigo, 2010, and Toussaint et al., 1990, concluded that race-pace training is essential as techniques change with velocity.

The other way to think about the above statement regarding the relationship between velocity and technique is that the energy demands will, if performed at race-pace, meet the same (or very similar) demands as that within a race; that is, if you conduct the race-pace training in the correct format. Race-pace training which causes such fatigue that the stroke begins to break-down should be deemed useless. Under these conditions, the desired technique is no longer maintained. Specific distances, repetitions and intervals should be adhered to, to optimise race-pace training.

Ultra-short race-pace training (USRPT) is an ideal platform as it provides an optimal way in which to conduct race-pace training – optimally improving the aerobic and anaerobic capacities of the athlete, as well as meeting the specific demands of a race. A comprehensive database on USRPT can be found at the following link:


Another essential principle of training in sport is individuality. Every swimmer, even when grouped in lanes of very similar abilities, will still contain individuals who are each physiologically different. Thus, a coach who is providing a one-size-fits-all programme for all swimmers is committing a great injustice – even a workout which has been tailored for individual lanes does not go far enough (although it’s a start!). As a coach, I fully appreciate the seemingly impossible task of creating a programme for each athlete; however, it may be a lot easier than you may think. Following the principle of specificity, all swimmers should train at a) their race pace and b) meet the same energy demands of racing. When training, swimmers should cease the race-pace set once they begin to miss their target, i.e. their race-pace target time. This rule ensures that swimmers are only training at their race-pace and are not swimming under conditions which are not related to those of a race. USPRT embodies this principle of individuality. It works on a format which provides the swimmer, when they fail a to meet their target time, a break to recover before continuing until they once again fail to meet their time; after that, they cease the set and commence a recovery. A specific guide to conducting a USRPT workout can be found here:

Extra time

One of the huge advantages of embracing the URSPT programme is that, due to the reduction in volume, an increased amount of time becomes available to allow the coach to develop swim skills e.g. turns, starts, etc. These are skills which are often neglected, or are rushed when included, due to the desire of traditional coaches to “get in the yards.” A swimmer may possess a high standard of technical ability; however, they “fall by the wayside” due to their low standard of other swim skills – another limitation which is overcome by the increased time provided by the reduction in volume.

Social life…What Social life?

Almost every swimmer I’ve met, past or present, has complained that as a teenager they have no time to do other activities. A big one is having no time to see friends. Many teens leave the sport due to the time they are expected to put into their training or continue, with the mindset that it is a necessary sacrifice. It is not! With USRPT, the massive reduction in volume from traditional training allows athletes the time to enjoy their sport, be successful, but also have fun doing other things – spending time with friends, participating in other sports, etc. This should be seen as a major limitation in swimming programmes and needs to be addressed to allow our young swimmers to become the well-rounded individuals they are entitled to become. Too many have been made to believe this is an evil that they have to endure.


This article has attempted to demonstrate how there are a number of factors in training programmes which can limit the progress of swimmers. It can be concluded that although, high-intensity swimming is a step in the ‘right’ direction, it doesn’t go far enough. To ensure the principle of specificity is met, training of all forms (technical, conditioning, skills, etc) must be conducted at race-velocity. Individuality is another important factor in a swimming programme to ensure every swimmer is being trained optimally. USRPT was recommended as the platform in which to overcome these limitations – which has been designed to tax the aerobic and anaerobic systems greater and more effectively than high and certainly low intensity training, whilst remaining tailored for each swimmer, due its set guidelines, and specific to the demands of race – physically and mentally. USPRT has been created to remove these listed limitations and should be embraced by all coaches in order to provide swimmers with the best opportunity to achieve their sporting goals. As a direct result of implementing the USRPT programme, extra time becomes available for skills training and athletes are able to enjoy great (greater) success whilst enjoying everything a teenager should be allowed to enjoy…without having to choose between the sport they love and having time do other activities they want to do. This also provides a solution to the old adage, in swimming and other sports, of teenage athlete retention.

Yours in Swimming,



Hellard, P., Houel, N., Avalos, M., Nesi, X., Toussaint, J. F., & Hausswirth, C. (2010). Modeling the slow component in elite long distance swimmers at the velocity associated with lactate threshold. A paper presented at the XIth International Symposium for Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming, Oslo, June 16–19, 2010.

Matsunami, M., Taimura, A., & Mizobe, B. (2012). The role of high volume endurance training in competitive swimming. Presentation 1564 at the 59th Annual Meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine, San Francisco, California; May 29-June 2, 2012.

Johansen, L., Jørgensen, S., Kilen, A., Larsson, T. H., Jørgensen, M., Rocha, B., Nordsborg, N. B. (2010). Increased training intensity and reduced volume for 12 weeks increases maximal swimming speed on a sprint distance in young elite swimmers. A paper presented at the XIth International Symposium for Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming, Oslo, June 16–19, 2010.

Pelarigo, J. G., Denadai, B. S., Fernandes, B. D., Santiago, D. R., César, T. E., Barbosa, L. F., & Greco, C. C. (2010). Stroke phases and coordination index around maximal lactate steady-state in swimming. A paper presented at the XIth International Symposium for Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming, Oslo, June 16–19, 2010.

Toussaint, H. M., Knops, W., De Groot, G., & Hollander, A. P. (1990). The mechanical efficiency of front crawl swimming. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 22, 402-408.


5 thoughts on “The Limits of Today’s Swimming Programmes

  1. Very one sided argument not convinced about USRPT its use may be OK if combined with traditional VO2MAx work. Also not enough discussion about its use for 200 plus events. Can you ask the Olympic Medallists on distance events if they are using USRPT
    Martyn Woodroffe

    • I have attempted to show examples of the evidence, as to why current programmes are just not fit for purpose. My articles tries to provoke thought amongst the readers rather than providing a dissertation or completely peer-reviewed scientific paper. The paper does use the evidence to show why other types of training is limiting for ALL in pool events.

      Using successful swimmers as justification for a way of training does not justify it. Just because it has worked for one individual, doesn’t mean it works for the majority (which is surely the aim – not to leave swimmers behind) and, who’s to say that although they did well with their training, they’d do better under USRPT – well I and number of others across the globe are trying to explain the reasons as to why we can see why this would be the case; through the use of an evidence-based approach. You won’t hear me using Michael Andrews as the reason why you should use USRPT, that would not justify it, the science it’s based on can though.

      Thanks for you comment, I hope you have at least taking some points away, even if you don’t go as far as USRPT i.e. using a only a mix of it, alongside other high intensity training – although, as my article points out it doesn’t go far enough.

      I should point out that only work done at race-pace training I.e. Technique and skills will transfer to a race, as well as, the physiological needs of a race. Anything slower than race-pace, will not. There is very little evidence to support VO2max and performance to swimming pool events.

      Thanks again,


  2. I enjoy your articles, as I have said before and am aware that you are not attempting to write a ‘black/white should do this’ piece. Your writing stimulates thought (well it does for me) and encourages research of the issues discussed (again it does for me).I didn’t know what URSPT was until I read your article Stuart. …. Then again, I am an old lady who did competitive swimming in the days of knitted swimsuits 🙂 I also trained not so many years ago, at Kinloss for lifeguard duties pulling a small parachute (aprox 2.5m diameter when expanded)… .. we went off like bullets to about 15m then the concrete hit. Made your eyes water. Me my speed, strength, samina and endurance improved in only 3 weeks of this training. But whether it would work for competition I do not know. Keep writing, you are stimulating thoughtful questions and encouraging me at least, to maintain my interest in the physiology of swimming.

  3. For those that are skeptical about USRPT yielding better results than Traditional Training consider this: What if the results were merely the same, but USRPT you got there with 25-40% less time in the pool and no dryland training? Furthermore, what if you could expect your athletes to swim at or near their max potential every meet instead of one or two “taper meets” per season? Would that be enough for you to consider changing what you’re doing? The fact that the majority of coaches who have made the switch report that they see more average improvement in their athletes in a season with USRPT than with Traditional Training is merely icing on the cake. Even if you did worse than average and got only the same results as with TT, it would still be a win for both coaches and athletes to get there with less mental and physical fatigue.

    I did the mega-yardage, exhausted-all-the-time Traditional Training in high school. As a 40-something year old Master now training with USPRT, I wish I could have the hundreds of hours back that I feel I wasted swimming one body-breaking, soul-crushing set after another at speeds that weren’t really relevant to the races I was supposedly training for.

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