The Body in Swimming: The Dogma of Lactic acid

While watching the recent Scottish National Open Championships 2014, held at Tolcross, I couldn’t help but notice the continued use of ‘lactic acid’ testing inflicted on a large number of swimmers immediately after their race. The procedure, used in most national and international competitions, involves a small extraction of blood from, usually, the athlete’s ear. The concentration of the ‘acid’ present in the blood is then calculated using the testing equipment. The results are used to show the ‘anaerobic capacity’ of the swimmer as the acid build up indicates the body’s use of muscles in the absence of oxygen. Well, that’s the belief anyway.

The truth is, there is an enormous amount of misunderstanding and gross overestimation surrounding the area of lactic acid, and it’s testing – starting with the name! Those who refer to lactic acid as the chemical present in your bloodstream have already blundered, it is, in fact, the substance ‘lactate’ which is present in your blood and which is tested for in ‘lactic acid concentration tests’ described above. Lactic acid ‘splits’ into lactate and hydrogen which then enters the blood. The misconceptions go far beyond this, however.

Lactate testing is used to determine the anaerobic capacity of an athlete, as it is believed that increases in lactate correlate with muscles which are working without oxygen. Thus, the higher the levels, the greater the anaerobic capacity of an athlete. Well, the first point to highlight is that lactic acid is not only produced in the working muscles – the liver is a major contributor as well as other tissues such as the skin and intestines. Brooks, et al. (1992), stated, “Lactate measures cannot be inferred to indicate only exercise production”. Another point to note is lactate production is also observed in both fully aerobic tissue – such as the heart, and oxygenated muscles. Lactate production in the muscles merely provides information that an athlete has ‘worked’ at a particular intensity – full stop.

While watching the recent Scottish National Open Championships 2014, held at Tolcross, I couldn’t help but notice the continued use of ‘lactic acid’ testing inflicted on a large number of swimmers immediately after their race. The procedure, used in most national and international competitions, involves a small extraction of blood from, usually, the athlete’s ear. The concentration of the ‘acid’ present in the blood is then calculated using the testing equipment. The results are used to show the ‘anaerobic capacity’ of the swimmer as the acid build up indicates the body’s use of muscles in the absence of oxygen. Well, that’s the belief anyway.

The truth is, there is an enormous amount of misunderstanding and gross overestimation surrounding the area of lactic acid, and it’s testing – starting with the name! Those who refer to lactic acid as the chemical present in your bloodstream have already blundered, it is, in fact, the substance ‘lactate’ which is present in your blood and which is tested for in ‘lactic acid concentration tests’ described above. Lactic acid ‘splits’ into lactate and hydrogen which then enters the blood. The misconceptions go far beyond this, however.

Lactate testing is used to determine the anaerobic capacity of an athlete, as it is believed that increases in lactate correlate with muscles which are working without oxygen. Thus, the higher the levels, the greater the anaerobic capacity of an athlete. Well, the first point to highlight is that lactic acid is not only produced in the working muscles – the liver is a major contributor as well as other tissues such as the skin and intestines. Brooks, et al. (1992), stated, “Lactate measures cannot be inferred to indicate only exercise production”. Another point to note is lactate production is also observed in both fully aerobic tissue – such as the heart, and oxygenated muscles. Lactate production in the muscles merely provides information that an athlete has ‘worked’ at a particular intensity – full stop.

Lactate – the root of all evil…or is it?

Often heard from the mouths of swimmers and other beings who participate in sport are sentences such as, “Ow! My muscles are rather sore today, I must have built up a lot of acid,” or, “Thanks to that darn lactic acid, I can barely move” (or something to that effect). An overwhelming number of coaches will reinforce this blame; however, lactic acid/lactate is in fact, not guilty.

It is a common belief that fatigue, muscle soreness and stiffness are caused by a high accumulation of lactate in the blood which has not cleared, or that the lactate has somehow ‘acidified’ the blood. With regards to fatigue, lactate in the blood does completely the opposite to what is often thought. Lactate prevents the effects of fatigue and is even a useful source of energy in the body. Lactate is converted in two ways, either, into glucose – which will be stored in the liver, or as carbon dioxide and water. The latter two both remove hydrogen (ions) from the blood – hydrogen is a contributor to acidosis and, as a result, fatigue can occur (other factors also contribute). Thus, the presence of lactate can help offset the effects of fatigue in an athlete. Lactate can also remain in the cells it has been produced and be used as fuel. Miller, B. (2002), has shown that lactate can be the preferred source of energy over glucose in cells.

With regards to muscle soreness and that stiff feeling felt by many, this is the result of muscle cell damage due to a level of intensity not usually endured by the athlete. It can also occur when the muscle fibres have been used in an unfamiliar way – likely with a heavier than normal load.

A.T. – Anaerobic threshold or a total waste of time

If you are a swimming coach or athlete, it is highly likely you’ve heard of, or swum an anaerobic threshold set; or indeed you may have written one up for your swimmers. Firstly, what is the anaerobic threshold? The standard explanation is, as the swimmer’s velocity increases, a point or threshold is reached whereby the muscles no longer have a sufficient oxygen supply and the body’s supplies, which can provide energy in the absence of oxygen, are employed – this leads to a spike in lactate. A simpler explanation of the threshold is the point at which the body can no longer equal lactate production with lactate removal, thus, causing an accumulation of lactate.

If you’ve been following the format of this post, you’ll know what is coming next.

The above is an erroneous explanation of what takes place. The muscles, to begin with, do not become anaerobic for any more than a few seconds (otherwise, you would die). The accumulation of lactate is a result of factors such as glycolytic rate and other metabolic ‘coping’ responses – rather than as a result of anaerobic conditions. Also, the use of the word threshold is inappropriate. The process is gradual; it doesn’t suddenly spike as suggested. In training, anaerobic threshold training is conducted so that a swimmer will be able to maintain, for longer, the period in which the body can balance lactate production with its removal. I have already covered why there is no justification for this type of training. Furthermore, even if the emphasis was moved to using anaerobic threshold training to directly improve fitness (VO2 max) as it tends to be faster than normal aerobic paces, we know that intensities above “anaerobic threshold” are only effective in improving VO2 max. The latter has been shown to have very little to do with race performances. In short, anaerobic threshold training is a waste of time!

In closing, huge amounts of dogma exist in the world of lactate, and it’s testing. The best an analysis of a swimmer’s anaerobic threshold (or lactate threshold) can achieve is, to inform the athlete, or whoever is concerned, that their physiology has ‘changed’. This is perhaps useful when observing someone who wishes to move from an untrained state to one which is trained. Thereafter, a change (caused by training) may be evident, but what has that got to do with swimming performances? Nothing. Certainly not for those swimming in-pool competitive events. Hopefully, this article will prevent a couple of coaches from straying toward an erroneous belief-based practice and can now better spend their time on evidence-based training. At the very least I hope this will stop just one coach/swimmer/parent from explaining a ‘bad’ performance was on account of lactate, or worse – lactic acid!

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu

References:

Brooks, G. A., Wolfel, E. E., Groves, B. M., Bender, P. R., Butterfield, G. E., Cymerman, A., Mazzeo, R. S., Sutton, J. R., Wolfe, R. R., & Reeves, J. T. (1992). Muscle accounts for glucose disposal but not blood lactate appearance during exercise after acclimatization to 4,300 m. Journal of Applied Physiology, 72, 2435-2445.

Miller, B. F., J. A. Fattor, K. A. Jacobs, M. A. Horning, F. Navazio, M. I. Lindinger, and G. A. Brooks. (2002) Lactate and glucose interactions during rest and exercise in men: effect of exogenous lactate infusion. J Physiol. 544, 963-975.

Streamlining and Submarines

Reducing resistance in a swimmer should be a top technical priority for all coaches, taking precedence before any changes to improve propulsion. Although, the former will have the consequence of improving the latter. The most fundamental way to reduce drag is through streamlining. A streamlined body is one which is horizontal in the water – this includes the head and body; the flatter, the less resistance created.

– Streamlined swimmer = greater velocity and distance per stroke.

Submarines

Let’s start with an analogy to highlight this point. Take a submarine on the surface of the water; no need to imagine it, here is a picture:

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Here you see the front of the submarine minimally disturbing the water, in fact, it is slightly underwater. Now take a look at the structure protruding from the submarine; here you see a great amount of drag being created – evident from the white water.

Frontcrawl

This white water effect occurs similarly (not to such a scale of course) from the head of a swimmer breaking the surface of the water. Ideally, the frontcrawl stroke needs to replicate the front of the ‘sub’. Here are the instruction points which should be communicated to the swimmer in order to achieve this position:

– Look directly down at the bottom of the pool;
– The tip of the swimmers’ buttocks should be at a level height to that of the top of the swimmer’s head;
– There should be some water which travels over the swimmer’s cap.

Backstroke

These principles are much the same in the case of backstroke, apart from the obvious difference.

– Head should be back, looking up at the ceiling;
– Water should travel over the face;
– Both ears should be submerged;
– Top of hips will be in line with the top of chest and face.

Breaststroke and Butterfly

During breaststroke and butterfly, it is not possible to remain in a streamlined position at all times; however, it is important to continue in the latter position for as long as possible. When a breath is needed, the athlete should be trained in movements which will cause the least amount of disruption to the water.

Firstly, butterfly. There are two main factors in the stroke which should be considered:

– Increasing size of kick = increased resistance:

Bigger kicks tend to cause greater movement at the hips, which both create a fairly slow kick rate; this reduces the opportunities to initiate a propulsive action. The increased drag eventually outweighs any propulsion.

– Increase in vertical height = increase in resistance:

Frontal resistance is substantially increased when a swimmer’s head and shoulders are lifted vertically out of the water, whether he/she is breathing or not. There is also the added resistance which comes from the swimmer returning from this high position and often ‘slaps’ down on the water.

A ‘see-saw’ movement is observed in many swimmers. They drive their head and shoulders down into the water, the hips lift as a consequence, and the feet kick down. The swimmer expends a significant amount of energy swimming like this. This movement is also caused by an arm recovery which travels, unnecessarily, high on exit.

In butterfly, to create an optimal streamlined position, the following points should be adhered to:

– Breathing should be low and forward;
– Reduce the vertical movements of the arm entry, exit and the kick where possible;
– Keep the body in a streamlined position for as long as possible.

In breaststroke, the breathing action very much determines the amount of streamlining which is achieved. A ‘see-saw’ is sometimes also seen in the breaststroke. The points below, govern what breaststroke technical points should be followed to achieve the most streamlined position possible; which are almost identical to the fly stroke:

– Breathing should be low and forward;
– Any ‘see-saw’ movements should be completely discouraged – this includes downward movement of arm or raising of hips;
– Keep the body in a streamlined position for as long as possible.

If changes in other elements such as arm action, kick or breathing are required to improve streamlining, these should be instructed separately, not all at once.

Improvements can be verified through stroke counting, as improved streamlining should account for greater distance per stroke.

A final point to make is that all these instructions should be conducted at race-pace velocities as soon, after the movement has been established at less-than-race-pace speeds, as possible. Technique is closely related to velocity. Technique at slow speeds will unlikely be reproduced at race-pace.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu

The Body in Swimming: Training the ATP-CP system REVISED

Previously in my ‘The Body in Swimming’ series, I wrote a description of the Adenosine triphosphate-creatine phosphate (ATP-CP) energy system. In this post, I would like to revise some of the descriptions I made and also, would like to include a component of stored energy I have not initially mentioned which is recognised as playing a significant role in energy provision of swimming events over recent years.

Firstly, I would like to remind you about the comments made regarding the duration of the ATP-CP system i.e. how long it could sustain energy production. In the previous article is was stated that “Although the rebuild process can be completed extremely fast, the drawback is that is can only be used for approximately 4-5 seconds of max effort (di Prampero 1971). Therefore, a maximum rate of muscular contraction can only last for 4 to 6 secs.” Since writing the article, I have delved further into the evidence and have come to conclude that the above statement (and previous article) was wrongly generalised i.e. compared to other sports rather than specific to swimming. There are some factors which were not included, and their implications have caused me to revise the description.

Understating the ATP-CP system

It was concluded in the previous post that “time would be better spent developing other areas,” rather than dedicating training to seek improvements in the ATP-CP system alone. However, I feel I understated the importance of this system within a race and will set out to describe why I feel it is not an element that, in combination with another ‘stored’ energy source (which will be described below), should not be ignored.

Swimming, unlike various other sports, has a partially supported nature (totally supported in open water swimming), through the forces the body is acted upon in the water. As the body does not require as much energy to ‘fight’ against gravity and maintain posture, it is wrong to generalise the duration of ATP-CP use across all sports. Since the traditionally determined time of 4-6 seconds concerned sports of an unsupported nature, it would be rightly suggested that in swimming this provision is of greater duration – which has been approximated at 10 seconds. Also of importance is the phenomenon which occurs in cyclic sports such as swimming i.e. a propulsive phase and recovery phase following occurs; which allows for restoration of some of the creatine-phosphate as parts of the body go through the recovery period in the stroke.

Stored Oxygen

The ‘stored’ energy source I referred to in the first paragraph is the stored oxygen within our muscles and circulation. Myoglobin present in the former and haemoglobin in the latter, are proteins which combine with oxygen and act as a readily available source of oxygen for the exertion of high-intensity. This stored oxygen source, in combination with the ATP-CP system, plays a significant role in energy provision of swimming events – which has not been previously recognised. Not only is it involved in the initial stages of exertion, but it is also partially restored during recovery phases of a swimming stroke – as with the ATP-CP system.

Fast-Component of the Aerobic System

To understand the importance of the ATP-CP, in combination with the stored oxygen capacity, knowledge of the ‘fast-component’ of the aerobic system is necessary. This area of the aerobic system involves the restoration of the two named systems during and after swimming exercise. The partial recovery phenomenon has already been discussed. Complete recovery of the ATP-CP and stored oxygen occurs after approximately 30 seconds post total-body exercise – even if different parts of the body have experienced different intensities.

Recent research has endeavoured to identify the importance of this fast component (during and after total-body exercise). In 2009, Alves et al., found that only VO2 max and the fast component correlated with 400m performance; Reis et al., also found this similar result. Fernandes et al. (2010) showed that only the fast component was related to performance in 200m performance. Thus, the ability to restore the ATP-CP and stored oxygen – partially, during exercise and completely, post exercise – is directly related to performance up to 400m. Due to the similarities in aerobic and anaerobic use in the 400, 800 and 1500m events, it can be hypothesised that this component is also significant at these distances; however, further research is required to confirm this.

The implication of the above is that traditional training, which does not adapt to the fast component of the aerobic system, is ineffective in optimally improving performance. Indeed, this is substantial justification for a completely different emphasis in competitive swim training programmes.

Revised Conclusion

To conclude, this article has revised the previously generalised and incomplete knowledge of the ATP-CP system and has provided an explanation for greater emphasis on training which will adapt the fast component recovery of the aerobic system i.e. restoration of stored oxygen and ATP-CP.

It is suggested in this article that traditionally emphasised training of the lactate system is wrongly placed in improving performance and I will ensure my next article delves into this further. I will also attempt in the future to discuss training methods which aim to improve this fast component and identify the other important energy provisions in a swimming race.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu

Belief-based Vs Evidence-based Coaching

Hello to all my loyal and new readers,

Firstly, I would like to apologise for my recent absence, I have been busy experiencing a coaching epiphany of somewhat, of which I shall explain below; as well as being buried in my coursework. I would also like to mention that in this post, I will not be focusing on my series regarding the ‘Body in Swimming’, which I hope to return to soon. Instead I am going to try and convince some of you to rethink the way you coach – something I am finding to be a rather bold and daunting task.

Belief-based coaching

How much of what you coach or train swimmers by, do you know is based on scientific evidence? How did you come about concluding that what you are preaching is the right way of doing things?

Belief-based coaching includes the use of personal experiences, in that, it worked for some swimmers so it must, therefore, work for the rest (especially if those swimmers are your ‘top’ performing swimmers). This reasoning is concluded from trusting the knowledge you have acquired is reliable and, from using your interpretations of what you have read or heard from other coaches – in particular, ‘senior’ coaches. If a coach’s methods are shown to have not worked, then the blame will be placed on the athlete, i.e. the swimmer did something wrong to have produced the unexpected performance – rather than it being the coach’s training method to be at fault.

Unfortunately, belief-based coaching plagues many swimming organisations. The training is not based on accurate sports science or scientific evidence. It is, as Brent Rushall describes it, “subjective, biased, unstructured and mostly lacking in accountability.”

I am as guilty as most coaches for applying training methods based on my own interpretations e.g. Instruction from other coaches and following ‘what everyone else does’. This is not the way we should be coaching swimmers; instead, we should be applying methods of training based on evidence.

Evidence-based coaching

Evidence-based coaching relies on scientific studies and research as the basis for training. Rushall, a champion of evidence-based coaching, describes how coaching principles should be decided from: “several independent published scientific studies that report similar findings about human behaviour and therefore, deemed to be of substantive and reliable merit.”

Evidence-based coaching principles also allow for training effects to be reliably predicted, tested and verified – this is something which is uncommon in belief-based coaching. The latter camp often argues that it is tough to predict/measure certain effects/results and often hide behind this – blaming errors on uncontrollable factors rather than their practices.

A Vicious Cycle

The problem with many swimming organisations is that many refuse to receive evidence that may change their beliefs and structure. They then continue to feed incorrect knowledge to their various members (clubs/districts/regions) who then apply these belief-based methods.

These organisations often defend their beliefs by pointing out the successes of their athletes. However, as described before this is the problem with belief-based coaching – they wrongly support their methods using the observations of a few; again allowing for the spread of error throughout the organisation.

An important phrase to note is “the few.” Although belief-based methods may work for some swimmers, many athletes are left behind. They often conclude that the reason why some swimmers don’t perform well is simply that “they haven’t got it”; this is a ridiculous notion.

Out-dated

Many myths exist in swimming that are very long-standing and, are mainly due to individuals and organisations not scrutinising their knowledge. Up to 20% of what we learn today will be inaccurate in one years time; this percentage only increases with relation to years.

Ignorance should not be an excuse. It should be seen by all coaches and organisations as their responsibility to ensure that they evaluate their practices, seek to analyse their knowledge and use evidence as the basis of their sessions.

It is easy to appreciate why many individuals follow the beliefs of their organisations rather than attempt to dispute, analyse or evaluate it through the use of research. Extracting information from scientific research, studies and, papers, is a skill that many coaches do not currently possess. Those responsible for educating coaches should ensure that they 1) encourage the use of evidence-based coaching 2) provide coaches with the skills to apply it.

It’s Down to You

I hope a few of you that read this article will realise the dangers of belief-based coaching and will look to employ evidence-based.

It can be tough to take the jump from belief-based to evidence-based coaching; however, It is every coaches responsibility to ensure that they use evidence and science for choosing, developing, and justifying a training strategy in order to give swimmers the best possible chance of achieving their potential.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu

Please note SwimCoachStu posts are all of my  own opinion and are not necessarily endorsed by other clubs or organisations which I may be affiliated to

A brilliant resource for the evidence-based coaching approach can be found Swimming Science Journal

I would like to thank a fellow evidence-based champion for inspiring me to write this.

References:

Rushall. B. S (October 2003) Coaching Development and the Second Law of Thermodynamics (or Belief-Based Versus Evidence-Based Coaching Development [Online] San Diego University

Sprint Swimming: A Different Take

Introduction

There are many coaches who refuse to accept many of the science which is published regarding swimming – no topic more so than sprint swimming. I for a long time was one of them; believing that you could prescribe endurance training – developing the swimmer’s aerobic base, as well as expecting those athletes to develop their speed (for 50m events) by initiating sprint sets a few times a week. As described in my earlier articles, anaerobic metabolism is hindered by endurance training (see SwimCoachStu – Anaerobic metabolism ), therefore, mixing the two (sprint and endurance training) is a contradictory idea.

Out-dated Thinking

There has been a relatively small number of top level sprint swimmers, in the past and present, this has been contributed to the idea that these swimmers have been the ‘lucky’ ones rather than claiming their success is due to their coaching. Many sprinters have been wrongly involved in programmes which have declined their ability to perform in the 50 metre events and are often including amongst those training for greater distances. Coaches have excused this by providing those sprint swimmers with a break between training and competition, however, this only returns their speed to an innate level – that is, if they receive a long enough taper – rather than any improved sprint ability.

The most common mistake in developing sprinters, is coaches using sprint sets constructed of repeated 25 and 50 metre distances, with the idea that swimmers will be forced to work through high-levels of fatigue to some how seek physiological improvements in the swimmer. Further to this, common practice has been to finish off a training session with ‘sprints’. Both of these are physiologically wrong because the body is unable to tax the capacities required for increasing speed when under these stressed and fatigued states.

Neural Function in Sprinting

Although, the above paragraph describes the detrimental effects on the body physiology, there is a more important element to consider – neural function. Speed improvements are primarily neural rather than physiological. What implications does this have on how we train sprinters?

Well firstly, coaches training 50m swimmers must ensure they create programmes in which neuromuscular patterning, i.e. skill takes great precedence. It has commonly been asserted that if skills are to be performed when an athlete is tired, then learning those skills whilst fatigued is the best procedure. However, this practice in fact inhibits the formation of neuromuscular patterns due to the increase of acid within the supporting physiological environment – making it very difficult, or indeed impossible to learn skills. Despite the evidence, many coaches still accuse those with this view of committing blasphemy! Skill acquisition should not be performed under the same physical stress as experienced in a race, however, it should be undertaken at desired race speeds. An efficient sprint performance depends largely on the number of times the skill is performed at the goal pace.

The current way of developing sprinters, by many, is neither allowing for increases in speed nor allowing for any great skill attainment. This turns us to the question of, how do we accommodate for both quality (technique) and quantity (physical adaptation)?

Ultra Short Training

A solution to this comes in the form of training at distances shorter than the conventional 25 m sprint distance, therefore, less duration of work and with a reduced work-to-rest ratio – known as ultra short repeats. It generally consists of a large number of repeats, allowing for a large volume of race pace training (rests of no more than 20 seconds), and with the advantage of its aerobic nature it prevents any significant volumes of lactic acid building as well as allowing for significantly quicker recovery.

This form of training, when performed over a substantial duration, e.g. 30 mins produces various conditioning effects such as improvements in the anaerobic system, the aerobic system and increased functional strength. Although “Ultra-short work does not produce as rapid lactic acid adaptation, it eventually does produce higher levels of glycolytic adaptation and consequently produces further performance improvements” than compared to typical, ‘heavier’ sprint training.

One of the most important outcomes from this training is the ability to build race-specific neuromuscular patterns under non-fatigued conditions. Ultra short training should be used as the main type of training for 50m sprint swimmers, performed as early in the session as possible (after warm up and low intensity technical development).

A comparison of ultra short distance training and traditional training can be found at the Swimming Science Bulletin

Child Sprinters

A controversial subject is allowing prepubescent children or adolescents to specialise in sprint training until they reach a certain age. Before the age of approx. 14 y.o. for boys/ 13 y.o. for girls a child’s aerobic capacity is at a critical stage and later this window of opportunity will close forever – many claim that sprint training cannot provide this necessity. However, I argue that a sprint programme containing ultra-short distance training provides children with this aerobic exercise.

I also believe sprint programmes provide the opportunity for children to pursue other activities outside swimming if they so wish due to the reduced hours required, compared with those training at greater distances – this also allows children to develop their aerobic capacity in other ways.

The final disagreement is that children do not develop the technical base, which is required for progression in the sport, with sprint training. To counter that point simple read what is described above; technique is central to sprinting!

Big Changes

The current set up in the majority of clubs for training sprint swimmers is, in my opinion, fundamentally wrong; and for that matter, some clubs do not accommodate at all for sprint swimming. Clubs should, where possible, provide a separate programme for all those athletes who wish to focus on 50m events just as they do for middle/ long distance swimmers and as they do for different age groups.

Change is required in the negative hype surrounding sprint training, particularly about children sprinting. All ages should be allowed to enjoy swimming in which ever form they choose and clubs should look to accommodate that wherever possible.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu

I would like to stress that all of my articles are of my own opinion and should not be associated with any other organisation. I also do not claim to be an expert in sprinting and have based my opinion on various experience and sources (I in fact prefer coaching longer distances!)

Rushall, Brent S. An ignored scientific component of sprint swimming, [Online], Available: http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/bullets/ultra28.htm [26 October 2013]

The Body in Swimming: Anaerobic Metabolism

Anaerobic Metabolism

Also known as anaerobic glycolysis, involves the process of glucose converting to lactic acid. ATP recycling during this period is much slower than the previously described ATP-CP system, this will mean that once this anaerobic metabolism becomes the main energy source athletes will be unable to maintain maximum speed. Anaerobic Metabolism, during Intense Swimming, occurs almost immediately, however, it does not become the main contributor of energy until the ATP-CP system depletes. Both anaerobic metabolism and ATP-CP energy source are both equal from approximately 3 to 10 secs of maximum effort. Thereafter, the creatine phosphate-ATP recycling ceases and anaerobic metabolism becomes the primary energy source – usually for the last 20 secs of maximum effort. During this transition, there is a decline in the swimmers power of approximately 10% (Newsholme etal. 1992).

Training Anaerobic Metabolism

Training does appear to increase both the quantity and activity of enzymes of anaerobic glycolysis (Costill, Fink, and Pollock 1976; Costill 1978; Jacobs et al. 1987). However, there is a contradiction to this. Sprint training provides an ideal platform to bring about improvements anaerobically, endurance training, on the other hand, seems to hinder this effect. This is the hardest hurdle to tackle when considering this form of training as many swimmers strive to improve both their endurance base and speed, however, the former seems to reduce the rate of anaerobic metabolism. It has been suggested that the anaerobic system is at it’s optimum when athletes are untrained – evidence cited from the fact many swimmers experience their best sprint performances after long breaks.

Other than those training solely for 50m events, all that swimmers training for greater lengths can hope for is to maintain their innate level of providing energy from anaerobic metabolism, although, large volumes of endurance work will most likely decline the swimmers level of anaerobic metabolism.

Taper may allow middle distance and distance swimmers to counter this effect, although, this may not be long enough and the swimmers innate ability may not return until endurance training has been significantly reduced or ceased for several weeks. Swimmers who have seen great improvements in their endurance, may see good performances despite the loss in speed. Sprinters on the other hand will not produce a good result if they cannot regain their speed.

In conclusion, anaerobic metabolism influences a swimmers speed more significantly than ATP-CP system, which only accounts for the first few seconds in a race. Developing a swimmers anaerobic ability should not be seen as a high priority in athletes who train for events greater than 50m as endurance training hinders and may even cause a decline in anaerobic metabolism, although, sprint training may maintain the swimmers innate ability. Sprinters must take great care in the volume of endurance training they do as it can take very long periods for a swimmer to regain his/hers innate ability. It could be argued that a sprinter’s training would be more effective if it had a greater focus toward improving muscular contraction and anaerobic metabolism rather than improving any aerobic capacity; if any at all.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu

The Body in Swimming: Training the ATP-CP System

Adenosine Triphosphate – ATP

ATP is made up of some protein, a chemical called adenosine and three molecules of phosphate shown below. These are joined together by energy to form ATP molecules. ATP is the only substance that can provide energy for our muscles to move, or contract. All the other chemicals that provide energy are used to rebuild ATP when it has broken down to release it’s own energy.

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When the muscles require energy, they ‘call’ upon the ATP molecule to split from one of it’s phosphate molecules, releasing energy in the process. This leaves a molecule called Adenosine diphosphate (ADP), adenosine and the two remaining phosphate molecules.

To rebuild the ATP, and therefore, allow it to release energy once more, a phosphate molecule must be found as well as a form of energy. ATP can not move to muscles which are working from other parts of the body, therefore, when a molecule loses its energy (and some phosphate), other sources of energy must be found within the same fibre in order to avoid becoming severely fatigued – which all must be done almost immediately.

ATP does not just have to rely on finding another phosphate molecule, there are substitutes that can be used. This also applies to the energy source it acquires. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on one of the four chemicals: creatine phosphate.

Creatine Phosphate

This chemical provides the quickest source of energy and replacement phosphate to rebuild the ATP. It contains both creatine and one molecule of phosphate, with energy binding the two. These both combine with the ADP to allow the reformation of an ATP molecule and thus, energy for use in muscular contraction.

Although the rebuild process can be completed extremely fast, the drawback is that is can only be used for approximately 4-5 secs of max effort (di Prampero 1971) and therefore, a maximum rate of muscular contraction can only last for 4 to 6 secs.

A very small amount of CP is available afterward as phosphate and energy will be utilised in replacing ATP. Although, after a period of recovery and once all the ATP have been reformed, the left over phosphate will recombine with the creatine, formed with energy.

ATP-CP System in Training

Experts have, I feel, overstated the importance of training this system. Although it is observed that increasing the storages of ATP and CP results in athletes maintaing maximum speed for longer, the benefits are minor and would only likely be seen in 25 and 50m races.

Even in those shorter distances, it is hard to identify any reason why it would be important to develop this system. The normal rate of ATP-CP metabolism can provide energy for almost all of the maximum speed during a race, with the exception perhaps for the legs during the start or turns. The latter, however, is accommodated anyway as training alone will increase ATP and CP supplies as a by-product.

For even the improvements training the ATP-CP system would produce – likely less than 0.20 sec in a 25 or 50 event – time would be better spent developing other areas. Apart from technical training, a swimmer can significantly improve their maximum speed by increasing the size and strength of their muscle fibres (in particular groups) to improve power, and by recruiting fibres at a faster rate in an improved pattern. These can be both improved through land training and also in-water sprinting, the latter of which should be prioritised in order to allow muscle-fibre recruitment to occur in patterns which are in the correct sequence.

In short, the improvements seen in the ATP-CP system during training is sufficient enough not to require specific development. Training for maximum speed is better spent on technique and improving muscular strength as well as recruitment patterns.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu