Ask Yourself This

“We have always done it that way”, is a phrase I have heard uttered far too often by coaches in response to a challenge of their training methods. In a previous article I highlighted the importance of hanging a question mark over your strongest held beliefs; in this post, I challenge you to put it into practice.

I have posed a number of questions to you below and I would like you to answer them, however, I have one condition for this exercise – I would like you to assume that, whatever answer you provide, it is wrong. I want you to try and act as your own devil’s advocate. Find the flaws, the weaknesses, the limitations of your answer; assume that they exist – more often than not, if you look hard enough, you’ll find them. By becoming aware of the pitfalls in your programme you can refine, remove and replace the practices which do not stand up to this self-scrutiny.

Make yourself prove your answer. Don’t accept cop-outs such as “That’s what everyone else does,” or, “That’s what we have always done”. Instead, I would implore you to employ reason based on logic, science, scientific rationale and, evidence.

For each of the questions I have posed, I have included a potential ‘cop-out’ answer and, a possible alternative answer – a ‘devil’s probe’. Here goes.

Why are some of my* swimmers progressing and improving significantly better in comparison to other swimmers within the same lane?

Cop-out: Some swimmers work harder than others.

Devil’s probe: I have not created a programme which is sufficiently individualised for each athlete within the lane. I have not recognised the vast physiological and psychological differences which can exist between each athlete.

Why do I have swimmers who regularly become injured, particularly in the shoulder region?

Cop-out: It’s an excuse swimmer’s utilise when the going gets tough.

Devil’s probe: My programmes consist of vast swimming distances which are applying an unnecessarily large amount of pressure on the swimmer’s shoulders’. My dryland programme is having a detrimental effect on the swimmer’s performance in the water.

Why are my swimmers not meeting my performance expectations?

Cop-out: The athletes are not trying hard enough. They don’t listen.

Devil’s probe: I am overtraining my athletes. I am not communicating my technical instructions effectively. I am not creating an environment in which the swimmer’s wish to engage.

Why is it that during races my swimmers fail to replicate the technique we have worked on in training?

Cop-out: The athletes are not performing the technical movements enough.

Devil’s probe: I have been ignorant of the link between technique and velocity – I have prescribed paces slower than race-pace for my swimmer’s to practice their race technique.

Some of the club swimmers attend a session and always seem distracted – why are they not concentrating?

Cop-out: They don’t care enough about their swimming.

Devil’s probe: I am writing up a session on the whiteboard and I am not engaging with the swimmers – I mainly leave them to it. I expect them to get on with the session with minimal interaction.

Why do my age-groups swimmers appear to peak at age 16-17 followed by a decline in performance?

Cop-out: Young adult life catches up with them, they prioritise their social life over their swimming life.

Devil’s probe: The performance of those swimmers have relied on the improvements which come from growth during puberty; it shows the training programme has not been as effective as I thought it was.

Why do I struggle to retain swimmers between the ages of 16-18?

Cop-out: This is due to the external pressures experienced by teenage swimmers, e.g. academic pressures.

Devil’s probe: I have reduced my athletes to swimmers rather than appreciating their life outside of the pool. My programme does not accommodate for these other areas of life. I have placed a disproportional emphasis on quantity of swimming over quality.

Are all my training practices in line with current evidence and research?

Cop-out: I don’t care, all my practices have been learned from very successful coaches and from methods which everyone else uses.

Devil’s probe: No, I haven’t been equipped with the skills to carry out research of sport science so I avoid it. I am ignorant of the scientific process. Some of my practices conflict with scientific evidence and scientific rationale.

Should I allow my ideas to be challenged by colleagues and other coaches?

Cop-out: No, I’m a level 3 licensed coach!

Devil’s probe: Yes! It’s one of the best ways to find the weaknesses in my training programme. My beliefs and opinions are not infallible – I could be wrong.

This is not a post on how to improve your programme, instead, I hope it has revealed to you that your programme can be improved. If nothing else, employing the devil’s advocate and utilising self-evaluation can reassure you that you are on the right track IF your ideas, training and methods can stand up to thorough scrutiny.

Yours in Swimming,



The Dark Side of Time

Since the year dot of swimming, coaches have gauged the capabilities of athletes through their ‘personal best’ or PB. Time has remained the ‘golden’ measure of a swimmer’s success, i.e. it provides a coach with quantifiable feedback on whether the swimmer has swum faster or slower since their previous performance. Swimmers also utilise time in other ways as Sports Psychologist Professor Andy Lane (@AndyLane27) of the University of Wolverhampton recently suggested on social media, “striving for a PB can be really motivational in some contexts and with some people.” He went on to say, “if it motivates, then discuss and then focus on process”. However, beware, there is a dark side to emphasising time goals.

“Often accompanied by some tears.”

At competitions, athletes eagerly listen to their coach to discover whether they have ‘PB’d’ or not. Parents crowd around the results sheet on the wall to find out their child’s time. “Did they PB?” One of the first comments a swimmer makes to their peer after they have swum is, “did you PB?” The response will usually be one of modest satisfaction, elation or, conversely, one of deflation or, despondency – often accompanied by some tears. Besides, the time a swimmer achieves (or does not achieve) provides almost no other useful information to the athlete or coach in which to act upon, i.e., the time cannot tell you how the swimmer swam.

How did the swimmer perform technically in the race? How well did they execute the skills they have been rehearsing at training? Did they follow the race plan? None of these essential questions can be answered by observing the swimmer’s time. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the improvement of age-group swimmer can be attributed to growth as they begin and progress through puberty. Focusing on the time age-groupers achieve could provide a coach with a false sense of security with regards to the effectiveness of their training programme, in that, the swimmer’s improvement should be attributed to growth as opposed to the training they have undergone. It is also not unusual to expect an athlete’s time to increase (i.e. ‘put time on’) during periods of technique transition. If the athlete has not practised the new stroke movements at race pace for a sufficient number of repetitions before a race, it is reasonable to expect a slower swim than that of previous occasions; thus, time would be completely unhelpful as an indicator of progress.

The question to also ask yourself is, how can the swimmer utilise knowledge of their time in the event just swum to benefit their next event? Simply put, they can’t. Feedback should be restricted to small ‘snippets’ of information which can be easily consumed by the athlete and, which focuses only on pointers which can be carried forward into the remainder of the competition. For example, the coach may wish to remind the swimmer to avoid breathing in the last five metres prior to their tumble turn at the wall. Also, awareness of the time they have swum in the previous event could have an adverse impact on the athlete’s performance for the remainder of their current competition if the time was slower than was hoped for.

“Eventually, the swimmer fails to swim faster and they fall from a great height.”

An emphasis on achieving a personal best time can have a detrimental effect on a swimmer’s approach to the sport. In PB-orientated clubs, swimmers who regularly swim quicker than their previous time can be placed upon a pedestal by the coach. Each time the individual improves on their previous PB the pedestal grows higher. However, the swimmer eventually fails to swim faster and, they fall from a great height. This can be a very disheartening experience for a child or teenager who is familiar with regular success (with regards to time outcomes). After a series of percieved ‘failures’, these swimmers begin to attend sessions less and, not before long, they leave their club altogether. For those who stay, what implications could this mindset have on a teenager’s social and academic life? The culture created by the emphasis on time outcomes and the personal best is, at the very least, unhelpful and, at worst, it can have a detrimental impact on a swimmer’s psychology.

So what should we do?

Coaches need to move the focus away from discussing the time outcomes of a race; instead, we need to concentrate on the process that took place before and during the swim. Sports psychologist, Dr Karen Howells of the Open University (@mind4sportpsych), recently commented: “Post race reflection should focus on [process] goals – [it] allows for focus on improvement not distracted by failure (or success)”.

The “process” goals in a swimming competition include the technique and skills executed; however, any technical feedback which has no immediate bearing on the individual’s next event should be recorded and discussed back at the training pool – including time considerations. We should focus on other factors such as, motivating the team, instilling good sportsmanship and, ensuring the athletes enjoy themselves.

Yes, we should celebrate the success of those who achieve a personal best but do this in an informal setting away from the competitive environment. One forward thinking club I belong to spends 15-20 minutes every week sat around in a circle applauding the triumphs of the past few weeks. These achievements are not limited to personal bests, we share our academic successes, goals achieved in other sports, and any other pleasing moments a swimmer wishes to inform the team of.

Take home points – ‘The good, the bad and, the ugly’:

  •  The Good – striving for time improvements can motivate the athlete;
  • The Bad – time doesn’t provide any useful information with regards to how the swimmer swam;
  • The Ugly – ultimately, an emphasis on time-based goals can drive an athlete out of the sport.

Yours in Swimming,




Lane, A., ‘AndyLane27’ (2017) Twitter. Available at:

Howells, K., ‘mind4sportpsych’ (2017) Twitter. Available at:








Youth Swimming: Communication

The way a coach communicates to a swimmer is the single most important element of swimming. Regardless of how much a coach thinks he or she knows, swimmers will not succeed unless they have a coach who is an effective communicator.

Communication: the imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium. The successful conveying or sharing of ideas and feelings.

Breaking up the above definition of communication, we can see that it involves various “mediums” to communicate messages or instructions and involves “successful” strategies to deliver them.

The most obvious form of communication is verbal. The key elements of successful verbal communication can be memorised through the use of the acronym RSVP:

Rhythm – Develop a natural rhythm, which is broken down to emphasise key points. Take a pause at the end of each important point you make, and before making one;

Speed & Clarity – Your voice can be as loud as a Drill Sergeants but without a suitable speed and clear voice it won’t be understood by anyone. Take the time to think about the sentence you’re next about to say; this will slow your sentence down. Aim to speak a little slower than your normal conversation pace. You should take the time to pronounce each word correctly, don’t rush. Programme time into the set to allow for discussion and instruction, this will stop you from trying to cram everything in, as quickly as you can;

Volume – In a group environment, your voice must be projected to all swimmers. The key is to speak at a volume that can be heard beyond the furthest athlete from you. Imagine you have an extra line of swimmers at the other end of the pool from you and attempt to have your voice reach them.

Project from your stomach rather than your throat. Using your abdominal muscles will prevent you from losing your voice by the end of the session. A good practice, often adopted in the military, is to lie on the floor and place a book on your stomach. Attempt to project your voice using your stomach muscles, while keeping the book flat i.e. it is not allowed to move up and down;

Pitch – Increasing the pitch of your voice can often help your listeners make you out clearer. Increase your pitch slightly if your voice tends to be deep; however, there is no need for any Sopranos!

To grab your swimmer’s attention or to emphasise particular points, you can vary the above in different ways. A conspiratorial whisper can draw your swimmers in; a loudly spoken exclamation can make them sit up and listen. Changing the rhythm can add tone to your instructions. A slightly faster section might convey enthusiasm; slightly slower may add emphasis or caution. You may also, raise the pitch of your voice when asking a question and lower it when you want to increase the severity of a point.

An excellent example of playing with the volume of your voice is when highlighting a particular word. For example, when taking swimmers through the steps on how to take-off from the starting block, you can explain the position they should take on to the block in a normal voice, lower it when you’re getting closer to explaining the ‘take your marks’ position and, finally, loudly express the word “EXPLODE” as you explain how they should leave the block.

Remember your voice is a flexible and powerful tool, use it!

However, using your voice is not the only way to convey a message in swimming. Non-verbal communication is an umbrella term which includes, hand gestures, demonstrations and also, your body language. Sound verbal and effective non-verbal communication, when used together, create a highly successful communicator.

Hand gestures – These can be used in a variety of ways, many are often not consciously noticed by the person receiving them, nor the user. For example, a coach congratulating a swimmer on a swim well done may give them the thumbs-up. Think of the difference if he/she had said “well done” without the gesture…adding the thumbs up created a much greater message than without.

Demonstrations – These can hugely influence a swimmer’s movements, and therefore, they must be conducted in the correct manner. Swimmers have gone years, hearing about what they are meant to do but are never actually shown. Suddenly, it is demonstrated to them, and they get it – “a picture paints a thousand words”, as they say.

Demonstrations can come in different forms. The primary source, tends to be, the coach. These can be conducted either on land or in the water. An important point to raise for dry land demonstrations is that water is much denser than air, this must be compensated for when conducting movements in the air! A great way of making a movement look more like it is in the water is for the coach to imagine custard surrounds them and show the swimmers their muscles straining through the “custard” – as if in the water. Take a butterfly pull demonstration, many coaches make the desired shape to the swimmers; however, their arms are at their sides in a flash of the time that it would actually take in the water. This will create a skewed image for the swimmer, and you are unlikely to get swimmers to achieve the ideal movement.

Bringing in high level/ elite swimmers is a great way to give younger, less experienced, swimmers a role model and is a highly effective way of introducing and reinforcing movements. It is important to note that ‘copying’ the elite athlete is not what the goal is.

Body Language

If you were to stand to speak to your swimmers with your arms folded, a somewhat negative body language, it is unlikely they will take your message as being very positive; even it is intended that way! Using ‘open’ and positive body language will help reinforce your message as more swimmers will be inclined to listen and will response more positively to your message. A great way of ensuring you have a positive image is to imagine you are in a fish bowl and the swimmer’s parents are looking in. They should, just by looking at you, tell that you are acting positive and are approachable to your swimmers.

Examples of poor body language are:

– Arms folded;
– Hands in your pockets;
– Leaning on a wall.

Examples of positive body language include:

– Open palms;
– A smile on your face;
– Good posture.

Successful communication is one of the most important aspects of coaching, without it, you’re doomed to fail your swimmers. Encourage your colleagues to develop your communication skills on the poolside for the benefit of your swimmers, and remember practice makes perfect!

Yours in Swimming,


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.

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.


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:


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.


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.


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,


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,


Sprint Swimming: A Different Take


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,


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: [26 October 2013]