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:








Dehydration Myths: a Thirst for Knowledge

In the latest SwimCoachStu post, I have shared the work of a fellow coaching colleague, Coach J. Macpherson-Stewart (SwimCoachJM-S) – from Free Style Swimming Club, who debunks the prominent lore surrounding hydration in swimming and, more widely, sport. 

Over the weekend, at a local District Championship meet, I became very aware of the large volume of water bottles – filled with a variety of fluids and, of various sizes – that lay across the poolside. This is just one example of the many dogmatic practices which continue to exist within the swimming sphere. It is a belief-based habit which has the potential of having severely detrimental effects on an athlete’s performance and, health. SwimCoachJM-S continues…

I was once at a swimming presentation where the then Scottish Director of Coaching and Development implored his audience of coaches to “throw kids off the poolside” if they didn’t bring a water bottle with them. Continuing that afternoon on the poolside itself I watched as a member of that same audience stumbled over one of those very water bottles referred to earlier in the day and nearly came a cropper; I saw swimmers interrupting the focus on the set they were doing by the distraction of finding and then drinking from their water bottles; and then I watched the subsequent trail of the same swimmers leaving the poolside to go to the loo. Mmm…

The reason for my cynical “mmm…” is that all this flies in the face of science. With few exceptions, the prevailing requirement to bring a water bottle on to the poolside at each session and the encouragement swimmers then get to make sure they drink regularly from them is an unnecessary pre-occupation particularly knowing the kind of predictable consequences I witnessed that day.

The demand for every swimmer to bring a water bottle with them into the training pool has its roots in practices used in the running world which have in turn been driven by the commercial interests of the sports drinks industry. Tragically, the cost of this to the sport of running has been high indeed with over 1,600 reported cases and 12 deaths in the last 15 years (including two in separate London Marathons) from exercise-associated hyponatremia (EAH) – a condition brought about by drinking too much.

Despite these horrifying statistics, the mythology that supports the practice is still being widely repeated revolving as it does around three underlying beliefs: that dehydration will inevitably occur in all athletes who exercise for anything other than a short of amount time; that dehydration is the single most important factor explaining reduced performance levels during prolonged exercise; and that dehydration plays the central role in any instance of collapse and heatstroke there may be in endurance athletes. Since the development of the drink Gatorade in the late 1960’s, this faux science, for that is what it is, has been cynically, and very profitably, peddled by the sports drinks industry even though the wider published evidence paints a quite different picture. In his definitive text, Waterlogged*, Professor Tim Noakes has finally put the record straight to reveal the extent of this misinformation and to demonstrate quite unequivocally that the problem is a problem that would never have existed had there not been millions of dollars to be made. So what are the facts and how should they be interpreted specifically with respect to swimming training?

First of all, our unique evolution as a species has resulted in the human body being amazing well adapted to deal with periods of transient dehydration for up to as much as 8 hours. This evolutionary adaptation arose from the need of Homo sapiens to run long-distances in the heat to pursue and kill energy-rich animals for food. The result was a superior capacity to regulate body temperature when exercising in hot conditions which allowed our ancestors to even run antelope to ground in the heat of the middle of the day.

But let us return and consider each of those erroneous underlying beliefs in turn. Evidence shows that we carry a substantial fluid reserve that simply does not need acute replacement during exercise. This reserve takes the form firstly of metabolic water that is released in two ways: as a by-product of the cellular oxidation of carbohydrate, and as water molecules that are released from their chemical bond with stored glycogen as it is freed and used; and secondly as additional free fluid contained in the intestine. The water reserve referred to here is considerable and even conservative estimates suggest that this available reservoir is likely to easily be in excess of 2L in a mature adult. What this means is that during prolonged exercise (a 2 hour swimming training session, for example) losses of up to 2kg in body weight should not be immediately associated with dehydration and should not be expected to have any deleterious effects on performance. This reserve is easily replaced by drinking normally after the end of the session, often simply with the next meal.

With respect to the second underlying belief, evidence shows that dehydration has little effect on body temperature response during marathon running, for example, and drinking more does not necessarily contribute to better performance. There is no direct evidence that exercise performance is impaired in those who lose weight during exercise provided they drink to the dictates of thirst (I shall come back to this later).

Finally, there is no evidence that dehydration plays any role in the causation of heatstroke. Rather it appears to be increasingly the case that a complex combination of factors contribute to its occurrence the discussion of which goes beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that it is associated with moderate to high intensity exercise of relatively short duration often undertaken in unkind environmental conditions.

What emerges from this is that the natural behaviour modification mechanism that has evolved, that of thirst, is a very sophisticated and perfectly adequate means through which we can maintain our levels of hydration within safe limits. When you reach a point of about 2% dehydration, you will begin to feel thirsty and start looking out for something to drink. Even if there’s nothing available, it’s not the end of the world – in a normal training or racing context there is plenty of time to rehydrate once you’ve finished. At this level of dehydration there are no untoward effects or dangers, and should your levels of hydration continue to decrease, so your desire for water will increase – in other words you will know when you absolutely need to stop to get a drink. The best advice is quite simply, drink according to your thirst – you need do no more than this.

If now, however, we turn our attention to how this applies to swimming training in particular, there are several additional factors that clearly distinguish it from most other popular sports and these need first, to be identified and then to be considered in the light of the above. Perhaps the most significant difference lies in the fact that swimmers are water-cooled. Typical pool temperatures of 28-30°C and the relatively high specific heat of water mean that convective/conductive heat transfer from a moving swimmer to the water is substantial, the faster the swimmer’s speed through the water the greater the heat loss. Body heat is actually lost some 25-30 times faster during swimming than during cycling or running at equivalent ambient temperatures, the greater the temperature gradient between the skin and environment, the greater the rate of that heat loss.

Secondly, the normal major avenue of human heat dissipation during exercise, sweating, is compromised in water since without evaporation no heat can be lost from the body via this mechanism though limited evaporation from wet body parts above the water will still take place. Sweating does certainly occur in the water during training but is unlikely to account for amounts anywhere near the 2% thirst threshold level mentioned above. Thirdly, the total muscle mass involved in swimming is less than in many other non-aquatic sports and consequently the metabolic heat produced is likely to be proportionately less. Fourthly the age and maturity of the swimmers involved needs to be taken into account: because of their larger surface area-to-body mass ratio, children lose heat more readily than adults in the same situation. The thickness of the subcutaneous fat layer also plays a significant role with the result that swimmers who are small and lean are likely to lose body heat more rapidly.

Finally, we need to add one more factor to the mix: immersion diuresis. Explained simply, a combination of cold and the external water pressure brings about a rapid increase in plasma volume which the body then attempts to correct by increasing urine production. The natural consequence of this is an increase in the frequency of trips to the loo though the effect has been shown to be significantly less in trained swimmers when compared with sedentary controls.

Well, dear reader, it may well be that it is your head that is now swimming! We are faced with a series of seemingly conflicting influences which ultimate combine to determine our individual levels of hydration during training. The key word here is individual. There is no fluid replacement protocol that is going to suit even one single member of any particular swimming squad. There is however, a single individual solution….

No-one at Free Style is expected to bring a water bottle with them to training and they certainly will not be thrown off the poolside if they don’t! Not that water bottles are banned, but once swimmers have a better understanding of the whole area, they find out for themselves what best suits their needs. An odd water bottle sometimes turns up (probably more as a result of parental concern) and we have no problem with that providing the swimmer only drinks from it if they become thirsty – sip-aholics are given short shrift! Should anyone during a session become thirsty then they are quite at liberty to return to the changing room at an appropriate point to get a drink. It has been a few years now since anyone has even done this. In fact the real problem for us, and I suspect for many other Scottish swimmers, the younger ones in particular, is actually quite the opposite from the non-existent problem that water bottles presume to address and that is, how to stay warm enough in the water to train effectively. The water cools us so effectively on occasions that body heat loss is greater than its heat production. Some of our leaner, mainly younger, swimmers have had to be encouraged to wear close-fitting thermal tops in training and on occasions we have been known to take warm showers between sets rather than end up uncomfortably cold in the water and consequently losing focus.

So where does that leave us then? During land training the correct advice is quite clear: listen to your body and only drink when you are thirsty from an available source of water which may or may not be your own water bottle, and at the same time understand as well that any other advice is the result of targeted manipulations by industries whose principal focus is their own commercial well-being and not necessarily yours. In swimming sessions leave your water bottle at home if you find that generally you do not get thirsty and in the unlikely event that you do, wait until you have finished the set you are doing and then take a few gulps from the nearest water fountain, or simply wait until the session is over – you’ll have plenty of time and opportunity to rehydrate then and you will come to no harm nor will your performance be affected in the interim. That’s it – the mythology has been exposed!



*Noakes, Tim (2012) Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports. Champaign, Il: Human Kinetics.

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.

Youth Swimming: Coaches, Poolside helpers and Volunteers

Vital to the development of athletes, of all ages and sports, are the army of coaches – the vast majority of whom are unpaid volunteers. Attempting to run a session on your own with 20+ young children, all bursting with excitement, can be a near impossible task. The life-line for squad coaches is the ability to delegate tasks and lanes to those offering assistance.

Once you have a few willing volunteers, the first decision you need to make is what you would like them to do. You should provide each person with a role in the squad and also delegate tasks to them – this allows your assistants to feel more part of the team and provides them with motivation to attend sessions. Roles and functions can be wide ranging, of which, a few are listed and discussed below:

Lane coach – You, as the head or lead coach, should delegate one or two lanes to a ‘lane coach’ who can supervise the lane activities, time-keep, teach and maintain discipline. This allows you to focus on individual swimmers or one lane and prevents you from doing everything – freeing you up to provide technical feedback.

The lane coach does not necessarily need to be a coach, he or she could be a parent who can time-keep, etc.

Timers/ counters – As mentioned above, you can employ family and friends to time swimmers and/or count laps.

The Swimming Sergeant Major – You will have all seen the military films where the scary looking senior Solider, with the moustache, shouts and screams at the other junior soldiers on the drill square. Well, you can employ a less scary version onto the poolside to maintain lane discipline and ensure correct behaviour. Whoever is nominated to this position should, under no circumstances, shout at any swimmer. They are there simply to, as explained above, free the hands of the head coach by having a civil and calm conversation with individual swimmers if things begin to get a little wild in the pool or proper lane etiquette is not followed.

The lead/squad/head coach still has overall responsibility for ensuring the safety of all swimmers in the pool as well as maintain behaviour.

The Hawk-eye – An adult helper who is used to spot a particular (single) fault in the swimmers, which the lead coach has instructed swimmers to correct in that particular session e.g. breathing out of a turn. It allows the coach to focus on other technique elements and the kids love calling the designated adult the “hawk-eye!”

All coaches and helpers should be briefed on the aims of the session, including, what the programme will involve to meet those aims. The session’s technical points should be listed and explained; this should include explaining how you’d like the points to be taught and showing the coaches how to conduct any demonstrations, e.g. how you’d like to coaches to re-create the kicking action of breaststroke on the poolside. It is essential that all coaches “sing from the same hymn sheet”, or else, the swimmers will receive mixed messages. This is counter-productive, and opens up the possibility of providing incorrect instruction.

A coaches meeting once or twice a week ensures that the programme can be improved and any problems can be addressed. It is always nice to meet away from the pool environment to ensure everyone is relaxed and no-one feels that they are in “your territory”, which would perhaps prevent people from speaking up.

Each coach should be provided with time to air their opinions and, should consider the following:

Swimmer progress – providing a summary of how they feel the swimmers are responding to the programme, training progress, attendance and behaviour;
Self and peer evaluation – feedback to other fellow coaches on their strengths and weaknesses. Evaluate one’s own performance;
Programme evaluation – discuss how well they feel the training is going, suggesting ways to improve it and express any other points regarding the programme.

Coach meetings can also be used to highlight upcoming competitions, and discuss who will be swimming which events, coach cover for the meet, and, strategies that will be encouraged. You may also wish to consider which meets the swimmers should target next. Debriefing after a competition is essential in improving the programme. Everyone involved should detail the positives and negatives of the meet and what actions they should take to improve on the next competition.

The one danger of coach meetings is that they become political; avoid this at all cost. The coaching meeting should be used to discuss the progress of the swimmers and the training programmes. Remember what you are there for – the swimmers.

I hope this provided a useful guide for any coaches involved in youth swimmer and indeed of any age, feed-back is always appreciated – critical and positive. Please don’t hesitate to ave any questions and I will do my upmost to answer them – either via WordPress comments or twitter.

Yours in Swimming,


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,



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.