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:









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]