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.
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
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!
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: http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/bullets/ultra28.htm [26 October 2013]