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.

Hang up those Question Marks

If Charles Darwin had chosen not to bother questioning the origins of life on Earth, the assumption might have remained that a supernatural being, ‘God’, shaped each living organism on our planet. Of course, this belief has been since ‘blown out of the water’ due to the debate which ensued from Darwin’s Theory (or rather, fact) of Evolution through Natural Selection.

Questioning one’s beliefs and, debating the opinions of others, has transformed civilisation over the past 500-years; it remains our societies most important tool in progressing peace, social justice, and, science – although, this is not an exhaustive list.

Debate can reveal to an ‘opponent’ the gaps which permeate their knowledge and, may, lead them to fill-in said gaps of ignorance with the appropriate information. Criticism of an idea can lead the originator to question the accuracy of their belief and, can assist in improving it – this may entail abandoning it all together. At the very least, engaging in an open discussion about a concept can improve the advocate’s articulation of it to others.

An important distinction to clarify is the difference between the critique of an idea and, an ad hominem attack on a person. The former involves scrutiny of a thought created in one’s mind – it has no feelings, it does not care how much you criticise or ridicule it. The latter involves fallaciously rebutting an opposing point by attacking the person, rather than debating the argument itself; even if the criticism of the individual is accurate, it has no relevance on whether the claim made is valid.

Ad hominem non-sequitur:
“You’re an ugly person. Therefore, you’re wrong” – the perceived beauty or, suggested lack of, has no bearing on whether the opponent’s argument is sound or not.

Scrutinise what the person is saying, not who is saying it.

That said, there are many unfortunate individuals and, organisations, in society who cannot bear to hear an opposing opinion – particularly, one which confronts a long-held view. They wish to remain in the safety of those who agree with them and, run away from, or verbally attack, anyone who dares trespass into their blissfully ignorant world.

What is the worst that could happen? You’re proven wrong, through the use of rational argument – based on evidence. As I see it, you are left with two options: 1. You can continue to deny, in the face of logic and the evidence, that the critic’s view is not accurate and continue to shamefully remain within your ‘safe zone’ or, 2. Explore the person’s claims through your own research, and, if the evidence appears to be valid, accept it, utilise it and, voilà, you have improved your view/opinion/model/strategy/, etc.

No one’s opinion is infallible; rejecting to hear an argument against your view suggests you believe it to be so.

This skill can also be applied to your own ideas. Indeed, it is often essential to dispute one’s own beliefs before challenging those of others. How do you know you’re right? How do I know what I know, except that I’ve always been taught it is so, and, I’ve never been told otherwise?

As the philosopher, Bertrand Russell once said, “In all affairs, it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.” When is the last time you hung up those question marks on your long-held beliefs?

Depressingly, in the world of swimming, the art of critical thinking and scientific scrutiny has not permeated many levels nor is it a skill employed by all swimming coaches – I would boldly claim that the majority do not. That said, this is not entirely the fault of coaches. Unfortunately, the pool of scientific studies into competitive swimming is relatively limited and, can be rather difficult to find – not to mention that most coaches aren’t taught how to review or analyse, research papers. This a major shortfall on the part of swimming organisations and sporting bodies – a topic I wish to write about in the near future. Instead, coaches often resort to belief-based practices: copying other club programmes and reading swimming ‘manuals’ which are themselves based on dogma. Only now, as the evidence sources (and reliability) increases, we see the debunking of many traditional training practices – training which YOU likely use in your club programmes.

There has been no better time to debate the training prescriptions of other coaches, research the science available (and learn how to do it properly!) and, start questioning your own beliefs. No matter how long you have coached for, no matter what your track record is, no matter how strongly you believe you are right, hang up those question marks!

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.

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,