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,

SwimCoachStu

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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: http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/usrpt/table.htm

Individuality

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: http://coachsci.sdsu.edu/swim/bullets/47GUIDE.pdf

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.

Closure

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,

SwimCoachStu

References

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.

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,

SwimCoachStu

References:

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.

The Body in Swimming: Training the ATP-CP System

Adenosine Triphosphate – ATP

ATP is made up of some protein, a chemical called adenosine and three molecules of phosphate shown below. These are joined together by energy to form ATP molecules. ATP is the only substance that can provide energy for our muscles to move, or contract. All the other chemicals that provide energy are used to rebuild ATP when it has broken down to release it’s own energy.

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When the muscles require energy, they ‘call’ upon the ATP molecule to split from one of it’s phosphate molecules, releasing energy in the process. This leaves a molecule called Adenosine diphosphate (ADP), adenosine and the two remaining phosphate molecules.

To rebuild the ATP, and therefore, allow it to release energy once more, a phosphate molecule must be found as well as a form of energy. ATP can not move to muscles which are working from other parts of the body, therefore, when a molecule loses its energy (and some phosphate), other sources of energy must be found within the same fibre in order to avoid becoming severely fatigued – which all must be done almost immediately.

ATP does not just have to rely on finding another phosphate molecule, there are substitutes that can be used. This also applies to the energy source it acquires. For the purposes of this article, I will focus on one of the four chemicals: creatine phosphate.

Creatine Phosphate

This chemical provides the quickest source of energy and replacement phosphate to rebuild the ATP. It contains both creatine and one molecule of phosphate, with energy binding the two. These both combine with the ADP to allow the reformation of an ATP molecule and thus, energy for use in muscular contraction.

Although the rebuild process can be completed extremely fast, the drawback is that is can only be used for approximately 4-5 secs of max effort (di Prampero 1971) and therefore, a maximum rate of muscular contraction can only last for 4 to 6 secs.

A very small amount of CP is available afterward as phosphate and energy will be utilised in replacing ATP. Although, after a period of recovery and once all the ATP have been reformed, the left over phosphate will recombine with the creatine, formed with energy.

ATP-CP System in Training

Experts have, I feel, overstated the importance of training this system. Although it is observed that increasing the storages of ATP and CP results in athletes maintaing maximum speed for longer, the benefits are minor and would only likely be seen in 25 and 50m races.

Even in those shorter distances, it is hard to identify any reason why it would be important to develop this system. The normal rate of ATP-CP metabolism can provide energy for almost all of the maximum speed during a race, with the exception perhaps for the legs during the start or turns. The latter, however, is accommodated anyway as training alone will increase ATP and CP supplies as a by-product.

For even the improvements training the ATP-CP system would produce – likely less than 0.20 sec in a 25 or 50 event – time would be better spent developing other areas. Apart from technical training, a swimmer can significantly improve their maximum speed by increasing the size and strength of their muscle fibres (in particular groups) to improve power, and by recruiting fibres at a faster rate in an improved pattern. These can be both improved through land training and also in-water sprinting, the latter of which should be prioritised in order to allow muscle-fibre recruitment to occur in patterns which are in the correct sequence.

In short, the improvements seen in the ATP-CP system during training is sufficient enough not to require specific development. Training for maximum speed is better spent on technique and improving muscular strength as well as recruitment patterns.

Yours in Swimming,

SwimCoachStu