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The sport that requires the most precise preparation of them all - Swimming

Joe Dunbar explores the athletic demands of swimming and explains how to plan your training.

The sport of swimming demands athletes and coaches who are very meticulous in their preparation for competition. In no other sport is the level of preparation, tapering for the big day, and rigid control of training intensities quite the same. One aspect that contributes to this accuracy in training pace is the uniformity of conditions. Apart from having a warmer or colder pool or one that is 25, 33.3, or 50m in length, there is little difference in the training environment. You are all staring at a black line on the pool floor for length after length.

Demands of the sport

There can be a variety within the sport, however, depending quite on which stroke(s) are your best, and you use in competition, as well as on what distance you travel on race day. This means that there is an element of specialisation in swimming, much as Linford Christie and Rob de Castella have somewhat diverse approaches to running.

A 25-metre swim would give a similar competition time to the 100m sprinter. In comparison, a 200-metre effort could give a race duration between 1:30 to 2 minutes and an endurance event of 1500m may require between 14 to 20 minutes, depending on age, standard, and gender.

This range of events means that a variety of forms of conditioning are needed to match the demands of the race event. Although all swimmers will use a training regimen of mixed paces, the sprinter will be logging fewer but faster training lengths for preparation. In comparison, the endurance counterpart will log considerably more lengths at a more sedate tempo.

Which events you are best at will be governed more by genetics than training. It is unrealistic for an athlete whose muscles are composed predominantly of slow-twitch fibres to have dreams of Olympic gold at the shorter events. Still, the experienced coach will soon direct aspiring youngsters to the correct race distance.

Phases of training

Planning the perfect peak, to coincide with the most important gala on the yearly calendar is the hallmark of the world-class swimmer and coach. The training year will typically start from the active rest enjoyed at the end of your previous season. The planning of various training phases, however, will work back from the competition day of the following season. The key variables to play with are volume and intensity. At the same time, the influence of land work, especially strength training, will also sculpt your swimming fitness for a crescendo on the important race day. This could be anything from the Olympic Games (in which case a full peak would not be possible for the trials) to a national championship, county championships, or local gala or club event. It would help if you chose when your big goal performance is to be.

It may be that you plan two peaks, one for the short-course season in winter and another for the long course. This double periodisation could mean that you have two general endurance periods, two specific endurance periods, the two competition periods, as well as two taper periods, all within a year. Naturally, these periods will be much shorter than in a single periodised year. How you structure your training within these periods is a matter of preference. Still, there will probably be a greater volume in the general endurance period, followed by a period of moderate to high volume with increased intensity. This is then followed by a period of taper, which leaves your body fresh and ready for competition, with lots of training banked up from which to draw.

The training week

A whole host of different types of training sessions can fit into the week of the swimmer, giving the coach and physiologist ample opportunity for workouts of slightly different intensity. The structure of the week will vary according to the particular phase, but all aspects must be covered to different degrees, all year round.

Four significant intensities can be established, and these, in turn, may well be sub-divided to give a greater range of options. In Base Endurance sessions, you work at very low intensities to enhance the oxidative capacity of the muscles and increase the ability to metabolise fats as an energy substrate. Aerobic maintenance sessions will form a large bulk of the volume, where the intensity is a little harder to give a greater stimulus to the heart and lungs. Threshold work should give the optimal aerobic training effect, provided the intensity is right. If you are too fast, there is a greater contribution from anaerobic metabolism, and if you are too slow, you could be going faster. Speed endurance, or lactate production and lactate tolerance sessions are far more intense and so need to be done in interval workouts to keep sufficient volume.

Added to these conditioning sessions should be flexibility work, before and after pool sessions, and in sessions in their right. Technique work is also vital in a sport where hundredths of a second count. Work in the weight room can increase strength and power, a crucial factor in swimming success, but it is important to choose exercises that are going to contribute to an increase in swimming velocity. If they are not specific to your sport, then the value of time spent on such work is, at best, questionable.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • DUNBAR, J. (2003) The sport that requires the most precise preparation of them all - Swimming. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 7 / November), p. 3

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  • DUNBAR, J. (2003) The sport that requires the most precise preparation of them all - Swimming [WWW] Available from: [Accessed