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Sports Science: Swim faster by training less - Part 1

712   //    13 Mar 2013, 13:25 IST

One of the important areas that have come under the microscope of sports scientists is the issue of traditional swim practices. Some very interesting questions arise once you begin to take a closer look at swimming programs across the world. If you truly want to swim faster, you will need to analyze your training. Take a second to answer the following questions about your swimming program.

Is the training you do evidence-based or is it based on what’s always been done? Is the amount of yardage really necessary for you to swim faster? Does the design of your workout accommodate the individual swimmer, or is there a load of generalized garbage yardage floating around in your pool?

Personal views aside, let’s take a look at the accumulation of research over the past decade or so and dive into the facts. The main article I will be referring to is Dr. Brent S. Rushall’s paper: Relevant Training Effects in Pool Swimming: Ultra-short Training at Race-pace. If you have never heard of Dr. Rushall, you need to go check him out (after you finish reading this article, of course).

As you read the article, take a glance at the dates of the research cited and you will be surprised. The research has been around for over a decade, but the swimming community has continued to ignore it and hold firm to tradition, which begs the question: “Do we really want to swim faster?” The article linked to above is a both a summary and an explanation of past research concerning competitive swimming training. All references are listed at the end of Dr. Rushall’s article.

The first major concept that Dr. Rushall explained is that swimming is a unique sport due to the swimmer being supported in a liquid and moving through that liquid. Thanks to biometric monitoring, we now understand that swimming has significantly different energy patterns and energy production mechanisms. As a matter of fact, each individual stroke has a different energy demand. This means that an effective swimming workout or season plan cannot be based on information from other sports.

Understandings of what competitive runners require and how they satisfy their energy requirements are largely irrelevant for swimming. Taking that one step further, how runners train is likely to be mostly irrelevant for swimming. Unfortunately, that distinction is rarely recognized by swimming coaches which leads to the phenomenon of a culturally accepted emphasis on subjecting swimmers to irrelevant/incorrect training principles and effects.  - Dr. Brent S. Rushall

In regards to the traditional swimming practice, Dr. Rushall says coaches need to realize that when swimmers improve in training (more yardage, more practices, more effort), that doesn’t often translate to improvement in races and when it does, it is largely coincidental. Sadly, that last sentence alone speaks to pretty much every practice I have ever done in my life!

In his book The 4-Hour Chef, Tim Ferriss makes the statement:


The top 1% often succeed despite how they train, not because of it. Superior genetics, or a luxurious full-time schedule make up for a lot.

Tim Ferriss is the ultimate guru at efficiency in learning and I think he hit the nail on the head. Looking back, I think I have been able to swim faster in spite of my training. No, not all of it was garbage, but I think the majority of it could have been streamlined to produce greater results at a faster pace.

But back to the research, what does sports science have to say about garbage yardage? Can you get better just by being in the water and training any set?

It is commonly believed that any swim training will transfer beneficial effects to competitive performances in serious swimmers. Unfortunately, the human body does not perform or respond in that manner. Unless the work of training can directly transfer to swimming races, that is ultra-short training at race-pace, training will be irrelevant or of marginal benefit. [Age-group swimming performances are often referenced as proof of effective training. It is more accurate to attribute age-groupers' improvements to growth than actual training. A case could be made that traditional swimming training programs suppress age-group improvements because the majority of those improvements are less than one should expect from growth alone (~4% per year; Rushall, 1992).]

Since these claims are pretty radical, I want to remind you that this is evidence-based research and I encourage you to read Dr. Rushall’s article and explore his references before forming your opinion.

So far, according to the research of these sports scientists, we are understanding that swim training shouldn’t mirror other sports, more yardage/sessions/efforts is not necessarily better, and garbage yardage should be place where it belongs – in the trash.

If you are like me, you read the research and thought to yourself “well that sucks”, and to be honest, it really does. But before you spiral into abysmal depression, you should know that they also provided an alternative solution. After analyzing traditional training, they developed a much better training method to swim faster: Ultra-short Training at Race-pace.

Ultra-Short Training at Race-pace

Ultra-short training has been proposed as a superior alternative to traditional swim training and it is based upon two concepts:

1. The intensity of training should be that of the average velocity of a particular race. Training intensity, not volume or frequency, is related to swimming performance improvement (Mujika et al., 1996; Sperlich et al., 2009a, 2009b). 

2. The format of the training has to be that which yields the greatest carry-over to competitive swimming events. The Principle of Specificity deems this to be an essential requirement for producing training effects that transfer directly to competitive tasks (Roels et al., 2005; Rushall, 1985a, 1985b; Rushall & Pyke, 1991).

Dr. Rushall lists quite a number of proven benefits of training at race pace over traditional swim training. Here are a few:

- Race-pace training is necessary because techniques change with swimming velocity (Pelarigo, 2010; Toussaint et al., 1990). So that the techniques required for racing are developed, it is only race-pace training that yields such benefits.

- High-intensity work involves both anaerobic and aerobic work. The combination of anaerobic and aerobic stimulation in training sets produces more and faster performance improvements than aerobic training alone (Ransom et al., 2008; Sokmen et al., 2002; Villani, Fernhall, & Miller, 1999; Yamamoto et al., 2004).

- High-intensity training forces the body to use energy sources (carbohydrates and fats) better and more efficiently (Usaj et al., 2009). It is the only intensity that will alter assumed maximal accumulated oxygen debt (Zacharogiannis, Tziortzis, & Paradisis, 2003).

Ultra-short training at race-pace isn’t just training fast. It is based on carefully planned intervals, lactate and glycogen levels and muscle fatigue. In part 2 of this article, I will teach you how you can swim faster by designing your own race-pace set and cutting your practice time in half.

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