Age-Old Answer

By David

“Splash” is the US Swimming bi-monthly magazine. The most recent issue (Nov-Dec 2006) contains an article called “Age Old Question”. In it Tom Slear discusses whether; “In their quest for Olympic Gold did Natalie Coughlin and her coach Terri McKeever uncover a radical new approach to training? Mike Silver, author of the Golden Girl would have you believe that is the case.” The article quotes extensively from Terri McKeever and David Salo (current coach at USC) who may have “hit upon a training formula that could revolutionize the sport.”

Unfortunately, McKeever and Salo are then credited with a series of quotes that rubbish what the rest of us are doing but do little to explain the benefits of their “better way”. Oh, we do get a few dismissive hints, their revolution evidently involves “tracking technique rather than counting laps” and “thought provoking drills instead of extended sets” and “swimming backwards instead of numerous tight-interval repeats swimming forward”.

I’m unsure when the IOC approved the 100m swimming backwards but it may be prophetic. Natalie Coughlin, the revolutions main beneficiary is quoted as saying; “Did I need that (aerobic) base I got when I was younger? I honestly can’t say but I was better off for having the experiences I did.”What you’ve got in that comment is a swimmer caught between her new coach’s brainstorm and the age group coach who founded Coughlin’s illustrious career.

Those braver or ruder than Coughlin would come right out and say, “My early aerobic swimming provided the base onto which I can now put McKeever’s training ideas.” We’d all agree with that.

Coughlin’s comment and the “Splash” article do however hint at a dark side of US Swimming that could be of considerable concern. In the two years I’ve been coaching in the United States the mistreatment that takes place between club and college is a scandal. Some college coaches sit there happily identifying the brightest and best club talent; prostitute themselves with attractive offers and lure teenage innocents into their college swimming pool.

For four years they exploit, use and finally discard; contributing nothing. Of course they have no time for extended build ups of steady mileage. They have points at the next dual meet to win. “Besides we’re giving them a free education aren’t we; and board and food and books. Toughen up and get on with it, you ungrateful prima donnas.”

In a few cases the swimming mine is so deep, the field so large that coaches can extract and reap without the damage showing. Coughlin is one of those. Her extraordinary talent and aerobic condition have produced a combination that can be exploited with impunity. It would be unfair to level the charge of usury against all colleges. Some do contribute, build and put in before they take out. The “Splash” article mentions a few, Pursley, Troy, Chavoor, Schubert, and Gambril. Add to this, foreigners such as Touretski, Laing and Talbot and the good guys are looking pretty strong.

“Sprint the hell out of them” coaches don’t want to be known as exploiters. They want to be legitimate. They need a theory to justify their coaching and Mike Silver has worked hard to oblige. He has not succeeded, of course. At the end of the day wrong is wrong; the indefensible cannot be justified. The young swimmers in the above picture don’t need to be swimming backwards; they need to have their aerobic fitness levels cautiously improved if they are going to evolve into successful adult swimmers.

You see it’s all about physiology. Arthur Lydiard, the acknowledged founder of distance conditioning in running said to me, “David, they come up with all this stuff about training smarter, training faster and doing less distance. But as far as I know the human heart is still pretty much the same as it was in the 1960s. What conditioned the heart then will still do so in 2000.”

He was right. And so here for the unbelievers out there here is a short version of Coaching Physiology 101: Establishing an aerobic base means training the body to perform at increasingly higher levels without going into oxygen debt; to swim faster using oxygen as the primary energy source. The best way to improve the speed the body can sustain aerobically is to swim long distances (up to 100kms per week) at the athlete’s maximum aerobic speed. Clearly the faster an athlete can perform aerobically (ie, without incurring oxygen debt) the faster he or she will perform when an efficient anaerobic and speed component is added to the base.

An athlete who can swim 58 second 100s without incurring any oxygen debt will swim faster anaerobically than an athlete who plunges into oxygen debt at 1.10 per 100 pace. The example assumes that both athletes have similar anaerobic training. So there you have it; build a base and then put your anaerobic and speed training on top of the base. That’s the right thing to do. The problem is base building takes time. “Cherry picker” coaches are not going to get into all that stuff. They have a meet to win next week, don’t you know? It’s cruel, but as long as the US has 300 million willing souls ready to charge the guns, they’ll continue to get away with it.

And how do I know all this? You see, I was there. My daughter got her swimming scholarship and her education and took a few suspect coaching bullets along the way. She had her ups and downs, but how did she swim her best times in her best events during her senior year of university? The 48,000 kilometres (or 29,000 miles) that she swam before she got there.