Perhaps There Is Another Way

By David

As the elite athletic world prepares for the Beijing Olympic Games, the rest of us are being provided with a most graphic example of the difference between the preparation proposed by Arthur Lydiard and the preparation followed by most of the swimming world. The example we are being shown does not demonstrate all the differences. It shows only the disparity in an athlete’s final preparation. When this difference is added to the very real differences in the early stages of a season’s training, the gap is huge.

With a couple of weeks to go before things get underway in Beijing, most of the swimming world’s federations are locked away in training camps, swimming carefully prepared sets. The locations are usually warm and exotic. “Carefully ensconced” would not be an out of place description for swimming’s approach to these final few weeks. Swimmers I’ve coached have spent their final weeks in camps in California, Hawaii, the south of France, Brunei and Auckland, New Zealand.

In track and field there are some who do the training camp thing. The majority of athletes however follow Lydiard’s advice and are out around the world competing. Just last night in Stockholm, Craig Mottram, Asafa Powell, Usain Bolt, Meserat Defar, Jeremy Warriner, Muna Lee, Mashavret Hooker and Allyson Felix, Kimberley Smith and a dozen other probable Olympic medalists were competing in Stockholm. This weekend they all shift to London to do the same thing. It doesn’t matter whether they are sprinters sharpening themselves over 100 meters in 9.88 seconds or distance athletes running for 13 minutes. They are all there. For most of them, London will be their fourth or fifth stop on a seven meet programme of competition before the Beijing meet.

To train in a camp or compete in the full view of the world; this is not a question of shades of grey. One might be better than the other. The difference is far too extreme for that. One must be right and the other must be wrong; one superior and the other deficient.

I happen to be a supporter of the track athlete’s method of preparation. The swimming nation that first realises the difference and wholeheartedly converts its swimming to this preparation is going to steal a march on the rest of the swimming world. The times swum by Hoff, Phelps, Hackett, Trickett and Manaudou will look as second rate as those of Weissmuller do today. Good in their time but unlikely to make the final of a Sectional Meet these days. Anyone interested in what Lydiard would consider to be a dated method of preparation can read about it in Dave Salo’s new book “Complete Conditioning for Swimming”. It’s a good description of what everyone does in swimming today. What the sport needs is to look down the road at what is possible tomorrow – and this book is not that.

Instead of tapering down to a peak – even the term is a contradiction – the Lydiard track method of final preparation is based is a series of time trials and races in the ten weeks leading up to an Olympic Games. The time trials and races are consciously designed mock exams. They are tests during which the swimmer’s endurance, anaerobic conditioning, speed, technique, starts, turns, stroke counts, stroke rates and all the other skills required to race well are tested and retested. Shortcomings are corrected in the week’s other sessions before the swimmer is tested again. This test, correction, test, correction process continues through the 10 weeks, culminating in the season’s main competition. As Lydiard said, “You should be in a good position to pass the main exam after ten weeks of mock tests.” Just as importantly, the season’s main event is a natural follow on from all that has gone before. It is something that is built up to in a logical and controlled manner. It doesn’t take a coaching genius to see that this must have advantages over the traditional “train like mad and stop for a two weeks taper and hope” method used by national squads today.

It is also the method used by the Patriots to prepare for the Super Bowl, the Yankees to get ready for the World Series and the Spurs to play in the Finals. In fact, the best players in just about every sport you can think of these days execute their final preparation by competing as frequently and as hard as possible up to their main event. Wimbledon has Queens and the French Open; the British Golf Open has the European and Scottish Opens. Just about every sport you can think of does this, except for swimming. But just wait until swimming does it too. Rowdy Gaines and John McBeth are going to need a whole new vocabulary.