Interval Training

By David

I have just finished reading “Peter Snell, From Olympian to Scientist”. It is written by Snell and Auckland journalist, Garth Gilmore. It is a good and informative book. Garth co-authored my first book on swimming, “Swim to the Top”. From this experience I know how well and accurately he transferred my ideas into a final manuscript. That skill must have been severely tested when he wrote the Snell book. It contains a lot of scientific information on the work done by Snell at his human performance laboratory in Dallas, Texas.

There may be one or two readers who do not know of Sir Peter Snell. He was a New Zealand 800 and 1500 meter runner, coached by Arthur Lydiard. He won the 800 meters in the Rome Olympic Games and the 800 and 1500 meters in Tokyo. He held World Records over 800 and 1000 meters and a mile. After retiring from track and field he went to the United States and completed a Doctorate Degree in human physiology. Interestingly his PhD was awarded by Washington State University in 1982; the same University Jane swam for and graduated from in 2006. Since graduating Snell has been based at the University of Texas and has built a reputation as one of the world’s leading research physiologists.

The final chapter of Snell’s book is especially informative. In it he discusses the work he has done to test the scientific validity of Lydiard’s training methods. He says, “I am frequently asked: “Now that you understand the science of running, what part of the Lydiard system would you change?” The fascinating part of finding out exactly what was happening to me during my training and racing all those years ago is that, typically my answer is that I would not change anything.”

I am not surprised that Snell’s research has confirmed the validity of Lydiard’s distance conditioning or the hill work or the ten weeks of racing and limited interval training. As Snell says, Lydiard may not have had a PhD but he did test his methods with close to academic scrutiny. But I was pleasantly surprised at one of Snell’s findings. He makes a clear distinction between short and long rest interval training. This is what he says.

“Another important issue is the question of recovery between hard intervals. Sessions of hard 200 or 400 meter runs may be very demanding if the athlete is allowed only a short recovery. There is no evidence that training with high levels of lactic acid has any beneficial effect that cannot be acquired from early season competition. The correct use of intervals is to maximize the amount of fast running up to race pace. This can be done only by taking enough time between the effort phase to allow the clearance of lactate and the recovery of muscle Ph. This points to the fact that the intensity and duration of interval training should be individualized to the athlete’s level of conditioning.”

I was particularly pleased with this revelation. From practical experience in coaching both swimming and track I had the impression that interval training done to a strictly controlled and short rest period was not getting the best results. In my early coaching I had tried short interval hard sets on Toni Jeffs, Nichola Chellingworth and Jane and wasn’t happy with the result. The swimmers were completely buggered by the end of the session but, I had the uneasy feeling, they weren’t any better at swimming. I felt I’d spent an hour and a half tearing them down rather than building them up. And yet every winter I saw University coaches at my pool in Florida set tough interval sets of 15×200 or 20×100. Then, with their watches and whistles at the ready, they sent their swimmers off with amazingly little rest; frequently less than I’d done with Jane and the others. There was no question their swimmers were getting tired. It’s just that the swimming wasn’t all that good. It seemed to me that the coach’s goal was to cause the maximum amount of discomfort rather than the maximum swimming benefit. But these were University coaches; perhaps I was wrong.

What I was doing was setting the same sessions of 15×200 or 20×100 but judging the rest according to the athlete’s ability to recover. I developed a feel for when the swimmer was ready to go again. In heart rate terms I waited until the swimmer had recovered to 110-115 beats per minute. I justified this by saying to the team, “You don’t win championships by the length of your rest, but how fast you swim.” A variable and longer recover resulted in swims that were swum with better technique and were closer to race pace. If that meant a bit of a wait between each swim, then that was just fine. I still felt a bit guilty because my swimmers weren’t dying at the end of the pool, but took heart that they seemed to be swimming faster.

This next paragraph will fall far short of the scientific method long applied by Peter Snell. But there is a look about a conditioned swimmer ready to race well. At his best Phelps is a classic example, so is Lochte, Hoff, Bernard and Pellegrini. There is also a look about a swimmer who is over trained; who has been subjected to too much or too harsh interval training. These swimmers are just as lean but it’s not a healthy, strong sort of lean. It is a weak lean. Toni Jeffs looked like I describe when I overdid her interval training before the Barcelona Olympic Games. I thought one or two good swimmers at the recent New Zealand Commonwealth Games trials looked over trained. If that’s true the problem may be too hard and too much interval training rather than not enough. That was true in my case at Barcelona and now Peter Snell has told me why. It’s it great what science can do?