Track Training and Swimming

After having lunch with Arch Jelley last week we have continued discussing trends in track training and how they might apply to the preparation of swimmers. I got an email last night that may be of interest. In it Arch lists four characteristics of the training he gave John Walker and suggests they may have relevance to training swimmers. In this article I will take each of his points separately and discuss their relevance to swimming.

1. “The relatively small amount of anaerobic training.”

This is important. Many swim teams are still into anaerobic training like there was no tomorrow. College – that’s what they call universities in the United States – programs are especially bad. The NCAA limits on training time and the short season leave your average college swim coach with no alternative but to pile on the anaerobic sets. In their effort to protect swimmers from training too much the NCAA are encouraging training practices that cause physiological harm. Every Christmas the pool I was at in Florida was crowded with college teams doing two weeks of anaerobic set after anaerobic set. Mind you, it seemed to be a bit self-regulating. While the coaches were calling for a supreme anaerobic sacrifice, the swimmers frequently applied their effort according to how they felt. But, anaerobic overload is not restricted to college programs. Many club programs are just as bad. Harder is better and really, really hard is best of all. No wonder swimming has such a horrible dropout rate. A few years of that sort of abuse is enough to finish anyone off. I am certain that the swimming nation that first adopts a national policy of emphasizing aerobic conditioning and cuts back on the current anaerobic overload will steal a march on the rest of the world. Nationally, no coach should be allowed to set more than twenty four sessions of all out anaerobic training in a twelve month period. It worked for Walker.

2. “The large amount of training just below his anaerobic threshold.”

On the surface of it, this seems to be stating the obvious; cut back on the anaerobic and fill the gap with more aerobic training. There is however more to it than that. Arch emphasizes the effort required; “just below his anaerobic threshold.” This seems to be important. Many of the critics of aerobic based training fail to appreciate how fast swimmers can train; swimming aerobically, at a heart rate below 160. The table below lists some aerobic sets done by female swimmers I have coached. As you can see they are not exactly slow and yet they are still in the range of aerobic training; or as Arch would describe it, “just below anaerobic threshold”. Many teams have swimmers who can swim faster than the times shown in this table. But can they swim them aerobically that fast? What Arch is saying is the ability to do this type of training aerobically was one of Walker’s strengths.

3. “The fact that his volume of training in his basic conditioning period was the same volume as when he was in his track phase. Thus in his basic conditioning phase he ran between 80 -90 miles weekly and when he went on the track he maintained the same mileage; probably the first runner to operate like this. As a result of this he was able to compete in many more races than his contemporaries. When racing he would run closer to 60 miles weekly but would not hesitate to step up his mileage if he felt he needed greater strength. When in poor shape he would run about 3m55s for the mile but in better shape he was always good for a sub 3m52s or its equivalent over 1500m.”

I’ve always wanted to do this but am yet to find a swimmer prepared to swim ten weeks of 100 kilometers through the aerobic phase, continue at 70 kilometers through the four weeks of anaerobic conditioning and still hold 60 kilometers or more through ten weeks of racing and speed work. The most my swimmers have managed in the speed work period is 35-40 kilometers and when they’ve been on the World Cup or Mare Nostrum circuit this has often dropped to 25 kilometers. I do think the distance swum during the racing period depends on the swimmer’s event. For 200 meters or above I agree with Arch. A larger volume of steady swimming during the ten weeks of racing will benefit the season’s main races in the latter few weeks. Sprinters, swimming the 50 or 100, appear to benefit from letting the distance drop into the 20s for this period. Arch is right though. What John did 25 years ago the Kenyans and Moroccans are doing today. They are forever going for steady runs as they tour Europe, racing two or three times a week. One day in swimming we will do the same thing.

4. The large number of races contested. In some instances this may have been detrimental to his career, but being a New Zealander he didn’t have a home base and was more or less forced to race excessively all over Europe in order to pay for his board and lodging.

In a separate email Arch tells me John Walker raced 57 times a year. He probably averaged 1500 meters per race which in twelve months converts to 85,500 meters of racing. And that’s a huge number. Only an aerobic based program would allow an athlete to race well that often. In swimming, I like the rule of thumb used by Popov’s coach Gennadi Touretski. He recommended 100 races a year. That might sound like a lot but when you include heats, finals and relays it’s surprising how quickly the number of races mounts up. At local championships in New Zealand and in the United States I’ve seen twelve year olds work through 25 races in a weekend. Four weekends like that and the year’s quota is done. A swimmer who does the World Cup circuit of seven meets and swims the heats and finals of three events at each meet will swim 42 races by the time he or she finishes the last meet in Berlin. The same program at Mare Nostrum and Paris and the swimmer has competed in 66 races. It doesn’t leave many races for the swimmer’s domestic championships or Grand Prix meets and the like. I suspect most swimmers in New Zealand, Britain and the United States swim well in excess of 100 races a year. Add that racing load to an overload of anaerobic training and no aerobic conditioning and there is little need to look any further to find the cause of swimmer dropout. It certainly highlights the distinction between the caring program suggested by Arch and the rip, shit and bust program followed by many.