Shades of Gray

Recent Swimwatch posts have discussed the differences between sprint and distance based training programs. American Dave Salo is the high priest of sprint-based training. Mark Schubert is accepted as the Arthur Lydiard of distance-based swimming training. Both programs work. What does not work are programs which attempt to mix the two.

Not only don’t the programs mix well, world-wide experience shows clearly that some swimmers respond best to sprint-based training and others respond best to distance preparation. Failure to appreciate that fact was the fatal flaw in Jan Cameron’s centralised training policy. Lauren Boyle understood that when she fought to get out of David Lyles’ sprint-based program.

What I want to do in this post is give some proof of the failure that can result when a swimmer who responds best to distance training is forced to train in a sprint-based program. The same tragedy that occurred in this case will, of course, occur the other way around – when a swimmer who improves best in a sprint program is forced to train in a distance program.

The example, in this case, occurred when I was coaching in Florida. The swimmer was in his twenties. He had swum as a junior but, when he wandered into the pool one afternoon and asked if he could try-out for the team, he had not raced for three years. I was impressed with his quiet, polite personality and six foot four inch perfect swimming frame. I was doubly impressed when he began to swim. He was a natural; the complete swimmer and as the weeks went by that proved to be increasingly true.

But before telling you what happened to his swimming I need to describe his parents. They lived in New Orleans. They were richer than God; private jets, executive yachts, fancy sports cars and skiing holidays in Aspen – the whole nine yards. They were generous with their wealth. As their son improved they paid for me to take him to World Cup meets and Mare Nostrum in Europe. When we were looking at replacing our car they flew Alison to New Orleans in their private jet and gave us a Ford Explorer. There were many good things about the family but something made me uncomfortable. They were wildly Republican and like many of their right wing colleagues wandered through life convinced that God had chosen them to be rich. They could buy whatever success they craved.

Their son took to my distance swimming program like a duck to water. Within weeks he was swimming 100 kilometres a week, lifting heavy weights and reeling off 100×100 sets like he had been doing them all his life. A distance program suited him so well that you could see the daily improvement taking place. Better than that – he proved to be a bloody good bloke with it.

Pretty soon the results of his hard work began to show in his racing results. The three tables below show his progress. The top line in each table shows his best junior time before he arrived at my club and before his time off. The next two lines show his progress while he swam with me. The bottom line shows his best time after he left my team. The figures in brackets are slower results.

50 LC Meters Freestyle
Date Time Club Improvement
24/7/2003 24.55 Unattached -
23/5/2008 24.52 Aqua -
25/06/2009 23.38 Aqua 4.6%
3/6/2010 23.11 MAC 1.2%


100 LC Meters Freestyle
Date Time Club Improvement
2/4/2004 54.14 Unattached -
10/5/2008 54.41 Aqua -
25/6/2009 50.95 Aqua 6.4%
3/8/2010 51.97 MAC (2.0%)


200 LC Meters Freestyle
Date Time Club Improvement
2/4/2004 1:58.20 Unattached -
27/6/2008 2:01.76 Aqua -
9/6/2009 1:54.69 Aqua 5.8%
3/8/2010 1:57.46 MAC (2.4%)

As you can see his best distance was 100 meters freestyle. I think most of us would accept that to progress from 54.41 to 50.95 in one year was healthy progress. 6.4% improvement was more than twice the guideline of 3% recommended by the American Swim Coaches Association. He had also won the Florida State Championship 100 freestyle. His future looked bright. There were three years to the London Olympic Games trials. There seemed to be no reason why he could not improve according to the schedule shown in this table.

Year % Improvement Time Improvement
2008 – 2009 Actual 6.4 54.41 to 50.95
2010 – 2011 3.2 50.95 to 49.32
2012 – Olympic Trials. 1.6 49.32 to 48.53

A time of 48.53 at the 2012 USA Olympic Trials would have placed him third in the trials and he would have been on his way to London as a member of the USA 4×100 relay team. The Americans were second behind France in that race. My Florida swimmer should have retired an Olympic Silver Medallist. But he didn’t – why?

Parental greed is the answer. As their son improved the parent’s involvement grew and grew. But it was not a healthy involvement. They wanted the best that money could buy. Their son was happy and was improving but what could he do with a real “American” coach. When we were at Mare Nostrum they were all over the trendy MAC coach, David Marsh. I could feel the screws tightening. I could sense the thought of how good could their son be in a team like MAC? That was where the rich and famous swam. That is where their son should be. They gave no thought and probably still don’t understand that their son was prospering in a distance-based program and Marsh offered nothing but sprints. It was doomed from the start. But eventually they saw their chance and transferred their son to MAC. The numbers tell the rest of the story. Their son’s swimming career stumbled on for a few seasons but his potential was lost. What a waste.

What they did was disgusting. They gave no thought for the progress that had been made. They had no idea of the training that suited their son. All they wanted was to be able to say at dinner parties that their son swam at MAC. Well they got that and in the process their son lost an Olympic Silver Medal.

I’ve seen the same thing in New Zealand; swimmers attracted by the bright lights of the big city club. The moral of this story is do not give in to the temptation. If you are happy and progressing well in Whangarei or Greendale or Hastings or New Plymouth do not assume that by going to United or North Shore or Capital your progress will be even better. Stay at home – you will do better there. And if you have to change, because of education or work, make sure the program you go to is similar – either sprint or distance based – to the one you have left.

For my Florida swimmer I felt desperately sad. His story was the biggest loss I have seen in sport. He did not deserve that. His parents however did deserve the loss. Greedy Republicans were denied a result as a direct product of their self-indulgence. They made decisions based on ignorance and voracity and they lost. They deserved no less. It is desperately wrong that the person they hurt in the process was their son.

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