Save The Worst Till Last

Previous Swimwatch posts have discussed aspects of aerobic training and speed training. There is a third category of fitness that has to be included in a balanced program – anaerobic fitness. This refers to training the athlete to tolerate the discomfort that builds up when he or she swims or runs faster than the point where air taken in can supply all the athlete’s energy needs – the athlete goes anaerobic. It means getting puffed.

This period of training is particularly sensitive to me. It is the training I screwed up when preparing Toni Jeffs for the Barcelona Olympic Games. It is a mistake common to many coaches and I made it – big time. Nothing was ever good enough. If 10×100 done really fast was good 20 was better and 50 was best of all. If a minutes rest was good, then 30 seconds was fantastic. One session Toni did in Wellington’s Freyberg Pool before the Olympic Games was 20x66m on 1.45. I said they had to be done under 40sec. That’s one minute 100 pace. And, do you know what? Toni did it. In fact most of them were 38s. It’s a pity only the Freyberg lifeguards and I saw it. It was fantastic but it was also a big step closer to the disaster of her swims in Barcelona.

Too much anaerobic training is as dangerous as all can be. I know. After Barcelona I’ve been there, done that, can wear the t-shirt. Both the guys (Jelley and Lydiard) I’ve relied on for my coaching education warned me about the dangers of anaerobic training. “Back off, take it easy, don’t leave it all at training” they would say. After Barcelona I began to listen. That wasn’t going to happen again.

So what are the rules of anaerobic training? Here is what I think they are.

A balanced program means allocating the time swimmers spend on training to 40% aerobic, 40% speed and 20% anaerobic training. In a Lydiard program that means doing 10 weeks aerobic training, 4 weeks anaerobic training and 10 weeks speed training. However there are 100 other ways of dividing up the time. What cannot change is the 40/40/20 ratio.

Both Jelley and Lydiard stressed the importance of anaerobic sets being not too long and not too short. What does that mean? Well, for a whole anaerobic period one season I set Toni Jeffs very short anaerobic sessions. Things like 5×100 or 8×50. There is of course a place for that type of training. But Toni was not getting anaerobically fit. The training was not far enough to ensure complete anaerobic fatigue. That is not possible in the five minutes of swimming time it takes to swim 5×100. Swimming 30×100 was similarly ineffective. The distance was too far to swim fast enough to build up the maximum amount of anaerobic fatigue throughout the muscles, through the venous and through the arterial blood system. In swimming between 10 and 15 100s seems to be the right length of session. That is a distance that can be swum at a fast speed for an extended period of time sufficient for the body to experience full anaerobic fatigue.

Recovery is important in all phases of training. In the anaerobic period it is life and death. Any coach who keeps piling anaerobic fatigue on top of anaerobic fatigue is asking for trouble. Just look at the way I managed to coach a swimmer from 3rd in the world to 23rd at Barcelona. Never underestimate the importance of recovery. In practical terms this means two things. Anaerobic training should be restricted to three sessions per week. In other words there should be a minimum of 48 hours recovery between anaerobic sets. If in doubt dropping the weekly load to two sessions is also wise. Swimmers can, of course, swim between anaerobic sessions. Active recovery is the very best.

What distances should be swum in anaerobic sessions? The answer is it depends on the swimmers main event. The rule says anaerobic sets in the four week should be over distances longer and shorter than the swimmers main event. In other words the swimmer should experience a wide range of anaerobic stress. For a 100 swimmer this means setting over distance 400m, 200m and 150m sets and 100m, 75m and 50m under distance sets. In the four weeks I plan three of these options in week one and the other three in week two. I then repeat week one sets in week three and week two’s sets in week four. In other words in the four weeks every interval distance gets repeated twice. The times swum can be compared but are not particularly important. We need to remember Lydiard’s recipe for good anaerobic training.

How far. To the nearest tree

How fast. At a good speed.

How many. Until you are tired.

And finally, don’t forget about swimmer’s legs. When I first began swim coaching all the anaerobic sets were done swimming. At one NSW Championship Nichola Chellingworth won the 12 year old girls 50 freestyle and Toni Jeffs won the Open Woman’s 50 freestyle. We were very pleased with ourselves. Later I was chatting to Australian national coach Peter Freney. He said that he thought Nichola and Toni were slowing down at the end of the 50m. His impression was that their legs were tiring and that quickly spread to their arms and shoulders. He asked if I was doing enough work on their legs. I didn’t admit that in the anaerobic period we did no anaerobic leg training. From then on I have split the anaerobic sets into 80% swimming, 20% legs. The improvement in Nichola and Toni’s results was huge.

Those are the rules I use to set swimmer’s schedules through the anaerobic period of training. But most of all, remember this is a dangerous period of preparation. Be cautious, don’t push too hard. The last thing any coach wants to do is repeat my Barcelona training mistake.

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