The Camps of Christmas

Training camps are a part of sport, and of swimming in particular, that I do not understand. I’ve been to a number of these trips and I can recall with clarity which ones benefited my swimming and which did not. Any number of things can influence how an athlete performs, but I am on the firm opinion that the current format of training camps is far more detrimental to good athletic performance than it is beneficial.

There is a nasty, cyclical irony in the way training camps work. Coaches take their teams away, usually during state holidays and vacations, to numerous locations, in order to do what they do at home: train. National teams can usually get away with taking swimmers away at any given time, but college and club squads generally have to work around people’s school, university or professional schedules. The most popular time to take people away from their homes? Christmas vacation.

College teams follow a classic plan for camps. If a university’s semester or fall quarter ends on December 15, coaches will give their swimmers just under two weeks at home before demanding that they either return to campus or fly directly to the training camp’s location. The next quarter or semester will not start until around the seventh of January, and the swim team will spend about ten days at their camp.

The location of these camps provides the first strike. Many teams travel to exotic locations, especially since the U.S.’s Christmastime is during the winter. The Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Mexico and various other southern locales are immensely popular: College teams provide a noticeable source of income for local pools and hotels in these areas. The other popular location is the remote kind: given ten days in Fargo, North Dakota in January, there isn’t much else to do but train. Thus, athletes are either bitter because they’re in Miami and can’t spend all their time at South Beach like Miami visitors should, or they’re angry because they’re in Colorado in the middle of winter.

The next mistake about training camps is the training itself. Inevitably, the team has competed at a taper meet in November or December. The hard aerobic and anaerobic work they did during the fall has been tested at said meet, and they now have to prepare for the big conference and national meets of the spring. Coaches seem to believe that their athletes should be beaten back down by the longest, hardest training possible (Swim! Run! Lift!) over the Christmas break when they’re coming off a very short taper from the fall.

This seems to detrimental. A far more sensible way to spend the three weeks of Christmas vacation would be to recover from the first half of the season, nurture the freshness of a drop taper and prepare for the spring’s competitions. By this, I do not mean that swimmers should do little training: Recovery should involve a lot of aerobic maintenance swimming, a small amount of anaerobic work and a number of sessions that focus on maintaining speed. As it stands, the usual format of training camps involves a ton of anaerobic work, some speed work, and afternoons off as opposed to aerobic recovery. If the team has completed good, hard training during the first half of the season, there is simply no need for the ten days of hell in January. After all, the only people who swim slower than under-trained athletes are over-trained athletes.

Teams are often surprised when they perform better at their winter taper meet than they do at the important meets of the year (namely, conference championships and national competitions). Ten days of damage over Christmas can easily ruin the next three months for a swimmer, especially since the common theme is to have athletes return to campus two minutes before the next semester starts, have them continue full-time training and fly them to another location the very next weekend to swim a dual meet against another school.

The personal effects of a bad training camp can be equally undesirable. Rather than be a positive, productive experience, many athletes find themselves crestfallen and drained after a week and a half in a cramped hotel room, often with two or three other team mates. After a particularly unsavory training camp where my swimming was mediocre at best, I was accused of not having trained well enough on my own before the camp began. The fact that I’d worked as hard as I ever did before and during the trip added to my distress: The name of the camp’s location invokes a damp misery to this day.

This said, I’ve been to three good training camps, one of which definitely followed the above format. However, I’d learned a fair bit about how to handle myself by that stage, and I was very careful with how hard I pushed myself. I was also blessed with some very forgiving circumstances, such as the close proximity of my family.

I believe that universities’ winter vacations and the similar times used in other parts of the world can be made good use of. Exhibiting a sturdy trust in one’s swimmers, coaches could send their swimmers away for their holidays with either training sessions in hand, requiring that the swimmers report results via email, or they could simply require that swimmers report what their coaches at home have have them do. An athlete who doesn’t do the training that they should doesn’t deserve good competitive results; however, coaches find it hard to let their slackers drift, as inferior results reflect badly on them, too.

A second option is to have athletes return to campus ten days early. Living in their own apartments, this eliminates the discomfort of a four-person hotel room, the foreign grocery stores, the tiresome bus trips to and from the pool and the confusion of figuring out new facilities whilst tired from hard training. Athletes will always be bitter about returning to campus a week and a half before their classmates, but this scenario is a darn sight better than arriving back to school a day before class starts, sans text books, groceries and other essential items

The phenomenon of the training camp seems to be something that’s drifted down through the generations. As swimmers become coaches (which they often do), they bring this tradition with them. I ask you, however: If you do all the same things that people did in the past, won’t your athletes swim the same speed as past swimmers? I would love to see a development where coaches dispense with these out-dated pilgrimages, or where they revolutionise them in favour of sensible mid-season training practices. No matter what type of swimming you’re involved in, be it club, collegiate or otherwise, be very wary of training camps. They’re ingrained in our culture, but very seldom to they serve a good purpose, and we can find better ways of preparing for competiton.