The Gospel According To Peter Snell


Earlier this week I wrote a story on coaching rules I had learned from Arch Jelley and Arthur Lydiard. The story ended with a confession that I could not find a training interview with Peter Snell. A few minutes after my confession was posted I received a message from Arch Jelley telling me where to go to find Snell’s post. What Snell says is well worth a read.

Mind you, it should. I would think three Olympic track Gold Medals and a PhD in exercise physiology qualifies Snell as a knowledgeable source. Let’s look at some of the things he has to say. And as you read ponder for a moment the average training schedules handed out to swimming squads around New Zealand. If they break Snell’s rules, go find another coach.

Quote One – “Many coaches think that runners don’t have a kick due to lack of speed when it is due to lack of endurance.”

Isn’t that the truth? Even 50 meters is an endurance event. Toni Jeffs won 50 meter races all over New Zealand for 10 years because she could swim the second 25 better than anyone else. So often world class 50 meter races are won, not by the fastest swimmer, but by the person who slows down the least. And that’s endurance, not speed.

Quote Two – “All you need is a decent base, some leg turnover work and a lot of the scientific stuff is bullshit. At some stage after distance training you have to do high volume intervals and then as you approach your racing you have to do a bit of speed.”

So here is the simplicity of Snell’s coach coming through in the words of the student. Just consider the irony of a man who has three Olympic Gold Medals and a PhD in exercise physiology saying “a lot of the scientific stuff is bullshit”. I often listen to coaches talking about their training and don’t understand a word they are saying. A1 effort this and A4 effort that. As Snell says it’s scientific bullshit. Duncan Laing once told me a story of standing in for a local junior rugby coach. The coach asked Duncan to teach the team technical line-out calls. But when the ball was thrown in to the line-out no one could catch it. So Duncan dropped the line-out calls and took the team for an hour of catching practice. Just Duncan’s way of saying scientific bullshit.

Quote Three – “As a scientist I learned that the benefits of distance running are achieved after muscle glycogen depletion. So if you run for two hours a lot of the slow-twitch muscle fibers which were initially recruited run out of glycogen and cannot contract any more. Eventually you use the fast twitch muscle fibers which you normally only use when running fast, so that was a stunning revelation for me.”

So to all those people out there who say, “You don’t need to swim 100 kilometres a week if you only race 50 meters” or call distance training “garbage yardage” or like Dave Salo in his book, “Sprint Salo”, ask the question, “How does swimming slow for thousands and thousands of yards make them fast for a couple hundred?” Well now you have your answer – for all you doubters out there Snell has provided the reason. Long distance training makes you faster by exercising your fast twitch fibres.

Quote Four – “I tried to run everything evenly so we didn’t do those sessions where a runner gets faster as he progresses. I also didn’t do sessions where I went from 200 meters to 400 meters to 600 meters and back down. I think those are little tricks that coaches use to justify their existence. It’s all bullshit. The ideal training is the maximum amount of race related pace running you can do without overtraining.”

I could not agree more. Those fancy schedules are all tricks coaches write on white boards to impress parents with the complications of their trade. And it is all bullshit. One coach I see most Saturday mornings is a classic of confusion. He charges around the pool, stopwatches at the ready, screaming instructions on how to do his stunningly complicated sets and none of it works. Some parents love it. They can’t understand a word he says – It must be good. If your child is being subjected to all that stuff, find another coach. You would never see an Arch Jelley or Arthur Lydiard session look like that.

Quote Five – “There are some sport scientists in New Zealand who think it’s crazy to be doing lots of distance and I feel that they haven’t a clue.”

There you have it. “Miles make champions”. I was talking to Arch Jelley on the phone a few nights ago. We were discussing coach’s education. Remember, both of us have a university education so we are not against education. In fact Arch has spent a huge portion of his life in education. But Arch laughed and asked me if I knew of two people who never had a formal coaching education certificate? The answer is Arch and Arthur. That is not a comment against a coaching education – not at all. That is a warning that coaching certificates require the addition of experience and common sense.

Quote Six – The key finding is the understanding of why distance running works in terms of muscle fiber recruitment and glycogen depletion that occurs over time allowing a different population of muscle fibers to be activated when you run long enough and at a sufficient intensity. Finally, there is the idea of the relationship between endurance fitness and tolerance of high intensity training.

Back to the same idea. Distance training works because it exercises the slow twitch and the fast twitch muscle fibers. It contributes to a simple, clear, no nonsense balanced program. And those are the qualities that work best. I think Eyad is going to swim a better 50 meters freestyle at the 2020 Long Course Nationals than he has ever swum before. Why? Two reasons – He’s going to swim the Taupo Open Water 5K Championship and his 1500 swims are so much better. Just ask Peter Snell.

0 responses. Leave a Reply

  1. Swimwatch


    Be the first to leave a comment!

Comments are closed.