Coaches and the Science of Swimming

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Swim Like Phelps: Life Lessons From The Greatest Olympian Of All Time

Swim Like Phelps: Life Lessons From The Greatest Olympian Of All Time

MP Michael Phelps XCEED Swimming Goggles, Mirrored Lens, White/Black Frame

MP Michael Phelps XCEED Swimming Goggles, Mirrored Lens, White/Black Frame

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MP Michael Phelps XCEED Swimming Goggles, Mirrored Lens, White/Black Frame
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First to the Wall, 100 Years of Olympic Swimming

First to the Wall, 100 Years of Olympic Swimming

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Science has the ability to create a synergistic or destabilizing effect on sports.  The difference lies in how the coach approaches the science of swimming and how the coach incorporates science into the program.

The key to success in all situations is the requirement that the coach be the leader with regards to incorporating science into their system.  I note this since there is nothing more destabilizing to a coach than to be introduced to testing and concepts they have no knowledge or understanding of.  In all cases this will result in the coach flying blind trying to coddle together programs based off incomprehensible data and ideas, and hoping for success based off the kindness of whatever swimming deity might control human performance.  So is science good or bad? And if it’s good how can it be managed in a way that enhances performance not detracts from it?

What has impressed me in all my years of travelling around the world and looking over coaches shoulders is the number of great coaches who don’t use the Science of Swimming at all.  They have developed their own system, are great teachers and motivators, and know how to operate within their sphere of experience. However even those coaches suffer from inconsistency and in some cases some of the greatest coaches in the world have struggled with helping their charges reproduce similar or better performances at the elite level.  Granted many factors contribute to performance, and there are many stumbling blocks in between an average showing and a spectacular feat. However, in today’s world with more and more athletes competing at the top end of the pyramid, winning on a day when your best is below awesome isn’t going to happen. Well unless you happen to be named Kobe, LeBron or Michael.  That’s the swimming Michael.  So where the Science of Swimming can help is with consistency and figuring out ways to knock off those tenths and hundreds that make the difference in the long run. If managed correctly, science can enhance performance and help all coaches unlock the key to every athlete in their program.

The key for coaches is following some core tenets that can make or break how the Science of Swimming might be used to enhance a program.

If possible develop a relationship with a physiologist/performance scientist who understands the dynamic of athlete adaptation in an actual training environment and not a science lab.  There is distinct difference between the two, and the black and white information that can be derived in a lab doesn’t always translate very well to the grey environment of the sporting field.  Pure science based people tend to believe the numbers they see and tend to interpret them as fact. Training science people understand the dynamic involved with day to training and understand that all numbers are open to interpretation.  The key is structuring the program in a way that reduces the level of interpretation.

If you do find a good science based person find out who they are and what their philosophy is before you ask their advice.  This quite obviously goes both ways and since all relationships are built on trust, getting to know the person is essential.  So many hours might need to be shared before ideas are brought into the competition arena, and the background work will go a long way in developing the kind of relationship that works. So they should know you and you should know them.  Trusting someone who doesn’t know you or how you think is dangerous.

Don’t react to everything you read that sounds great. This isn’t to discourage reading or exploration, but pursuant to my previous point, it is better to work with people who know you and how you think.  They will be more adept at communicating with you in a way that makes sense and you’ll avoid rushing into areas that have you ending up with more questions than answers.

Recognize that athletes are all unique individuals. They come to you with different levels of development, internal engines, body anthropomometry, mindsets and goals and you cannot treat them as a group when trying to achieve peak performance in the Olympic arena.  As a coach you have to find the best way to help that athlete unlock their true potential and training athletes in an environment bereft of information will make your responsibility extremely difficult.



Track what your athletes are doing in all phases of training as individuals and not as a group. This should pertain to what they are doing on land and in the water.  By tracking your athletes in terms of workload and intensity you will create the ground map that will be used to plan future adaptation programs, and will be essential to understanding the meaning of any testing being done on your athletes.  If you are a shoot from the hip coach who goes by feel, or a coach who doesn’t track training levels and or intensities, then using any form of science will in my opinion be a waste of time and resources.  You have to take this step if you’re to have any chance of using the Science of Swimming in an effective manner.

Develop a way to evaluate your athlete’s strengths and weaknesses.  It’s pretty hard to begin down the road of athlete development if you have no idea where you’re starting from.  It’s too easy to just see an athlete in terms of their competition performance (best time) and go from there since what you don’t see is more important than what you do see.  Athlete injury is commonplace in all sports, and a large majority of those injuries stem from athletes being placed in programs that are either over their head or not conducive to their body type/anthropomometry.  It would be best to have a relationship with a physical trainer who is adept at evaluating athletes and has a strong sense of what it takes to get athletes ready for elite level competition. Things that would be important to evaluate would be; body symmetry, flexibility/range of motion, core stability and general strength in functional movement patterns.  This should be connected to their in water technique since all athletes are unique, and they will develop patterns of movement in the water that compliment who they are.  In some cases these patterns of movement will evolve based off structural weaknesses and great care should be taken when restructuring patterns of movement to gain a significant change in performance.  In most cases that kind of restructuring will need to be initiated from the ground up so that the athlete’s brain can generate new activation patterns consistent with the new alignment that’s associated with the new pattern of movement. In some cases that might take from four months to a year to take root.

Keep it as simple as possible. Too many variables will never answer any question you might have about a certain athlete’s development.  There are enough variables just dealing with athletes who are navigating day to day living let alone adding an abundance of extra ones connected to a training session or a season of development.

Begin by establishing simple tests that you would do on a regular basis.  These would more likely be race specific training sets that you always do during certain phases of the season and would incorporate tracking set performance parameters that can be expanded over time.  They would also include land based testing that can be tied into the initial evaluation of the athlete and linked to their land development.

When you establish tests, stick with them.  The worst thing you can do is to keep changing things around.  When you decide on something, stay the course on it and study it completely before you introduce another test or a different variable associated with that test.

Add additional parameters to those simple tests. In the water these parameters can expand from a simple average time parameter to tracking; time, stroke rate stroke count, heart rate, lactate and post set recovery looking at both HR and lactate.  That recovery can be monitored in an active or passive style depending on what you are looking for. On land they can be expanded to incorporate the ability to master more complex movements and athleticism.

Add additional test sets that track adaptation outside of regular training sets.  A prime example of this would be a lactate step test.  To get to this level of testing support, a coach would have to follow an extremely rigid training environment, and have athletes in that program who are the least influenced by day to day living. Eat sleep and train kinds of athletes. I make that point since a large majority of this kind of testing is still open to interpretation.  Because these tests are structured in a way that makes them look like pure science, don’t get lulled into thinking that what you see is exactly what it is.  There are a significant number of factors that can influence results, and unless your athletes are willing to go the extra mile to eliminate those variables, then doing this kind of testing is close to wasting time and resources.  The real keys in this area are:

1.  Eliminate as many variables as possible by rigid training plans that reproduce exact circumstances prior to and during tests.

2.  Follow the exact same testing protocols to the letter: Time of day, time of week, and exact preparation. Even the workouts prior to these tests should follow a similar pattern of volume and intensity.

3.  Have athletes follow similar social, eating and sleep patterns around all testing periods.

4.  Avoid using testing to develop training speeds.  Even if you follow the above three steps perfectly, things can still go wrong, and you’ll end up with inaccurate training speeds.  It is better to prepare athletes based on race specifics than to prepare them based on tests that are steeped in sub maximal speeds.

5.  Avoid reacting to one test

6.  Look at testing longitudinally.  I feel you can gain more information when you look at testing over a season or a series of seasons.

The bottom line on this is that the coach has to drive the incorporation of the Science of Swimming into their program.  They need to either become skilled on their own, or develop strong relationships with practitioners who understand them and the business of training adaptations. Once the coach takes that step, they need to understand that they have to track training volumes and intensities in order to relate tests to performance parameters.  Anything short of that will be more than likely be a waste of time.

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