Cecil M. Colwin
Dr David Pyne is the sports physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) where he is primarily responsible for swimming. David Pyne has worked on the pool deck with top flight swimmers for ten years, and is said to be one of the world's most experienced swimming physiologists. He is also involved in testing swimmers in specialized camps, as well as observing their performances in competition.
Pyne says that swimming in Australia is a coach-driven situation. "The coach is in the middle and so provides the link between coach, swimmer and the scientist. Our work is really directed through the coach. This has been the hallmark of our success."
Pyne believes that the quality of swimming in a nation is a combination of the system in place, and the quality of the people in that system. In this respect, he says that Australia has developed a good system with its national team and its support structure. "Our coaches work very well with each other, as well as with the scientists. This is something that Don Talbot and Bill Sweetenham have really emphasized. We have really been encouraged by the coaches to come on the deck and work together with them. We've pooled our knowledge and used it very effectively."
In addition to working at the AIS, Pyne is physiologist to the national swimming team. He attends altitude and sea level training camps, and accompanies the team to national championships, and world-wide major meets. His activities include involvement with the national event camp program, started a few years ago under the direction of Don Talbot, Australia's Head Coach.
Pyne says that one of the first things people want to know is the actual predictive value of scientific testing. From a physiological viewpoint, the normal variations in such biological parameters as heart rate and lactate tend to limit their predictive power.
Pyne says that a number of scientific applications can be used to evaluate responses. While one application can view progress in each training session, and how individual swimmers respond to a particular session, another application can be used to monitor long term progress, on a month to month basis over an entire season. However, he tends to give more emphasis to viewing the long-term effects of training, because this approach is probably the best way to use the actual predictive power of science.
Some studies have shown that most short-term scientific tests don't necessarily fit closely with actual performance. This is obviously an important issue, because many factors contribute to performance, and it is difficult to determine the importance of any one factor in isolation. One needs to look at the holistic model to be able to distinguish the really important factors.
The Australian national team is supported by a wide range of sports science expertise. As team physiologist, Pyne leads a two-prong approach. First, the swimmers are given a series of tests known as "the national testing protocols," which have been in place since 1993. About once a month, all national team members undergo a set battery of tests, directed by Wayne Goldsmith, Australian Swimming's full-time science co-ordinator.
Pyne says, "This routine testing is one of our more visible roles, but the real value of what we do lies in the cumulative effect of our day-to-day work, looking at the responses of swimmers in actual training, and the consultations we have with the athletes and their coaches. Our real value is something the Australians have done quite well, and that is to work actively with the coaches and swimmers on a continuing basis, from day to day, and week to week."
The tests are divided into a number of basic areas, of which the most specific are those actually done at the pool, using the 5 x 200 metres incremental test steps. Pyne's team of scientists conducts a range of other activities, including blood tests, and the measuring of body composition.
Pyne intends to broaden the range of these activities to include physiotherapy assessments, particularly with reference to postural and musculo-skeletal alignments. These assessments will be added periodically through the training year, together with nutritional and psychological assessments. So far, the main thrust to the program has been in the physiological area, particularly in the amount of testing done in the pool.
On the pool deck, Pyne utilizes heart-rate monitoring, blood lactate analysis, and more recently, he has been observing biochemical parameters, which previously had been restricted to the laboratory. "We are doing these from capillary samples taken from the finger tip or ear lobe and we are studying measures of muscle breakdown, to some protein markers such as creatine phosphokinase, or CPK, and also markers of protein excretion related to high intensity work, such as ammonia, uric acid, and some measures of liver function. So what we are viewing are: protein metabolism related to protein breakdown of muscle, CPK, also high-intensity work, observing what we call 'metabolic stress,' and then markers of excretion such as uric acid, as well as markers of liver function."
Pyne is trying to isolate two or three of the more sensitive measures. "One of the things about science is that we can measure so many aspects, but in our work we've tried to refine the tests to just the most basic, sensitive, and specific items. In the pool, there's a range of testing that can be done. We've used the 5 x 200, but this method does have a number of limitations. We've worked on heart rate testing, biomechanical analysis, and, in recent years, we have introduced competition analysis at all our major meets."
Pyne said that the biomechanical analysis is done by Dr Bruce Mason and his team. The measures taken in training are then related to competition. "We are trying to integrate the biomechanics and the physiology, and we're trying to integrate the training with the competition analysis."
Pyne said that one of many activities that scientists and coaches do together is to evaluate new technologies coming onto the market. He believes that the "Coachmate," an innovation developed in Australia, could prove to be beneficial in studying performance. This computer system records the heart rate and split times of every swimmer in a team, throughout every item of a workout. A feature of the Coachmate is that it has a range of applications in training, including a starting block with a light that flashes until it reaches the optimum time at which the swimmer ought to take off.
Pyne believes that the modern generation is looking for "the quick fixes." "Those of us who have been in the sport a long time know that success comes through hard work and experience. Australia is rich in swimming tradition. We were quite a successful nation in the 50s and 60s, and I guess that sometimes we should look back at what we've done in the past in order to move forward. It's always nice to find the short, direct route, but if you look at the example of distance swimming, it seems to have played out world wide."
Pyne says there is a need to look back to where swimming was in the 1970s and 1980s. "We talked to some of the coaches here at this conference, the Australian coaches as well as the visiting coaches, and many of them believe that the whole environment and culture of distance swimming has been eaten away in the quest for more sprint-oriented events."
Pyne says, "I don't think we are doing the right type of training and the right volume of training. One of the trends in world swimming, through the 80s, has been towards a more sprint-oriented, high-intensity, low-volume program, particularly coming out of North America. I think this certainly has set distance swimming back."
Pyne admits that a high intensity program does have its place for some swimmers, particularly the more mature sprint-oriented swimmer. This can be an effective way of training, providing an athlete has already established a background of distance training. However, the majority of swimmers, both the developing youngsters, and certainly the middle-distance and distance swimmers, need a more varied traditional program that integrates both endurance and speed.
"We derived great success with this type of program in Australia, and I think we need to go back and revisit this with our distance swimmers." Pyne says that coaches tend to focus on the short term, because obviously that's where their day-by-day responsibility lies, but one of the hallmarks of the more experienced coaches is that they can see the wider picture, and know that a swimmer's progress should be built up over a number of years.
"The better coaches appreciate the longer term implications of training, and this goes back to 'Doc' Counsilman's comments on residual training. This same philosophy is also identified over in Eastern Europe. The Russians call this 'foot prints,' and the best coaches worldwide certainly have identified this important aspect of training."
Pyne has worked closely with coaches and swimmers, over the last ten years, applying basic scientific principles in a 'real world' situation, both in the training pool, and in competition. He has tried to identify the more important scientific parameters, through specific pool testing as well as using other basic testing procedures, known to be important, including body composition, and basic blood testing to make sure an athlete's health is at the correct level.
"The bottom line is that this has always been a coach-driven exercise, and, as I've said before, I've been really fortunate that I've been able to work with some of the best coaches in the world. Here in Australia, we have coach-driven programs, not athlete-driven programs, or scientist-driven programs. It all comes through the coach."
(This interview was done at the 1996 Australian Swimming Coaches' Conference, at Coolangatta, Queensland.)