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Overtraining? Why Volume is Out and Quality is In

Apr 23, 2014  - Joanne Malar

It’s no secret swimmers have a heavy training load compared to many other athletes.  However, is this relatively heavy mileage necessary or a habit of a history of swimming culture that has spanned decades?  Now, 10 years post my swimming career, and coaching the youth of my community, I wonder if all this training is really necessary. 


High performance swimmers across the world generally train similar schedules of 7-10 workouts per week, anywhere from 5,000m to 8,000+m workouts plus a combination of dryland, weight training and other modalities more recently included like yoga, pilates etc.  However, when you break down the distance of races in swimming (anywhere between 50m to 1500m), our races end up only being 1 to 5% of the distance we train in each workout!  Many other sports do NOT have this drastic disproportion of training to race distance.  Marathon runners do not train 4 to 5 times their distance each workout.  Speed skaters are not racking up the mileage to the same proportion as swimmers.  Are we totally insane or is there more to the training model in swimming (considering a large majority has adapted to it to some degree)?  Could swimmers attain the same results with less mileage and would coaches be willing to go out on a limb to find out?


I remember in high school, training for my first Olympics, barely being able to climb up the stairs at school.  I was so tired from training that I would have to stop half way up the staircase to catch my breath and take a rest.  This was normal for me.  I was basically exhausted for much of the year with my workload until taper time, when I actually had energy!  The two-hour workout before school, mixed with a full day of classes, then right back to the pool for another two hours was all in a days work for me and it is a pretty normal routine for most swimmers.  And we did it without question.


I called up Dr. Allan Wrigley.  Swimming Canada’s High Performance Centre- Victoria’s Senior Sport Biomechanist extraordinaire.  I wanted his perspective on whether swimming was overtraining as a sport.


Dr. Wrigley’s background in numerous sports includes:  moguls, ski cross, boardercross, wheel chair rugby, wheel chair basketball, curling and now swimming. 


I was shocked to hear that right off the top, Dr. Wrigley agreed, “The amount of volume swimmers do just doesn’t make sense.”  He adds, “The perception of training is VOLUME.  It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”  He explained that now high performance coaches in Canada do the volume but with purpose and without the insignificant repetitiveness of the past.


He explains that because of the viscosity of water (resistance), it being a thick medium, it takes exponentially more energy to attain a relatively small change in velocity.  Swimmers have 5 to 10x more resistance in the water as compared to other athletes, such as skiers whose resistance is the air.  Therefore to paraphrase, he feels the volume of training is justified as swimmers need both the power and feel of the water which requires more time in the pool than most other sports in their training venue.


Shorter Workouts?


Dr. Allan Wrigley and I had a good discussion regarding the willingness for coaches to test other training theories. He said that the other theories haven’t been proved, but they haven’t be disproved either.  There really aren’t too many coaches willing to leave a coaching philosophy that has been getting results for so many years.


However, instead of following the lead of the spirits of past swim coaches, with mileage upon mileage (as if results have a direct relationship to volume), why don’t we try something different: shorter workouts.


Well, it has been done in recent years.  Dave Salo, well known coach out of USC (coached Rebecca Soni, Jessica Hardy, Ricky Berens, Eric Shanteau, Haley Anderson, Katinka Hosszu, Ousamma Mellouli) has been known for his high intensity, lower volume workouts that many top international athletes flock to at the prime of their career.  They find it refreshing to train this way, and even distance swimmers like Mellouli can handle the 1500m and 10km Open water races with this training regime.


Jason Lezak loved Salo’s workouts, but remember he was in his late twenties and already an established swimmer when he changed to this program.  So many would argue, you can do less volume AFTER a large base of volume has been attained at a younger age.


Dr. Brent Rushall, PhD has been in the limelight as he developed a methodology: the Ultra-Short Race-Pace Training (USRPT) that is smashing up the volume driven programs.  Most recently Michael Andrew, the 14 year old US phenomena who recently broke 47 NAG records, is trained by his father Peter Andrew who uses Rushall’s Race-Pace Training Methodologies.


The Principle of Specificity implies that the more yardage performed at target intensities, the greater the transfer of those intensities to target races. Dr. Rushall designed USRPT to yield maximum weekly yardage. This “relevant” volume far exceeds that obtained by conventional methods, in large part because USRPT is self-limiting, allowing for quick recoveries and averting the debilitation and injury of overtraining. Swimmers must stop a set when they fail to meet their prescribed paces and thus cannot succumb to lactate-fatigue and glycogen depletion, which require at least 48 hours of recovery.


In short, some coaches are reaching out to cut down on mileage and train on a more intense or race pace.  Their results are getting attention, but as a whole, swimming is still big on volume.


Training Athletes Not Just Swimmers


Dr. Allan Wrigley shares that Team Canada’s Head Coach, Randy Bennett expresses his frustration that our athletes need to be athletes, not only swimmers.


Suggestion: Don’t over train our youth. Train them to be athletes not swimmers.

They should be doing other things: more fun play even at 9 or 10 years old.  Instead of a two hour pool workout what about 1 hour in pool and 1 hour outside playing tag, soccer, capture the flag, relay races and working on athletic skills?


Wrigley shares that other specialists at the High Performance Centre, Eugene Liang, Performance Analysis, develops a foundational physical literacy program.  Elements of movements such as jumping and agility, how to move your body and core properly, are part of the biggest gap Coach Bennett has identified for swimmers.  We need to develop physically literate athletes giving them the right skills from a young age.


Wrigley shared, “You may be surprised by their biggest laments at top level swimmers.  There were 30 swimmers at Olympics yet there were a bare minimum of 10 or more that could not streamline properly.  How is this possible?

They find they have to teach a 26 year old Olympic athlete how to streamline properly.  We need to teach it to them at 6.  You have to pay attention, and have educated coaches, which costs money.”


A story was shared about Coach Jo Nagy, who finds it strange in Canada that if a top coach wants to work with younger development swimmers, people find it odd.  We put the least educated, least skilled and cheapest coaches in those positions, when in many ways they are the most important positions for developing athletes.


Wrigley summarizes as a whole: we are not spending enough time and resources on the development of foundational skills.  Instead too many people focus on volume, generic volume.  In a two hour workout, it is so important WHAT you are doing in those two hours.  Unfortunately with generic volume workouts, we are rehearsing bad neural patterns, bad technique, things that will lead to injury and burnout. 


This is not the case at the High Performance Centres where volume is designed very specifically and everything is aimed for a purpose.  All elements of the workout are broken down so that all important areas of the race are being targeted during workout.


On a personal note, I attained results and steadily improved until about 20 years of age, until I hit a four year plateau.  It wasn’t until I switched teams, shook up my routine, added new training elements, and learnt from new coaching and teammates that I finally broke my plateau.  Of course, there weren’t many more hours in the pool that I could add without completely bonking.  That’s a problem; when as young teenagers, our swimmers are already maxed out on training.  There is no room to grow.  Young swimmers may not reach their true potential when coaches create a training routine too intense at a young age.  Although results will be attained, it may not give rise to the greatest achievement later on in their careers when they have reached their full maturity. 


I never was an athlete that could handle enormous volumes of metres.  I never completed or attempted a 10,000m workout until my 20’s.  My comfort zone was between 5000m-6000m per workout.  If it were more than this range, my body would break down so my coach generally kept me at this range until my mid late 20’s when they felt I could be pushed more.  Of course, it was then, after 20 years of swimming that I developed a shoulder injury.  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.