Monday, October 3, 2011

Headcases: Does Swim Training Make You Crazy?

If you've been involved with swimming, you probably know one or more swimmers that has been labeled a "headcase". It's possible that term hasn't been used, that they've been described as someone who crumbles under pressure at the end of the season, or doesn't race up to the potential of their training. Their coach might say "if only he/she could get out of his/her own way she would do well". I've been playing around with a theory regarding this for the last few weeks. I think, in many cases, describing a swimmer as a "headcase" belies a total misunderstanding of how they got that way. Let me explain

There is near universal acceptance in the coaching community about the importance of psychological preparation for racing. We say "the sport is 90% mental" or maybe even "95% mental". We talk about "mental toughness". Most coaches know a mentally prepared swimmer when they see one, but how many know exactly how they got there?

I believe a great many swimmers labor under a system that is designed to make them "headcases". The biggest culprit in my mind is progressive overload training. What do I mean by "progressive overload"? I mean the process of working through a cycle that puts a swimmer through progressively more and more training (loading) before finally allowing them to fully recover or taper in this instance. If everything goes right, faster performance will follow.

Progressive overload works very well with swimmers with high recovery levels and abilities to process blood lactate. That is why we have seen swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte be incredibly successful by training with progressive overload. Their ability to recover allows them to continuously adapt while putting themselves through training that would otherwise break them.

The problem I see is that many swimmers do not take to progressive overload training as well. They cannot adapt and perform increasingly worse over the period of training. Psychologically, they have to overcome declining or stagnating performance over the course of an entire season and then believe that they can swim much faster.  That belief is achievable but fairly irrational. That's where you find a lot of swimmers struggling to   do well at the end of the season.

Many coaches probably want swimmers to make a connection between their practice training and meet performance. The problem is that almost all training models don't correlate directly with performance. When I swam in college, we did 10x300 on :20 rest as a "test set" for our conditioning. But the set didn't correlate directly to any swimming race we actually competed in. At best it was a measure of our ability to swim a 3000 for time. I think many swimmers understand innately that they are making an apples to oranges comparison between practice and meets.

Therefore, it's incumbent upon coaches to give swimmers a chance to perform well during the season. This gives them a performance to base their belief on. I actually think that multiple chances are better. Swimmers don't have to "best times" in their first meet of the year, but they should be prepared to swim better than they did at that same point the previous year and improve on that over the course of the season before they ultimately taper. In a college setting, this means for me that I want my swimmers to perform well in the first dual meet and better in each subsequent meet, which is no easy task. What "well" and "better" are for each swimmer should be defined by the coach and the swimmer.

And that, folks, is what I'm ranting about at the moment.


  1. No! ...but JL and the ASCA boys drives me crazy.

  2. Great post. Regardless of one's opinion, I think it is a topic that needs to be considered. Thanks!

  3. There are other methods than 'progressive overload'. many top athletes succeed under this 'old school' method. The athlete that does not adjust may succeed very well in an entirely different training scenario. Unfortunately for many athletes, lots of coaches can only see a single methodology to reaching an end. Thus, while they will divide into strokes, distance, or sprint they are still only providing for success in an overload approach. There are numerous Olympic Champions and World Record holders who have used other methods of training.

  4. Most US Colleges are of the mindset of churn em and burn em. Why? Because they do not have to time to individualize each swimmers program and they have hundreds of swimmers to choose from if one or two can't handle the workload.

  5. what other methods of training are you suggesting for season planning purposes? The comparison I always like to give parents is that we try to push the athletes to their limits while avoiding a total collapse (illness, injury, etc.) so we progressively push the envelope to always push their aerobic capacity forward. When it comes time to rest, they will be ready to swim fast provided they put in the training and we were able to avoid injury/illness. It seems to work well in all cases where the kids put in the time.

    I think it's great to say that this approach doesn't work for everyone, but what approaches have you found that do work? Do you think the approach would work if properly explained to the athletes to they could all truly "buy-in" or are you saying that physiologically speaking some people can't handle this type of training?

    As a coach, I have always geared my practice towards the highest level swimmers in the group (and then given different intervals if need be). Are there other recommended practices to effectively train a large group of swimmers?

  6. i am advocating entirely different methods for say 40% of the swimmers. The old progressive format will work to a degree for all (just as other methods will work for all), however some will reach the peak better in progressive load and others will find it in PUR. PUR is Perfect Uber Rehearsal. There is an intensity element in cooperation with slow motion element. No constant yardage increase.

  7. I am a senior in high school, and I don't do a ton of yardage, a lot of sprint and high intensity (though I used to do a lot of distance). Not sure if you call it "progressive overload," but during my recent high school season (while training with my club team) I steadily built up in intensity before a week-and-a-half taper (short season). My 500 times:

    5 weeks out: 5:27.87
    4 weeks out: 5:25.08
    2 weeks out: 5:22.38
    1 week out: 5:25.83
    Taper meet: 4:57.11 (previous best time was 5:11)

    Whatever it is, I just never swim fast "untapered," yet know I will be awesome when tapered. From the meet one week out (already started tapering) to the taper meet, I dropped 2 seconds in my 50 back relay lead-off, 4 seconds in my 100 back, and 4 in my 100 free relay split.