Starting a season off appropriately, with long-term success in mind, requires the understanding and application of some basic principles. Many coaches want to jump right in and get to specific and intense training – and I think a better approach is to build into these variables. Following a principle-based system allows for success throughout the season, and helps avoid staleness and injuries.
General to Specific
For both swimming and dryland (strength and conditioning) a general to specific approach is best. Introducing and then training general concepts allows athletes to get a handle on the basics of whatever you are trying to teach, and helps the athlete build toward more specific adaptations.
For example, with swimming we generally work on lactate tolerance by introducing short Tabata intervals early in the season (ex. 8 x 25 free on :25, all out efforts, 1 to 2 sets), and build to more specific lactate work as the season progresses (ex. 1 x 200 @ 85% speed on 3:00 into 1 x 75 @ 100% effort on 3:00 into 8 x 50 @ 200 race pace on 1:00, choice of stroke). We generally prepare them for lactate work with short, easily manageable sets that are generally challenging, and progress to more specific lactate tolerance work at specific distances and paces. Generally working on lactate tolerance at the start of the season allows our athletes the ability to adapt and excel at specific lactate tolerance at the end of the season.
Volume and Intensity
Again, for both swimming and dryland (strength and conditioning) we move along a continuum of total work expressed in volume and intensity. Simplified, we move up in volume to start the season, then move up in intensity while basically maintaining volume through mid-season, and then move down in volume and still increase intensity (with more rest) for our peaking phase. Volume and Intensity must be accounted for in order to plan your season and have your athletes hit their peak when you want them to!
For example, with dryland (strength and conditioning) we generally include multiple short sets of moderate intensity (ex. 10 x 10 push-ups). Again – simplified, we would move to a higher volume (ex. 4x (5 x 15) push-ups), and then to higher intensity (ex. 4x (5 x 10) push-ups with 1st 5 reps of each set clap push-ups), and then to lower volume and yet higher intensity (ex. 4x (3 x 8) all clap push-ups). The move from moderate volume, a build in intensity, and then lowered volume with higher intensity allows the building of a foundation (or base) and from that position we increase intensity safely and effectively.
Intensity is our specific goal, as it relates directly to our desired outcome of effectiveness – performance (swim times, lifting max, and conditioning standards) AND we get there by following the above principles… General to Specific methods with planned Volume and Intensity training variables. Swim readiness begins with basic training principles, and followed to their conclusion results in our specific, highest intensity goal – Faster Swimming!
You must simulate race conditions in practice to get better at racing. This includes having a plan for a general warm-up, perhaps an event-specific warm-up, what to do if no warm-up pool or lanes are available during the meet, what your athletes need with them behind the blocks (goggles, a relay card (?), a cap (?), their suit tied (?), everything); all to get their minds focused and their bodies ready to race. In practice the swimmers can race against the clock, race against teammates, and/or race against the whole team. This is one of the basic advantages of being on a team, competitive cooperation. Swimmers can push each other to get better not only by lane talk and finishing their sets well, but by racing and competing against one another at practice to push all of the team to a higher level, and then be able to compete better as both a team and as individuals.
This article focuses on the basics of physical race readiness – it goes without saying that an appropriate race strategy, as well as any mental/psychological preparation, should be planned for and practiced as well. The way the below warm-ups are structured leads naturally to an increasing level of focus, so include strategy and mental prep within the warm-up as works best for your swimmers.
Warm-ups should move from general swimming to specific skills and proceed from lower intensity to higher intensity. This goes equally for start-of-the-competition team warm-ups to specific individual or relay warm-ups. We establish a general team warm-up early in the competitive season that progresses as above to get our athletes energy systems on-line first (moving from aerobic to anaerobic) and then bring their nervous-systems on-line once they are fully warmed-up (starts, short full speed sprints, etc). A set warm-up routine allows the swimmers to individually tailor their efforts in order to be race ready, whether adjusting efforts within the team warm-up, adding extra efforts at the end of team warm-ups, and allowing for any specific pre-race warm-ups.
Our base warm-up is as follows:
A. 10 min aerobic swim (HR 25 +/- for 10 second count)
B. 6 x 100 choice on 1:45, last 2 100’s build to sprint
C. 3 x (4 x 25 sprint choice on :40, 1 x 50 easy on 1:20)
D. Starts with 15 to 25 yard sprints
E. Additional swimming (pace?), turns, relay starts, etc
This simple plan allows us to easily make adjustments for time available and allows each swimmer the ability to find what works best for them to be race ready individually within our team warm-up structure. Some athletes may need more volume and/or more intensity, and this can be adjusted once a basic team warm-up is in place and well practiced.
If by chance there is no warm-up pool available during a competition, any type of whole-body deck-based dryland for 10 to 15 minutes +/- can be helpful for specific race preparation, especially if there is a significant break between team warm-ups in the pool and a specific race. Just as with the swim warm-up, steady efforts at a lower intensity shift to shorter efforts at a higher intensity. We use the deck-based warm-up that follows as needed, and practice this warm-up at swim practice, at dryland, and at early-season meets so that each swimmer can find (and then use) what works best for them to be race ready.
Deck Warm-up Example
3 to 5 x 15 Squat-Thrusts :30 rest +/- between
3 to 5 x 5 Clap Push-ups or 10 fast Push-ups :30 rest +/- between
3 to 5 x 3 Full Jumps :30 rest +/- between
This example is simple, easy to do, and easy to practice. The above deck warm-up would take about 12 to 15 minutes to complete, so if you want to be behind the block and ready to go 5 minutes +/- prior to your race, you’d want to start this about 20 to 25 minutes out from the projected race start time.
Many times I have my athletes do some of the above after a specific swim warm-up even when there is a dedicated warm-up pool. Fast, powerful, explosive movements fire up your nervous system and get you ready to compete. Again – this should be something learned at practice!
Behind the Blocks
Assuming you have done both a general and a specific warm-up for your race, the last 5 minutes +/- behind the blocks should be race prep time for the individual swimmer. Different athletes get prepared for races in different ways – some joke around, some zone out, some become mildly excited, some hyper-excited, etc. What works best for one swimmer may not work for their teammates – and they will never know what works best for them unless they experiment at practice! One thing I try to have sprinters do (from 200m and down) is to get their nervous system completely fired up by slapping themselves – arms, legs, back, chest (or doing “percussive” massage – which is a fancier, Eastern-Block way of saying “slapping”). This should be done just prior to racing – like one minute or less prior to your race, maybe even up on the blocks. Another easy way to get the nervous system firing is to grab the block hard when given the “Take your mark” command, and be sure that this does not interfere with start mechanics by – yet again – practicing this.
This brings us full-circle back to practice. Practice racing. Practice sprinting. Practice general and specific warm-ups. Practice deck warm-ups just-in-case. Practice being prepared behind the blocks. Practice nervous system activation. Know what works for you before your major competitions and then practice these things.
Practice being ready to race!
– Coach John Coffman, Faster Swimming & NAAC
There are many, maybe even countless, methods to achieve athletic success. However, the principles of athletic success are few. Said another way, by someone much smarter than I – “Methods are many, principles are few; methods always change, principles never do.” Follow the principles listed below throughout your athletic career and find success. I suppose you could argue that the base messages apply to your entire life… go figure.
1. Have a Purpose.
This can encompass a lot – a purpose for your set, your workout, your training week, your sport, even a purpose for your life! In sport it really boils down to being both physically and mentally present at training (completing your training with purpose), and to having goals (your purpose for being there!). Have a purpose, both in your training and for your training.
2. Follow a Plan.
You should have a plan for your season, your month, your week, your next competition. Having a purpose with no plan is just beating your head against a wall. If you are on a team, planning is mostly the coach’s job, if you are on your own – this is your job. The concept of Progressive Overload should be included in your plan, as regular progress should be a result of your training. You should have a plan in place to address Strength and Conditioning for pre-, post-, in- and off-season, as well.
3. Work Hard.
If you need me to define effort for you, you are in trouble! Full efforts are the key to successful training. Along with hard work, you must include smart work: or working on what matters. This all circles back to having a purpose and having a plan. Hard work does not mean all-out effort all of the time either, but working as hard as a rep, set, workout, or season requires. Racing is ALWAYS 100% effort. Always.
4. Be Consistent.
You should be at training. You should have a plan that you follow 90% + of the time, and you should work hard with your purpose in mind. You should eat well 90% + of the time, and you should get 8 hours or more of sleep per night 90% + of the time. Persevere. Motivation follows action, so be consistent in your actions. If you follow the 1st 3 principals consistently you will be ahead of 99% of your competition.
5. Display Adaptability.
Stated simply – find an answer, not an excuse. Make it work – no matter what the circumstance, no matter what the obstacle, you can usually find a way around it. If something comes up that you can’t figure out for yourself, ask for help. A good coach is indispensable in this type of situation.
6. Be Prepared.
Just like the Boy Scout’s motto – solid preparation will lead to an increased chance of you achieving your goals. Superior preparation wins most often. Plan and prepare for things in advance so that you will have what you need when you need it. This goes for training, food, and sleep (the big 3). Make a list and check items off if you are uneasy or unsure about what you need. This goes double for competitions – use a list to pack and prepare well ahead of time.
7. Competitive Cooperation
Do something EACH DAY that you have never done before. Challenge your teammates to do the same – challenge each other regularly. This is the type of teamwork that makes good teams great! Work harder, prepare better, beat last week’s time/sets/reps/weights, etc. Do this for your self each day (attitude) and it will carry over to your training partners, team, and environment (atmosphere).
8. Control Your Attitude and Atmosphere.
Strive to have a positive and realistic outlook. Do not tolerate complacency or apathy in yourself or in your teammates. Pay attention and be respectful. Do not use the words “can’t” or “too”… they foster mental weakness. Your attitude is under your control – so control it to your advantage. Training atmosphere plays a HUGE role in your success – your team should be there to support you, and you to support them. If you are training solo or have a poor training atmosphere – change! Join a team, join a better team, or create a better team if need be.
9. Be a Leader and a Follower.
There will be times when you need to assert yourself and there will be times when you need to take a step back and let someone else take the reigns. Learn to foster both mindsets so that you can take control when needed, and so that you can follow and support others when needed. This applies directly to controlling your attitude and atmosphere from above.
10. No Limits.
World Records are broken regularly – only because someone thinks they can do so and then acts on this belief. Bruce Lee spoke of limits much better than I can, so here’s his quote:
“If you always put limits on yourself and the things you can do, physical or anything, you might as well be dead. It will spread into your work, your morality, your entire being. There are no limits, only plateaus. But then you must not stay there. You must go beyond them. If it kills you, it kills you.”
So there you have it – The 10 Principals of Athletic Success. Post this list in an obvious place – your gym bag, your training facility, or even the wall of your room – to remind yourself of the principals of athletic success.
Follow these principals and you will find success!
- To feel comfortable in the water.
- To know stroke counts (per lap) for all strokes.
- To understand timing of all strokes.
- To have excellent walls and turns.
- To practice with proper stroke mechanics.
A swimmer also needs experience racing and that takes, a long time and hundreds of races for mechanics and strategies of each race to sink in, not to mention the pain factor. When in pain, how well do you think about what you should really be doing? Most swimmers worry about breathing and finishing the race first, especially as they are learning.
Let’s use the 50 freestyle to continue our “all swimmers need”
- A quick start with proper form remembering to use legs more than the upper body to get off the block.
- To enter the water in a streamlined position and maintaining this position during the breakout.
- To maintain a streamlined position off of the dive while enabling either a proper fly kick or free kick through the first two strokes of the race (breakout). Being able to know where you are in the water so not to stop the momentum from your dive and underwater kick into your breakout.
- To maintain a sprint kick even while breathing.
- Knowing when to breathe (timing) while at the same time preparing for the turn, after judging the wall correctly in warm-ups.
- To complete a proper turn.
- A proper streamlined position off the wall of the turn with a proper breakout, while getting past the flags.
- To finish the race without losing momentum. Proper judging of the wall is where it is won or lost provided, that is, the swimmer has not succumbed to the pain. You must judge the wall in warm-ups.
- Not to breath at the end of a swim, while maintaining a sprint kick, while holding together proper stroke mechanics, not to mention sprinting the entire race since it is only a 50…
There are tons to know, swimming takes brains, retention, and motivation. Just try to handle it one thought at a time. Try to remember this as a coach and especially a parent. When you say something to your swimmer like, “how did you miss that turn?” Try to remember all that goes into racing.
I feel the culture of quick gratification and instant success is the main thing coaches have to learn to coach around is the number one problem facing the sport.
We can outsmart the younger generation by creating daily, weekly and more creative test sets that helps the young athlete feel good about their efforts.
Demanding more quality in shorter practices, more dryland workouts while keeping in mind that we might have to coddle this generation a bit. If that is what it takes then do it. You can slowly teach that long-term hard work equals success.
Teach swimmers what to expect every step of the way because their understanding of physical and mental progressions can only help.
Explain the yearly, seasonal and daily outlines of training. Explain the cycles of muscular breakdown, recovery and strength gains. As we know it is a lot more than a few days of hard work before a meet. Younger swimmers and High School swimmers actually believe that if they have a few good practices they should see results. Teach them athletics are not the same as academics, you can’t cram for a meet.
Train boys and girls differently. Basic generalizations:
Girls can practice longer and harder mentally and physically but are a lot harder to coach at meets.
Boys need to know the whole set and in advance. Let them know exactly what effort you expect for each part of the set or practice.
Boys are a lot easier to coach at meets.
I am currently going through all of this again as I am building a new program and developing a culture for swimming in this community.
We have to work with what we are given so do your best. Make every workout and set as different as possible. Faster Swimming workouts are developed with all of this in mind.
The main goal of deck-based dryland (or simply “dryland”) within this program is to increase the overall density of work performed and to increase general working capacities. Another term for this is GPP, or General Physical Preparedness. A high level of GPP will not only increase general fitness, but help facilitate recovery from swim and weight training and, in all, bring your ability to train in the water to a higher level. Increasing your GPP will lead to faster swimming!
Multiple qualities can be addressed with a well designed dryland program. Overall GPP can be enhanced through improvements in energy system efficiency, strength (general and core), power output, mobility, flexibility and balance. The goal of this program is not to lay out a cookie-cutter, year-long program, but to give an idea of how to set up dryland work, how to improve some of the basic qualities of GPP, and some general guidelines to evaluate dryland abilities and progression. Dryland workout examples are included, as is a full 7-week dryland taper program.
An individual dryland training session will include an active warm-up, the work sets of the day, and a cool-down including active and passive stretching. Most weeks will consist of two lifting workouts. Micro and meso cycles are less important in dryland (than in weight lifting) as GPP can be incorporated at the levels presented here throughout a season. Instead of back-off weeks, dryland training includes test weeks. General qualities can be tested with the exercises listed, and ideal test values are listed, as are specific test workouts. If there is an exercise that is difficult to reach specific test values for (especially the first, easiest test), it is suggested that this exercise (or a variant) be placed first in subsequent workouts. Front-loading is another term to describe this; placing the weakest link of dryland ability first in a workout so that it can be trained in a fresh state.
Other than the planned training session itself, you need very little to perform effective dryland work. A willingness to perform the work as indicated is obviously the most important thing to bring to any training session. For dryland training, additionally you will want comfortable clothing that is easy to move in, workout shoes, an exercise mat and/or towel, and a full water bottle. Effective dryland work can be accomplished with none of the above, but having most or all of these items will make the workout more comfortable. An index card with the full workout written on it is also easy to take to the pool and make notations as necessary. An additional item that you may want for dryland work is a medicine ball. Any med ball, bouncy or “dead”, from six pounds to ten pounds (depending on your strength levels) will work. A med ball can be used in conjunction with many exercises to make work more challenging and can be a great addition to improve core strength and power development. You can lift it, throw it, carry it, bend with it, twist with it, hold it close, hold it away, balance on it (cautiously), and use it to augment almost any movement pattern. If you have only one piece of exercise equipment for dryland or at home, it should be a medicine ball.
GPP, as defined above, is heightened with all that we do in dryland training. If we improve any of the following qualities, we improve our GPP. Increased dryland ability = improved GPP = faster swimming. Broad definitions of some general work qualities follow.
Energy System- The focus here is on using a large amount of our musculature to produce work. Basic work sets move to longer sets, and then to more dense work. Heavy breathing and a lot of sweat are the norm. Rest intervals vary from half to double the amount of time worked (2:1 to 1:2 work-to-rest ratio).
Strength- The focus here is on improving relative strength, or the ability to move one’s own body. Basic sets move to multiple, short sets, and gradually progress to longer sets with increased density and or intensity. Rest intervals can vary greatly here, but are generally short (1:1 or less).
Core- Improving static, dynamic, and rotational strength in the core of the body (the trunk, or top of the neck to bottom of the hips). Sets can vary, and core work should always be included liberally within a given workout. Rest intervals are very short (4:1 or less).
Power- Increasing the rate and magnitude of force production is the focus here. Short, multiple sets will gradually progress to longer, more dense multiple sets. Rest intervals are usually longer here to facilitate nervous system recovery (1:2 or greater).
Mobility- Increasing the body’s ability to move efficiently through a full range of motion is the focus here. This quality is improved with increased exercise ablility (as we move through a full range of motion in many planes), and with active and passive flexibility work included at the end of each workout.
This is a follow up to an article we posted on Facebook in January 2012. The article was titled “The 10 Principles of Athletic Success.” If you have questions, please know that we answer every email and phone call.
For the next 3 email newsletters, we’ll be discussing Successful Sports Task Management.
Successful task management for a sports season has many, many facets and in explaining my thoughts I will do my best to move from general to specific throughout this series. Taking a top-down approach helps to account for the variables involved and allows the day-to-day focus to remain on what is happening in the present; with a solid, principle-based structure that we have built on through experience (the past); and some degree of comfort we are heading in the right direction (toward the future). This top-down approach toward planning allows the freedom to focus on the here-and-now aspects of task management.
These principals function well as a base for decision making and problem-solving and lead us directly to our Purpose. We do our best to keep things simple and concise in order to focus on what matters to our teams.
Our Team purpose is to Learn, to Have Fun, and to Compete. We want all of our athletes learning not only sports skills to an ever higher degree but also to learn how to have fun and compete at the same time; how to train and have fun at the same time; how to balance their energies and commitments to make it all work. We emphasize that learning is a life-long process and that there is always more to know and experience.
Having fun can be tough during an exhausting training set or a critical competition – and so goes hand-in-hand with learning. We do what we can to make training and competition more fun than anxiety-producing. This focus on fun is especially important at the developmental stages of sport and carries over into high-level performance far more than many perceive. Learning the skills & rules of the sport should be made as fun as possible as well – not always an easy task for the coach!
Competing is where the rubber meets the road in sport – competitions allow us to see where our preparations have led us. We delineate competitions into 3 categories: Developmental, Important, and Critical. Developmental competitions are to get an indicator of where we are in our training, to practice at competing, and perhaps to try a new technique, strategy or tactic that we have been working on in practice. Most developing/younger athletes have mainly developmental competitions. Important competitions allow us to compete at a higher level, many times with a little added rest to get a true picture of our skills and conditioning. Important competitions might include a mid-season Invite, a league championship or perhaps the last meet of the season for the developing athlete. Critical competitions allow full display of all of the athlete’s capabilities and allow for top-level performances. We peak for critical competitions, dropping back on volume to assure full system recovery and sports performances, and this peaking phase comprises a significant portion of the end-season for the higher level athlete. Critical competitions include meets that qualify on to the next level, whether through place or on time. And we strive not to lose sight in all of the above – competitions should always include both learning and fun at some level for the athlete to find continued success.
Our purpose for our athletes individually is simply: Training, Eating, and Sleeping. This covers our main bases of both efforts expended and the regeneration required to move on to the next level. The team purposes above are incorporated into the athlete’s training, which the athlete should strive to adhere to, and then also incorporate the 10 Principles as a base to work from individually at training. More specific training task management is looked at in Part 4 of this series. Eating can be an unnecessarily complex issue that we will address in Part 3 of this series, and Sleeping we will address next in Part 2.