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"Learning the Importance of Swimming Tired"

 “Learning the Importance of Swimming Tired”

by Coach Poppell

One aspect of competitive swimming that many swimmers and parents have a difficult time understanding and/or accepting is what many coaches call “swimming tired.” This mostly applies to senior level swimmers, but can also affect younger swimmers. To understand fatigue, and its effect on meet performances, it is important to understand the “training effect.” Improvement in swimming is largely a result of the body’s adaptation to the stress of regular training. Of course technique and skills are very important for peak performance, but for our purposes in understanding this element of swimming, we will address only physical training. The body adapts in many different ways: The muscles become stronger, the heart pumps blood more effectively, and the cardiovascular system becomes more efficient in transporting oxygen to the muscles. These factors all contribute to faster swimming. When training volume and intensity are increased during the season, the associated fatigue may adversely affect performances at regular season competitions. Swimmers may still be able to swim best times, in spite of being tired, however these are typically associated with improvements made in stroke technique, better starts and turns, more effective race strategies, and other factors not always directly associated with physical conditioning. Regardless, coaches will always encourage swimmers to swim at 100% effort and use their skills to overcome the tiredness.

Some people may ask, why not reduce the training load just before each meet, and allow the swimmers to be a little rested to ensure better meet performances during the season? The success of a swimming season begins with planning, and a coach must plan the season with the desired end results in mind. The periodization of training is the process of designing a training program within established time period to achieve peak performance and optimal physical gains at a particular planned time, such as for a major competition. To optimize the benefits of training over the duration of a season, it is best not to interrupt the continuous stress of training throughout the regular season. A perfect description of this philosophy is “making short term sacrifices for a bigger long term gain”. If one continually interrupts normal training only for the purpose of swimming faster at regular season competitions, they greatly minimize the overall progress and adaptation that their body can achieve over the duration of an entire season.  Early season meets should be considered as “practice meets”, where the swimmer gains valuable race experience and tests improvements in strokes and skill. A successful swim performance is not just a fast time. Not resting for early-season meets will result in better end-of-the-season times. What’s more important?

This strategy can be difficult for the swimmer and parent to accept and can be frustrating. Often, other swimmers who do not train consistently will swim faster at regular season meets, because they are not as tired. Swimmers need to keep their ultimate goal in perspective and parents need to empathize and be supportive of their children. The hard training of the early and middle part of the season will pay off at the end of the season at the meets that really count!

Olympic Gold Medalist and World Record Holder, Ryan Lochte, understands this concept better than most people.  He only ever expects to swim his fastest times at championship meets. During the regular season, Lochte’s focus centers on improving aerobic conditioning and endurance, general strength and fitness and technique work. As a result, he understands and accepts that he will be training tired and even competing tired on a consistent basis during this phase of the season. Then, prior to the most important championship meet of the season, he will rest, recover, and fine tune during the taper phase. The strategy helps Lochte realize improved levels of fitness, strength, and endurance over the duration of an entire season in order to maximize the rest and recovery at the end of the season thereby allowing him to achieve his top performances at his championship meets. For example, during the 2013 Austin Grand Prix meet, Lochte won the 200-meter individual medley in a time of 2:00.98. Lochte holds the world record in the same event with a record of 1:54.00, nearly seven seconds faster. A seven-second difference is incredibly large in swimming, especially when it comes from an elite and experienced swimmer such as Lochte. However, it's the type of in-season performance that Lochte is used to, and it's the type of swim he expects during the season while training hard.  “No one's really going to remember this in-season meet, said Lochte. All it represents is preparation for World Championships at the end of the summer. If I feel good at this point in the season, we have a problem. I want to feel really beat up and don't want to be swimming my fastest times at this point of the season. I want to achieve my best for when it matters."