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Improve performance times

If you want to improve your performance times, turn up the intensity and turn down the volume

When it comes right down to it, there are just three basic ways to make your training more difficult: you can increase your volume (the total distance you cover per workout), your frequency (the number of workouts you carry out each week), or your intensity (your average speed of movement while training).

The relative emphasis on these three variables tends to vary from sport to sport. In running, a traditional preference for high volume is gradually being eroded as athletes move to higher-quality (higher-intensity) work. On the other hand, competitive swimmers tend to be faithful disciples of high volume, believing that if they are currently swimming 6000 metres per day, they’ll be much better if they navigate 7000 to 8000 daily metres or more. In fact, competitive collegiate swimmers in the United States often swim 10,000 metres or more each day, believing that such high quantities of work will produce peak performances. Not surprisingly, the frequency of overtraining in competitive swimmers tends to be very high, especially during heavy training periods before major competitions.

Cut your volume in half
In addition to increasing the risk of overtraining, high-volume swim training also flies in the face of relevant research. For example, in a study carried out at Ball State University in the United States about five years ago, swimmers who doubled their training volume for a six-week period were unable to make any gains in aerobic or anaerobic capacity. In contrast, a separate piece of research (also carried out at Ball State) showed that swimmers who cut their volume roughly in half (from about 8750 metres per day to 4500 daily metres) were able to significantly improve swimming power and performance.

Despite this research, the most unlikely candidates for mega-volume work – sprint swimmers who compete at either 100 or 200 metres – are often told by coaches to swim incredibly long distances, because it is believed that such training upgrades aerobic capacity dramatically and therefore shortens the recovery process (both between intervals and workouts), making difficult training easier to handle. Some coaches also believe that heavy-volume training upgrades gliding ability in the water, muscular coordination, and overall skill, leading to improved swimming – even in sprinters.

But does high-volume training really offer the best pathway to swimming excellence? For swimmers who want to compete at 100 or 200 metres, the answer is assuredly no, according to new research from France which strongly suggests that such swimmers should focus on intensity. In the new study (carried out at the Universite Jean Monnet in Saint-Etienne), scientists studied 18 national- and international-level swimmers of comparable ability (10 males and eight females, average age 21) who had been swimming for about 12 years. Nine specialised in the 100-metre event, while the other nine preferred 200-metre racing.

Scientists followed the swimmers over a full 44-week season. The swimmers usually trained twice a day and worked out at five different intensities: (1) lactate-threshold velocity (defined as the speed which produced a blood-lactate concentration of 4 mmol/litre, (2) slower than lactate-threshold velocity (producing a blood-lactate level of only 2 mmol/litre, (3) slightly higher than lactate-threshold velocity (yielding blood lactate of 6 mmol/litre, (4) highly lactic swimming (10 mmol/litre), and (5) maximal intensity sprint swimming. On average, swimmers covered 20 to 25 per cent of their total weekly training volume at intensities which were at or above lactate-threshold velocity. Improvements in performance made during the season were plotted as a function of intensity, volume, and frequency.

High intensity wins
Over the course of the 44-week season, athletes who made the greatest improvements were the ones who swam with the highest average intensity. In contrast, there was no relationship between training volume and performance improvement (individuals who swam the most metres weren’t the ones with the biggest performance gains), and there was also no link between training frequency and performance upgrades. Swimming faster during training – but not longer or more frequently – was associated with significant upswings in performance.

When the French scientists also looked at whether tapering (reductions in training volume) could have a major impact on performance, they found that the most aggressive taperers were the ones with the biggest PB improvements. For example, those who cut back their training by about 15 per cent before big competitions improved their performances by 2 per cent on average. However, swimmers who trimmed volume by 25 per cent achieved 3- to 4-per cent gains, and the smartest taperers, who sliced training by 45 per cent for two weeks or so, soared upward by 5 per cent.

The French scientists also took an interesting look at what happens to swimmers between competitive seasons. One group of swimmers had a rather sizeable, 10-per cent decline in performance between the best performance of the previous year and the initial competitive performance during the training year analysed by the French researchers. These individuals had done relatively little training during their eight-week layoff period, and none of them were able to establish new PBs during the subsequent season.

How to train in the off-season
A second group slumped by only 6 per cent between seasons, primarily because they carried out more training during the off-season. All of these individuals (nine in all) set new PBs during the subsequent season, a fact which prompted the French scientists to recommend training at about 30 per cent of normal volume during the off-season. However, given the importance of intensity in determining overall fitness, a better recommendation would be to take several weeks off and then train intensely (but briefly) a couple of times per week during the off-season. Such a lay-off period would maximise recovery from strenuous training while minimising losses in fitness associated with detraining (in fact, a swimmer might emerge from such an off-season period with very little decrement in performance ability).

What’s the bottom line from the French research? If you’re a competitive swimmer looking to make breakthroughs in performance, dip into the intensity barrel before you wear out your shoulders with high-volume or high-frequency training. Workouts consisting of 30-second bursts at close to maximal swimming speed and two-minute accelerations at a velocity which you could sustain for no more than eight minutes can produce major gains in performance, whether you’re a 200-metre swimmer or a longer-distance competitor. The idea is to gradually adjust your training so that it includes more such efforts (more intervals per workout, more interval workouts each month). In addition, tapering by 45 per cent or more for a couple of weeks before competitions can produce valuable upswings in competitive speed, and carrying out small quantities of razor-sharp training during the off-season can thwart detraining, permit appropriate recovery, and get you off to a great start during the subsequent season.

(‘Effects of Training on Performance in Competitive Swimming,’ Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 20(4), pp. 395-406, 1995)
Owen Anderson
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