About halfway into my training career, I came across the strange world (at least to me) of competitive swimming. For someone whose experience at the time revolved around the violent realms of football and wrestling, trying to understand the swimming world was literally and figuratively like learning a new language. Phrases like 59 high, 22 low, stroke pace, kick set, back half, fly day, and taper flew over my head like a street sign in a hurricane. I quickly knew I had to learn what this all meant if I was going to help these unique athletes flourish in the pool.
Within my first few seasons working with a high school team, we achieved some pretty good results individually and as a team, boasting top 5 finishes and one Illinois State Championship while breaking school records along the way. This is great, I thought. I didn’t stray too far from the nuts and bolts of conventional weight room work, so I figured, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
That is, until things did indeed break.
After the state championship year, the team hit a bit of a lull for a couple of seasons. We weren’t as fast and had a few mystery illnesses and injuries pop up at the most inopportune times. Even though the guys really enjoyed the training and the atmosphere we brought, things weren’t going the way we needed them to go to keep the needle moving forward. Yes, we lost some talent, but the pride of our program is in the Reload vs. Rebuild approach—except, we were reloading in a musket-like fashion rather than the machine gun pace we enjoyed in seasons past.The pride of our program is in the Reload vs. Rebuild approach—except, we were reloading in a musket-like fashion rather than the machine gun pace we enjoyed in seasons past. Click To Tweet
Things I initially thought to myself:
- Do they just not get it?
- What is wrong with them?
- What should I have asked myself?
- Are they recovered enough?
- Are they trained enough?
- What can I change in their training?
It was time for some humility and to learn from our coaches and swimmers. For the next several seasons (and even now), I delved deep into the murky waters of the swimming world (pun absolutely intended)!
Talking the Talk
The first order of business was learning their vernacular. I came to understand the above-mentioned references over the course of the next few seasons. Before, during, and after our lifts, I regularly asked the swimmers what happened in practice. They would have to dumb down the swim lingo for me, but l gradually learned what the aim of their practice sets meant. Most every set was based off a pace, interval, and density (volume done in a certain time).
These practice elements were not as foreign as previously thought, as I could now relate weight room work to help drive training qualities in certain training phases with respect to time and exercise pace. There was a need for certain exercises to be explosive, powerful, rhythmic, or a combination of these and sustain the ability to repeat these outputs. Applying their vernacular (blocks, turns, stroke pace) to their weight room sets cemented the intent of our lifts.
Second, regular conversations with the swimmers and coaching staff painted a better picture of what practice looked like from both perspectives. I learned to plan the weight room movements, volumes, and intensities accordingly to consolidate stressors and appease the coaches.Applying the swimmer’s vernacular (blocks, turns, stroke pace) to their weight room sets cemented the intent of our lifts. Click To Tweet
The way I see it, even though the architects can have the best-laid plans, the building will turn out to be severely flawed if those plans don’t make practical sense to the builders. For example, I found out the hard way that deadlifts or cleans after “fly day” (butterfly specialty sets) make it a bad day; there is no sense in beating the dead horse of the hinge pattern when the spine has been in repeat hyperextension for an entire practice. We simply switched this to our main leg day and vertical pull session to restore length.
I also decided to cut out barbell work during these seasons on the third workout. A few reasons for this:
- This day was usually after our second lift day and the day of a morning practice—our recovery wasn’t optimal, to say the least.
- This third day was also less than two days before a weekend invite—the team just wasn’t there mentally to grind through another lift.
I ended up going the way of body weight, medicine ball, and band work in Tabata fashion to keep the intensity and pace high in brief bouts: a 24-minute workout in total, followed by recovery work. If anything, this kept the overall volume at the minimum, given that two of the three lift sessions are their third session of the day. Yup, we lift after two swim practices each week. This aspect of their season still amazes me, as to this day, I do not know any other high school sport that practices twice a day DURING the season.
After looking at things from the bigger picture, understanding training phases in a short season (three months) was relatively simple. Given the post-season structure, our program follows a binary model of training phases (periodization, if you will), explained simply as, “It’s a grind until the taper.” Culturally masochistic? Maybe. But an invaluable insight into the mentality of coaches and athletes—the task becomes appeasing the coaches’ wishes without killing these kids.If there was one significant shift in my approach to training swimmers, it was using time as a factor for work, rest, and when and how to train certain biomotor qualities. Click To Tweet
Lastly, understanding time for a swimmer is like knowing where their Holy Grail is. Time is of the essence! Every bit of a practice set is written off of timed interval models in an attempt to tolerate outputs for distance splits and chop as much time during the qualifying meets as possible. If there was one significant shift in my approach to training swimmers, it was using time as a factor for work, rest, and when and how to train certain biomotor qualities. Using time and intervals resonates with swimmers because it is a language they already speak…so why not speak it in the weight room?
Rebranding the Taper
As seasons passed, my deeper understanding of time helped refine our training process for both the grind phase and the taper phase. Within the grind and taper model, we must understand that what goes up must come down—you cannot grind in perpetuity. For us, the grind phase is simple: two broken circuits revolving around a core lift, explosive drill, and exercises for the trunk and shoulder dexterity are consistent orders of the day. We work through about nine weeks of this, gradually reducing the rest interval but keeping the volume the same, seeking density of work over this period.
The taper is where things get a little interesting. For strength coaches who have worked with swimmers, we all know the nuanced changes in mindset this time of the season brings. For most, it’s like the last week of school before the summer break (read: they’ve officially checked out and want nothing to do with early mornings, a pool, or a weight room), which is not exactly ideal if we’re trying to stay sharp.
For others, it’s like a kid during Christmastime: they hope they were “good enough” all year long and will receive all the presents they worked for on the big day. The operative word is hope. As soon as I hear a swimmer say hope, it worries me a bit, as I am fully aware of the pending anxiety that results from that paradigm, which is amplified if hands are idle. The last thing these “worriers” need is to empty their time and gain dead space where doubt can creep in and wreak havoc on their confidence. The psychology of the taper is as significant as the physiology.
In the pool, practice volume is reduced as morning practices are eliminated, quality sets replace the volume, and the practice of starts and timing relay exchanges ensures the pertinent parts of each race are in good working form. The synergistic effect of normal sleep patterns, stress reduction (to the energy systems), and precise practice drives a restorative effect. My question was: How can we replicate this approach in the weight room to amplify the effects of the taper and nullify the potential psychological drawbacks?
The answer? We don’t taper; we prime!
In the mundane world of swimming, where staring at the black line several hours of the day creates stir-crazy athletes, finding purpose in the most arbitrary ways is sometimes what it takes to keep the “squirrels” at bay. For us, it has meant redefining Taper Time into Prime Time!In the mundane world of swimming, where staring at the black line several hours of the day creates stir-crazy athletes, finding purpose in the most arbitrary ways can be a necessity. Click To Tweet
The definition of priming is the act of making something ready: preparation in advance of some act, purpose, or performance. I feel this definition commands positive pro-action, where the finishing touch is in the hands of the athlete.
Video 1. Jumps, kicks, throws, slams, and other exercises in the “priming” phase.
Physiologically, we do strip the program down, but we do not take away what got us there. In congruence with the theme of this training period, we eliminate the “grind” from our core lift repertoire, opting for higher-speed counterparts like high pulls and loaded jumps for 3–5 reps (to keep our starts and walls sharp). We use oscillatory work and med ball throws for the upper and lower body that replicate split times for each swimmer.1 The movements here are specific in terms of duration and output but can also mimic the action and rhythm of the strokes, given that you have the tools at hand.
The benefits of this are twofold, as the combination of lighter loads and higher speeds (for time) allow the CNS to recover and recalibrate to familiarize the athlete with event outputs as much as possible. The combination here is simple; we do the following:
- One upper body med ball throw or extensive plyo for time, 15–40 seconds.
- One horizontal or vertical jump exercise for starts and walls.
- An oscillatory exercise for the kick.2
Beginning three weeks from the championship meet, we have two training blocks per day with one exercise for upper, lower, and explosive, ramping down the sets from three, two, and one each week until the meet.
Psychologically, priming works much the same. “Priming is a technique used in cognitive psychology that conditions responses through exposure to specific stimuli. It works with our unconscious responses to change our thought patterns and reactions by tapping into the way our brains process, store, and recall information. Priming is known to improve cognitive and behavioral response times.”3
This sounds like the exact thing we are trying to do as we enter championship performances. Stripping the work to the necessities in such a way that it resonates with the athlete (movements for time) is the key to merging the physical with the mental while staving off the doubt monsters lurking in the shadows of idle times.
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF
References and Further Reading
1. Triphasic Training: A Systematic Approach to Elite Speed & Explosive Strength Performance. Dietz & Peterson. Dietz Sports Enterprise, 2012. p. 310–313.
“Because the loading of the movement is light, the high power stimulus must come from maintaining as high velocity (eccentrically and concentrically) throughout the entire duration of the set. Actively pushing the bar against gravity and intentionally pulling the bar during the eccentric.” ~Pulling with gravity increases the virtual force during the amortization phase.~
“Sets are done for time, loads are kept static, progress is measured by performing more work within the allotted time.”
Table 6.1 Under 55% loading parameters
End Swim- 40s,32s,47s
Updated September 30, 2022, by Betterhelp.com Editorial Team
“Priming is a technique used in cognitive psychology that conditions responses through exposure to specific stimuli. It works with our unconscious responses to change our thought patterns and reactions by tapping into the way our brains process, store, and recall information. Priming is known to improve cognitive and behavioral response times.”
“Priming is widely used by psychologists as therapy to treat patients with stress, anxiety and depression. Positive priming creates positive responses and emotions in patients and can significantly help to manage mood disorders. However, priming is also used in various other aspects of life apart from mental health care.”