The Top 15 Resistance Exercises

David Joyce

Swim training: injury and performance

I am not an amazing swimmer. There you go, I’ve said it. As an Australian, that is a piece of shameful catharsis. It’s just that I’m more of a land-based animal. I am, however, very interested in swimming training, both from an injury and a performance standpoint.

The vast majority of swimming events last for between 20 seconds and 5 minutes (50m up to 400m). There are the 800m and 1500m events as well, and of course the open water swims, but the events up to 400m account for about 80% of all pool racing. Typically, swim training involves enormous volumes, way beyond the distances raced.

A couple of years ago, I asked a couple of the Australian Olympic coaches why this was the case. In the intervening period up until now, I’ve asked numerous other coaches the same question. The answers I’ve received tend to fall into one of three categories:

  • High volumes are required to optimise aerobic capacity development. A similar rationale is used by rowing coaches and some middle distance running coaches.
  • Because swimming is not a ‘natural’ task (we’re not hard-wired to do it, as opposed to running, for example), the volumes are so high to ensure that technical proficiency is maintained. Many coaches believe that their athlete ‘loses the feel for the water’ if they are out of the pool for anything over a day.
  • Because that’s the way it’s always been done or because that’s the way that so-and-so (insert Olympic champion’s name here!) did it and if it helped them win gold, it’s good enough for my swimmer.

I believe it’s worthwhile exploring the counter-arguments here. Firstly, high intensity (HI) training programmes (intervals swum at a high percentage of maximum speed) have been shown to be as effective in the short term (4-weeks) as high volume programmes. These HI programmes have the advantages of being more time efficient, which leaves greater time for the development of other areas during training (such as technical proficiency). As an aside, I believe this to be the case for running and rowing as well.

"Typically, swim training involves enormous volumes, way beyond the distances raced."

Secondly, it’s important to acknowledge that swimming is a highly technical task. The trick is to find some still water to be able to ‘grip hold of’ and lever body forward. The process of motor learning means that for a skill to be ingrained as a motor programme, it requires repeated ‘mindful practice’. High volume training may therefore be beneficial, but only if the emphasis is on technique, rather than physiological adaptations (that’s not to say that the twin objectives cannot be combined).

Finally, I am not sure that the 3rd argument is ever a particularly valid one. The elements that combine to make a champion are manifold. Michael Phelps’ programme may be perfect for Michael Phelps. What we need to do then is determine what is best for our own athletes. This should not preclude us from taking certain principles from those that have achieved great things though; I just think it means that we shouldn’t COPY everything that Phelps does (particularly his diet!).

So there you go, my thoughts on coaching a sport that I’m not particularly great at performing but the famous quote goes, “you don’t need to have been a horse in order to become a jockey”.

'Til next week,

Stay robust, amigos!


David Joyce

Injury and Performance Consultant at Galatasaray FC. Holds a Masters in Sports Physiotherapy and a Masters in Strength and Conditioning. He also lectures on the MSc in Sports Physio course at the University of Bath.


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