Swim Coaches: Decrease Volume & Increase Performance

Coaching the sport of swimming

The moral of the blog is simple: think about the practices you are writing. Look at the races these athletes are swimming and plan out accordingly. Giving more volume because the athletes need a bigger base isn’t always the case. In a sport where everyone is trying to one up one another, more isn’t always best. A Lot of times, less is better.

For most of my life, I have always been involved with the sport of swimming. I swam from the age of 8 all the way through college at Fordham University. When I was done competing, I switched over to coaching at the club level. I started as an age group coach and finished 15 years later as the head coach at Hiram College before switching full time to become a strength coach.

I was raised to always believe in pounding the yards. Yards + intensity = results.

Yet, it wasn’t until I began studying for my strength and conditioning exam in 2012 that I began to ask myself: Why the hell are we making athletes swim so much?

It seemed like after every major competition (Olympics, NCAAs, Senior Nationals, etc) there would be a seismic shift in how coaches thought about training. Janet Evans set that world record doing it this way; Tom Dolan was doing this at Michigan; Bob Bowman had Michael Phelps training like this; Eddie Reese had his Longhorns swimming this way.

Whoever was the top dog/program, a coach would try to implement that style of training with their athletes. Without fail, the implementation always required more.

In 2014 when I passed the CSCS, I had a better understanding of the human body. How the 3 energy systems work (Phosphagen, Glycolytic, and Oxidative), periodization in & out of the pool, and how the recovery process works.

During my first year as Head Coach at Hiram, I looked to blend both my swim and strength background together. My first year, we had great success. Athletes were placing well at championships and setting numerous PR. Yet, I kept the volume a bit high (4,500 for sprints, 5,000 for mid-distance, and 5,000+ for Distance/IM) and saw the negative side effects. The athletes were beat up, experienced overuse injuries from similar type training at their club teams, and burned out on the sport in general.

I began to evaluate what I could do better. Using the knowledge of how the energy systems operate and the time duration of the athletes’ races, I realized I need to cut the volume down. Build up a solid base, fluctuate intensity, and lower the volume across the board for everyone. 

Athletes began to perform better; athletes were swimming closer to the fastest times the previous year. By the end of the year, they were shattering their times. The overuse and burn out rates had decreased. I knew I was onto something.

My final year, I took it up a notch. I analyzed the race durations for each group. Sprinters’ races can be as quick as 18 seconds (50s) and up to 2 minutes (200s).  For mid distance, races could range from 2 min up to 8 minutes. Distance & IMers races were anywhere from 4:00 to under 18 minutes. Looking at these time durations, I realized cuts in volume were needed again. There was no need for sprinters to do anymore than 3,500; midstance was capped at 4,000; distance & IM were capped at 4,500. Those distances would allow each group to build their mechanic properly and develop a robust base. 

Doubles were in place for the entire year; 1st month we split having men in the pool for the first hour, while women lifted, and then we would switch. After that 3 weeks, we dropped the morning pool session but stuck with lifting. Our lifts were influenced by the conjugate method, everything was uploaded into a training app (allowing me to track both progress in the weight room as well as recovery), and we hired a yoga instructor to strengthen the athletes stabilizing muscles as well as promote recovery.    

That last year was our most successful. Athletes performed at or better than their fastest times throughout the year. Overuse injuries, fatigue, and burnout were low while team morale was high. We set more in-season, college, and personal bests than ever before. It was one of my proudest moments as a coach.  

About the Author

Brian O’Neill has close to 20 years experience in the fitness industry. He is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Coach, USAW-L1 and CrossFit L1. A former Division I Swimmer at Fordham, Brian coached swimmers for 15 years at the club and college level. It was at the collegiate level that he formed a passion for helping athletes in the weight room. Brian has spent the past 7 years working in the private sector blending his philosophy of swimming and weight training together. Brian spends his week at Peak Human Performance working with lifestyle athlete classes, athlete level 1, UA Swimmers, and 1 on 1 clients. He seeks to teach all he works with that through better movement, one can push beyond their comfort zone to discover their best selves. Follow Brian on social @the_beard_of_zeus1

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