Engaged technical training for Swimming

By Miguel Angel Lopez Alvarado, Head Coach of Thanyapura, FINA Training Center


Training for swimming has evolved greatly in the XXI century from the physiologically taxing, “more is better” work ethics of maximal development of all systems, to a more rational “optimal levels of training” balancing the different systems.  While it is a fairly accepted fact that getting to the elite level takes many hours of training -we can use as a reference the 10’000 hour rule, which could break down into 10 years, training fifty weeks per year at twenty hours per week-, if our athletes/swimmers are engaged and focused, the number of hours can be reduced even by half.

I find it illustrating to reflect on the definition of talent.  For many authors, talent is a person’s capacity to learn or correct his/her mistakes at a faster rate than his/her competition.  In a way, if an athlete concentrates in correcting his mistakes, his level of talent immediately rises.  And the same happens as coaches.  Coaches will increase their talent coaching by being engaged in their learning/mistake correction.

This may sound quite simplistic and obvious, but it is actually the first reflection coaches should have when designing a workout or a session, in how much this session is designed to teach and correct the athlete’s mistakes in a faster rate, both technically, tactically and physically.  This also includes trying to find future technical breakthroughs, new ways to store or transfer energy in the body, and to minimize resistance when swimming.

This small article is not intended as a comprehensive review of technique.  Quite the opposite, its intention is to stimulate coach’s interest to research further and review new ideas or paths for improvement.

Engaging the swimmer.

Our first task as coaches is to engage the swimmers, keeping them motivated to pay attention to the tasks ahead.  Coaches are no longer valuable because of the knowledge they have -we have internet for that, and, believe me, knowledge will grow on the internet faster than we can learn-.  Coaches are valuable for our capacity to interact and get our swimmers excited.

To do this I will suggest three strategies:

  1. Get the swimmer excited and accountable for his technical corrections and knowledge, both by explaining the meaning of the corrections, by having them demonstrate and explain these corrections to his peers, and by committing to these changes actively -it is not enough to ask them to commit and having a collective “yes” answer, but rather an individual discussion with a personal implication-.  Film and give immediate feedback.  Use a tablet or a phone, or even yet a Action Camera, watch it slow motion and apply the correction instantly.

2. Foresee the steps in the process so the swimmers are ready for the good and the bad. As we speak about the process, knowing that a  change will take work and create a temporary setback increases the swimmer’s chances of following through with the changes.  There is also a lot of positive feedback the swimmers can look forward to, such as the pleasant feeling after a hard workout due to the secretion of endorphins -tell them to relax after a hard workout and feel that deeper relaxation- the kinesthetic feel of flowing through the water in a good day, or the pride of having burnt more calories by nine in the morning than most of his school peers will have burnt all day-.

3. Remind the swimmers of the upcoming tests, meets, and challenges. Motivations rises higher when there is a meet coming up.  Having a test set in a few days can also serve as a motivation to be engaged.  Have your swimmers share with the teammates control in the stroke rates, the pacing expected, and the technical aspects of these sets and meets.

Technical training through the season.

As the swim calendar changes, emphasis should also change.  A young learn to swim child should not be exposed to the same corrections as an Olympic medal candidate five months before the Olympic Games.

Young children and beginners should have a higher exposure to breathing exercises, flotation, submerging, and horizontal balance.  Too much emphasis on propulsion will not lead to a full familiarisation with the aquatic environment thus limiting the capacity to be comfortable in the water and in the future minimise resistance with good body position.

As the swimmer becomes proficient, there should be exercises designed to: minimize resistance -gliding exercises, such as four kicks per pull on a streamline for butterfly or two kicks per pull for breastroke, or floating exercise trying to find horizontal balance while stretching the arms to the front and bringing the heels up to the surface of the water- to gain coordination -freestyle swim with butterfly kick, or butterfly swim with freestyle kick- to contrast sides or parts of the strokes, with exercises such as fist closed, swim with only the right arm and the left leg while the left arm grabs the right leg behind their backs-.

Proficient swimmers need to focus on true differential technique, contrasting different swimming styles with perceived effort and time.  This requires great levels of attention, as a swimmer trains his/her pace for an event with slightly different stroke rates, or slightly different kick intensities.  An elite swimmer that can compare his pace speed within a difference of two strokes per minute can optimize his race much better than one without any stroke rate control.  For instance, backstroke requires more awareness on higher tempo and breastroke on longer, more elastic strokes.

Present and future areas of technical improvement.

If we take a look at the technical literature of the 1980’s, there is a major emphasis on the stroke patterns of the arms and the legs, and most researchers were focusing on that.  And even there, many of the technical patterns are now being challenged by most prominent biomechanics.  Excellent example can be observed in the article in this same platform by Dr. Genadijus Sokolovas for video analysis of underwater kick.  He has created hundreds of drills to improve swimming technique, but to implement them coaches must first understand the principles behind them.

While there were references to minimizing resistance, most of the technical shifts came from the 1990’s with references to great thinkers like Bill Boomer who promoted body control, posture, line and balance, and similar concepts to shift the emphasis.

A similar technical breakthrough came from other coaches, such as Gennady Touretsky while coaching Alexander Popov, advocating for the transfer of momentum from one limb to the other, or from one side to the other, hence working on a more fluid stroke that connects the parts into a more efficient movement.

There is a lot of potential in the storage of elastic energy as the strokes extend and its use when the swimmers pull, and this is quite obvious when you see the breastrokers and how long they become between strokes.  This elastic accumulation and transfer of energy will indeed be a future reserve of improvement in swimming.

As coaches, it is our job to stay open minded and to continue the search for new venues of improvement for our swimmers.