Number 4

Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University


[Adapted from NSWIMMING COACHING SCIENCE BULLETIN: Volume 2 Number 6 - July-August, 1994]

Table of Contents
  1. Introduction
  2. The Relationship of Basic to Specific Training
  3. Planning Features
  4. Training Phases in Annual Plans
  5. Closure
  6. References


This Bulletin's content is both an update and adaptation of Chapter 19, "Planning a training year," in Training for sports and fitness, written by Brent S. Rushall and Frank S. Pyke (1990).

The adaptation focuses on annual planning for swimming. It assumes some knowledges of the requirements for developing high level performers and modern concepts of training theory and methods. If there are sections of this article that are difficult for the reader it is recommended that the appropriate section of the Rushall and Pyke text be studied.


Not every sporting program can be accommodated by a calendar. Athletes who participate in more than one sport have to compromise some training elements for one or more of their sports. These days, for an ideal development of an athlete's capacities, dedication to one sport is required. This does not mean that multi-sport athletes are not possible. However, for an individual to have the chance to achieve performances that tax their potential to the fullest, it is necessary to have training experiences which allow appropriate developments to occur. If an athlete is unable, or is unprepared to train for a sport in the best manner possible, then he or she cannot perform to the level that is possible with full training.

In swimming, dedication to the sport is even more important. Because its activities are so unnatural, the position and nature of its movements very uncommon, and the demands of its activities so unique, a greater level of activity participation is required than in more "normal" sports. If an athlete was a runner, then walking and moving in an upright position has some commonality with the running action. The load on the circulatory system, the muscles exercised, and the types and scope of everyday activities are remotely associated with running. Everyday activity serves as a low grade stimulation of the broad spectrum of basic attributes associated with running. However, similar everyday stimulation does not occur with swimming. To all intents and purposes, when a swimmer is not swimming, the adaptations of swimming totally lack stimulation and undergo a level of inactivity that is equivalent to bed rest. Such an assertion may be questioned by many coaches who believe in "cross-training" and the value of doing non-swimming activities to benefit swimming. However, the research evidence is very clear that training effects are very specific and for an unnatural sport such as swimming there is very little benefit, if any, from doing activities other than swimming (Rushall & Pyke, 1990). For example, Costill, Sharp, and Troup (1980) concluded that swimming strength is best achieved by repeated maximum exercises that duplicate as closely as possible the skill of swimming. The most appropriate exercise that they suggested was a series of maximum sprint swims.

When a swimmer is not swimming, the potential to detrain because of the absence of a level of related or specific training is very high. For that reason alone, it is necessary that swimmers need to spend much time training. Even though a large amount of practice time might be spent in performing low intensity level work, that work is still beneficial for maintaining an orientation of the body's functions towards performing in an arm-dominant, horizontal, fully-supported activity. Thus, when athletes elect to swim, they take on the added responsibility of dedicating more of their daily lives to the sport than that given to most other sports. To achieve the highest levels of swimming performance, it is crucial that athletes train 12 months per year and do not divide their time with any other serious sport.

For this discussion it is assumed that an athlete will be able to take part in a 12-month training program. If the training program cannot be accommodated as a full-year activity then the coach will have to reduce parts of the annual plan requirements with the understanding that an athlete's potential performances will be reduced by the degree of compromise that occurs.

There are five phases of an annual training plan:

There is very little research that points to the ideal stages of an annual training plan. Conclusions about appropriate content are gathered by analyzing the philosophies and practices of successful sporting coaches and nations. The five-phase structure outlined above results from such an analysis. It mainly reflects the characteristics of Eastern European countries as well as some of the more advanced and (in sport) improving Western nations.

Annual training programs are planned. The habit of vague planning and then constructing the content of training sessions as they occur is no longer adequate. It now remains for coaches and athletes to plan the way principles and characteristics of training can be used in a year-round program, one that is built on known principles, and one which should not be altered in any drastic manner once it is implemented. Alterations should be guided by objective test and performance results, as well as by careful athlete-involved discussions. A commitment must be made not to panic in an attempt to change a training program by suddenly altering the loadings of volume or training intensities. Sudden shifts in training regimens are stressful for athletes, and those stresses, plus the obvious inconsistency that develops from sudden changes, may be harmful to an athlete's development, outweighing the benefits that might be gained from change.

The Relationship of Basic to Specific Training

Sport theorists often have talked of basic and specific training concepts. Generally, it has been conceded that basic training should precede specific training if best performances are to be achieved. There have been few other guidelines or principles offered on the subject. However, from practice and sports science there recently have emerged more principles that give better directions for planning the physical conditioning of athletes for particular performances. Several hypotheses and principles are explained below.

Basic preparatory training should have several objectives. The purposes of basic training are to:

Basic preparatory training is designed to cover more attributes than those assumed to be needed in a specific performance. When all the tissues of the body are trained, there is the possibility that "unneeded" muscles and organs for a specific activity can still function and assist in the specific activity. For example, if all muscles have been developed in an aerobic manner, those which are not needed for primary performance can function in a supporting role by resynthesizing lactic acid developed by specific primary muscles. It has long been recognized that an "aerobic training base" facilitates faster recovery from exercise as well as a greater tolerance for training volume. In swimming, that aerobic base needs to be mainly in swimming for endurance competitors but can include a lot of non-swimming aerobic work for sprinters (Shepard, 1978).

Basic preparatory training takes much more time to complete than specific training. Basic preparatory work requires attention to more capacities and musculature than specific training. Those extra requirements demand a longer period of training. Also, basic preparatory work usually functions in a change training mode, that is, capacities are changed from a lower level to a higher level of function. When all capacities are fully developed, they then can be programmed in maintenance mode, which usually means at least a 50 percent reduction in training volume for each trained capacity. In comparison, specific training only requires particular activities that transfer directly to the competitive milieu as well as maintenance of the basic preparatory altered states. Specific training effects occur much faster than basic training effects because they are simpler in terms of the complexity and diversity of factors being trained.

The greater the amount of basic preparatory training, the better will be the specific trained effects. Ultimate competitive performances will be governed by the amounts of specific and basic preparatory training. Specific trained effects are limited because of their restrictive nature. Basic trained effects are quite extensive even though not all their effects will directly influence competitive performance. However, the sum of the two sets of effects will be greater than either alone. It is a coaching error to concentrate only on basic capacities (e.g., focusing on maintaining VO2max qualities right up to the important performance). It is equally erroneous to forgo basic preparation and only do specific training. In that case, the physical basis for performance will be far from optimal and so, competitive performances will be compromised accordingly. It is generally hypothesized that the greater the basic preparatory period:

All general physical capacities should be fully trained prior to commencing specific training. A large portion of specific training involves the reorganization of existing physical capacities into refined performance. The brain discriminates the level of capacities and the portions of the musculature that are needed to perform a technical task. With discrimination training, there is a constant discarding of unwanted resources which results in improvement in performance efficiency. As specific actions are developed, athletes become aware of specific "feelings" associated with particular movements. When those feelings are associated with improved or successful performances they are reinforced. This leads to an athlete's perception of what a "good" performance feels like. For example, one often hears talk of a "grooved" swing in golf, or a "flowing smoothness" in running and in swimming, a "feel" for the water.

Once an athlete distinguishes a kinesthetic pattern of movement (i.e., it is the feeling of the action that dictates how to perform), there is no further recruitment of physical capacities to improve performance. This leads to the situation where the brain at some stage in specific training determines that no new resources will be employed to govern a specific movement. That produces a paradox for coaches.

When techniques are developed at the same time as physical capacities are being altered, there will come a stage where the body decides on the resources needed to perform each action. At that time, further improvements in general physical capability will not be recruited into the neuromuscular patterning that has been established. To all intents and purposes, any further physical training is wasted because it will not be used in the specific movements (Sale & MacDougall, 1981). For coaches who train both technique and physical capacities concurrently, much training time will be spent performing unproductive and very often counter-productive physical work because it will not transfer into the differentiated technical actions.

It is important that prior to specific training, and in particular, prior to the detailed refinement of techniques, that all physical capacities be fully trained so that techniques will be built with the maximum physical resources being available. If that is done, resources will not be "missed" as happens with concurrent technique and physical training. This is a feature of the timing of training stimuli that is missed in many swimming programs. It is a feature that is missed entirely in programs that concentrate on swimmer conditioning as the central feature for improvement.

The length of time spent in basic training will be determined by the level of fitness in the athlete at the commencement of the phase. Most discussions of basic preparatory training assume that the athlete will have a very low level of fitness at the start. However, if modern concepts of training are followed, the transition phase should maintain a relatively high level of fitness. That would mean that the length of time to reach ceiling levels of general fitness will be reduced depending upon the initial level. If high levels of fitness are maintained for the whole year, the length of time spent in basic preparatory training will be subsequently reduced.

Basic training is also moderated by age. With pre-pubertal swimmers, the likelihood of effecting physical status through conditioning is quite low (Borms, 1986). However, with circumpubertal swimmers, if training stimuli match the developmental stage of the athlete, there is the potential to effect growth in beneficial directions (Mercier, Vago, Ramonatso, Bauer, & Prefaut, 1987). Fully mature swimmers will spend less time in basic preparation because there is less potential to "develop" capacities since growth will have set the levels that can be achieved. Significant performance increases in mature swimmers will have to come from factors other than physical conditioning.

Specific training should be aimed at transferring as many resources as possible into competitive performances. The purpose of specific training should be to prepare the body and mind for competition.

Specific training needs to be conducted in sufficient quantities so that no new experiences or demands occur once the competitive task is initiated. However, specific training is quite demanding on particular segments of the body. If it was the only form of training employed there would be a high probability of quickly "overtraining" the specific task. Consequently, specific training has to be spaced sufficiently to ensure that complete recovery occurs between each repetition of the training stimulus. When extra practice time is available, it should be used for maintenance training of basic physical capacities, refinement of techniques, mental skills training, and recovery/restitution of the athlete's whole being. Excessive general fatigue, usually developed from performing too much and too many activities unrelated to the competitive performance, should be avoided. Essentially, athletes should feel "good" and oriented towards excellence during the specific training phase.

An example of what happens in specific training. Eight males who normally trained 50 to 65 miles of running per week were subjected to eight weeks of increased training intensity (Alcevedo & Goldfarb, 1989). Four days of altered training were experienced: (a) heart rates were increased to 90 to 95 percent of maximum with interval training on one day; and (b) on each of three other days fartlek training of 8 to 12 miles that required a similar effort intensity was performed. The remaining training bouts maintained the previous intensities and distances.

An analysis of physiological factors showed there was no change in VO2max, ventilatory threshold, or lactate measures at 65, 70, 75, or 80 percent of VO2max exercise intensities. The training alteration produced significant decreases in lactate at 85 and 90 percent of VO2max as well as performance time for a 10 km run.

These results showed that in trained athletes, training effects will be very specific. The increased intensity better matched the performance attributes associated with maintaining 85 to 90 percent of VO2max and the speed required to run a maximum effort 10 km event. Those changes were associated with specific performance parameters and not the general measure of aerobic capacity (VO2max) or lower training intensities. Lactic acid improvements only occurred at the controlled training intensity. This means that high intensity glycolytic training does not alter glycolytic activity at lower training intensities. Thus, when an athlete is in a highly trained state, performances will reflect almost exactly the type of training that has been done. To produce best performances, training intensities and energy utilization have to be equal to those which will be attempted in the competition (Noakes, 1986).

There are general implications from this study for all physical training prior to an important competition. All training that attempts to increase racing level endurance capacity should replicate the level of aerobic demand that is race specific. Training below racing-level aerobic demands does not serve as a race performance enhancement stimulus. The practice of training at various percentages of race pace intensities would seem to have no specific transfer benefits to racing. Work intensities and paces that exceed those required in a race also will have little to no beneficial carry-over to racing.

General implications. There is no point in trying to develop skill refinements while at the same time trying to increase fitness. Any gains in fitness will not be incorporated into technique modifications. Thus, it is important to achieve ceiling levels of fitness prior to skill refinements.

Close to an important competition, there is no point in worrying about the status of a general classification of physiology. Testing for aerobic capacity prior to a specific performance is pointless (Rushall, 1994a). Testing for a specific form of adaptation that is relevant to the competition task might be more appropriate if a valid form of assessment existed. However, the value of any testing and its proximity to a competition has to be evaluated. Testing too close, where there is little to no opportunity or time to correct any deficiency, would not be wise. Assessments of athlete status should only occur when there is sufficient time to enact corrective training effects if required.

Once the specific phase of training is instituted, there is no value in training "hard" and accruing general fatigue. That would interfere with skill refinement, the activation of specific energy requirements of the intended competition, and the practice of relevant mental skills. Thus, a central feature of specific phase training is full recovery from fatigue which should support the training objective of exceptional performance quality at practice.

When changing from basic preparatory to specific phases of training, there should be no exact demarcation between the two. Rather, one should blend into the next. However, by the middle of the specific phase, the work should be dedicated to specific practice with some physical capacity maintenance stimuli. The specific phase has been divided into the specific preparatory training phase and the precompetition phase (Rushall & Pyke, 1990). The factors discussed above generally are appropriate for the latter portion of the specific preparatory or the precompetition training phase.

The case has been made that the nature of basic and specific training phases is very different. A departure from common coaching practice is the requirement that all basic physiological states that generate organic adaptations must be fully trained prior to the commencement of specific training. Two major conditioning emphases should occur during specific training:

The degree of replication of competitive experiences and factors in specific training will govern the amount of transfer of training effects to competitions.

Planning Features

Establishing Objectives

Before any detailed training plan is structured, objectives need to be established for the overall year and for each training phase. There are six categories that should be considered for the total and phase objectives. They are:

Objectives that are formulated should be conceptualized and worded in such a way that they can be observed and measured. Statements such as "improving tenacity" and "increasing aerobic power," are useless. Each objective should state what quantities and qualities of behaviors are to be developed. For example, increasing aerobic power should be defined in terms of ultimate test scores and/or performance features. All objectives should be directly interpretable by athletes and should be decided on jointly by the coach and athlete.

The time when training plans should be altered is when the attainment or non-attainment of training phase objectives is determined. With such alterations it is better to be too conservative than too radical. All alterations should be made jointly by the coach and athlete.

Testing Programs

The monitoring of fitness developments is a necessary feature of planning and implementing annual training plans. The tests that are selected should have direct utility and be meaningful for both coach and athlete. Within macrocycles, some periodic testing should occur. At the end of each macrocycle, there should be extensive testing. At the end of each training phase there should be full testing.

Testing in an annual plan should be used to establish the following:

The types of tests that are selected will be influenced by available resources, facilities, and testing opportunities. Any tests must be valid for yielding performance relevant information. Those tests which are finally decided upon should be scheduled and coordinated with the testing agencies, if necessary. As sport testing is no longer an unusual occurrence, the demand on existing facilities is starting to extend them to near their maximum capacities. It is a good feature of planning to organize the times and locations of testing that will occur well before they are needed. Specific and meaningful tests for swimming have been developed and presented in manual form for coaches (Rushall, 1994a). Factors that can be evaluated without scientific support or equipment are:

General Planning Considerations

Training emphases. The dominant physical capacities that have been determined for the sport's events need to be considered when planning training volumes and intensities. Coordinating the development of these capacities and the length of time in change-training and maintenance-training stages should be decided. The shift from change to maintenance modes will release time for more concentrated development of other objectives. Some objectives, particularly technical, tactical, and psychological, cannot be fully attempted until fitness capacities attain certain levels.

Fitness foundation. The degree of fitness in the capacities essential to swimming is the foundation upon which other aspects of training occur. The maintenance of that foundation is essential for adequate performance. There are two factors that govern this: the degree of general fitness, which includes both specific and nonspecific fitness, and the degree of specialized fitness, that which can be directly used in swimming races. In developing the fitness foundation, there will be a constant push and pull between the need to maintain general fitness and the need to develop specific fitness. Too much general fitness may interfere with performance precision. Too much specific fitness training may lead to overtrained states which also interfere with performance.

Basic training. The ultimate level of performance that can be attained in a year will largely be determined by the volume of basic training that is performed. Programs that emphasize the development of essential fitness capacities as well as those capacities that may be used sparingly in a performance constitute the basic preparatory phase for fitness. Training groundwork affects performance level and the length or number of times that level can be performed (see discussion about basic and specific training above).

Emphasis shifts. The annual plan should exhibit a shift in emphasis from an initial provision of general activities to final specialized training. The length of time that is allocated to each extreme of training is determined by the complexity of each swimmer's intended racing goals. Generally, the more complicated the competitive program, that is, the more fitness components and the difficulty of the technical features, the earlier the shift into specialized training will occur. On the other hand, with particularly specialized activities such as 50 and 100 m crawl stroke, the specialized nature of training will occur after a much greater base of general training. Determining when the change from general to specific training occurs is one of the responsibilities of a coach and at present, remains in the realm of opinion about individual swimmer needs and benefits rather than being able to be scientifically determined.

Overloading stimuli. The basic unit of an annual plan is the macrocycle. The overall training loads of macrocycles should change in a step-like fashion, with a noticeably different load/form of work between them. There should be an obvious increase in workload between change-training macrocycles up to the point of maximum adaptation. From then on, the number of exposures to training stimuli within a maintenance-training macrocycle, and its constituent microcycles, will decrease although intensity is maintained. One of the valuable features of step-like training load developments is that a plateau will become evident to indicate that full adaptation in fitness has occurred. If training loads were altered constantly, it would not be possible for adaptation to be obvious because the body would be consistently changing without getting an opportunity to adapt in a manner similar to that which would result from repeated exposures to a constant stimulus.

Across the annual plan, the training emphasis should shift from one of volume in the preparatory phase to intensity/quality in the precompetition and competition phases. Within that shifting emphasis, there always should be an awareness of, and opportunity for, physical and psychological regeneration. The latter is particularly important in long-term programs. At various stages in annual plans, perhaps after every two macrocycles, there should be an unloading, short macrocycle that allows an athlete to recover enthusiasm for training and commitment to the sport. This is necessary because the psychological state of the athlete will modify the quality and response to training. Bompa (1986) suggested the following options for producing an unloading macrocycle: reduction in (a) training volume; (b) training intensity; (c) training frequency; and (d) outside-of-sport stresses. These four factors will depend on the developed capacities that are to be retained, and the balance of training reduction with training stimulation. Unloading macrocycles generally should take no longer than two weeks. A more detailed discussion of macrocycles, microcycles, and training sessions is provided by Rushall and Pyke (1990).

Training Phases in Annual Plans

Transition Phase The transition phase occurs between annual plans. The major task of this phase is to maintain an acceptable level of basic preparatory fitness. Passive rest periods, or periods between seasons where no structured activities occur, usually result in a loss of the trained states which have been achieved. It makes no sense to allow an athlete to detrain, since if detraining occurs, a period of time is required purely to attain previous levels of adaptation. If fitness and other sporting features are maintained between annual plans, then further improvements in performance could occur early in the next annual plan. Attained fitness is easier to maintain than regain. Athletes should not detrain once they have achieved a high level of fitness.

The purpose of the transition phase is not to maintain the highest levels of specific performance potential possible. Rather, it should be to avoid detraining. The amount and type of activity in this period should be altered gradually after the final competition. There should be no sudden cessation of activity. A post-competition unloading phase should occur first. This should develop into activity of a diverse nature which allows psychological regeneration without allowing physical degeneration. The reduction should reach an acceptable level of training frequency and stimulation to maintain a high proportion of the general fitness attained through the previous year's efforts. Many of the characteristics of the basic preparatory phase should be included in the transition program. Varied activities of both a specific and a general nature should occur. Training volume once again becomes the predominant emphasis. The degree of training that is maintained in the transition phase will determine the nature of the initial macrocycle of the basic preparatory phase.

Basic Preparatory Phase

The basic preparatory phase of training is characterized by the following features:

The longer and more substantial is this basic form of training, the better and longer an athlete will be able to hold a peak performance capability when serious competitions occur. The corollary to this statement is: an athlete's ability to hold a peak performance status is directly proportional to the amount of base (preparatory or background) training that is done. The substantiation of this principle occurred when swimming underwent a radical change in training regimens, from 6 months to 12 months, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Rushall (1967; pp. 209-211) noted:

. . . when one refers to the 1964 Olympic Games, and the swimming events where America and Australia took all but one of the Gold Medals, the American . . . swimmers were mostly representative of an all-year training and competitive program . . . Most of these people had been nurtured in the great increase in tempo of training and competition of the AAU age-group swimming program, started after the 1956 Olympic Games. Then eight years later, the greatest swim team ever was formed of individuals who were generally able to endure a year-round intensive program of very hard training and competition . . . They were so well adapted, that most competitors were able to produce and better their own personal, and in some cases world, best times in heats, semi-finals, and finals at the Games. The Australian Gold Medalists, Windle, Fraser, and Berry, and to a lesser extent O'Brien, all displayed similar training histories to those of the Americans, although Dawn Fraser had one more of years rather than intensity. They too displayed the ability to withstand great amounts of training and to produce great performances relatively on top of each other.

The main feature being stressed here is that these swimmers had endured all-year programs in their development, and were able to produce 100 percent efforts on top of each other without their performances dropping off.

Now contrasted to these all-enduring athletes of the USA . . . were the European swimmers [who had training histories of a half-year in the water, and a half-year out]. They contained among them world-record holders, Caron, Gottvales, McGregor, Kok, plus several others who were the fastest in the world at that time . . . Most European swimmers produced very good times in the qualifying heats; but as the semi-finals went on they were unable to improve as much as the Americans and Australians, and in some cases fell away in their performances. It was as if their adaptation capacities were more strained by one event than were the others. This is suggestive of the Europeans being good for only one top-class performance within such a short space of time as demanded by the Olympic program. This contrasted to the Americans and Australians who were able to produce world-class performances continually.

Harre (1971) reported a study that showed athletes who emphasized the general physical component in a basic preparatory training phase, as opposed to those who specialized during the same period, had their best results occur later but at superior levels and with more consistency. This can be interpreted as meaning that specialized training effects were added to a very substantial fitness base. Bompa (1986) stated that what was being discussed here was a principle that justifies the emphasis on a general physical preparation: The higher the athlete's working potential (obtained through [basic] preparatory training), the easier it is to adapt to the physical and psychological demands of [specialized] training (p. 36).

The basic preparatory phase can include activities drawn from sports which are related to swimming. For example, surf-ski paddling (arm-dominant work), upper body gymnastic activities (also arm-dominant work), and running (basic circulatory function), have carry-over possibilities for basic swimming fitness. Such activities usually contribute to some basic physical capacity that is required in the sport. This phase of training would also include the greatest amount of auxiliary training (medicine ball work, free-standing exercises, specific remedial resistance work, etc.). However, because such activities are beneficial for establishing a physiological base, does not mean that they are just as beneficial when highly specialized training is employed. At that time they have the potential to disrupt refined neuromuscular patterns associated with skill.

The basic preparatory phase of training is characterized by the following:

Specific Preparatory Phase

This phase represents a progression to more specialized training. It is the first part of the specific training emphasis of the annual plan. At least half the training that is done should be directly related to competitive events. The remainder still involves volume-oriented, basic work. Since technique was principally basic or general in nature in the basic preparatory phase, fitness training now has to become more specific so that finer points of technique, which probably rely on the existence of particular fitness levels, can be trained. Auxiliary training also becomes more specialized.

The length of time in this phase is usually one macrocycle. Care should be taken not to introduce specific work too quickly. If that was done, the intensity of the training stimuli might be too high, possibly leading to an early occurrence of overtraining. Untimely overtrained states usually disrupt training at the most crucial times, such as when leading up to competition preparation. It is prudent to avoid overemphasizing specific training too early.

The volume of training still remains relatively high but drops slightly when compared to the previous basic preparatory phase. Some of the remotely related activities are replaced by greater attention to technique and tactical instruction, and a slightly increased volume of specific fitness training.

The amount of time spent training each week is no less, and possibly slightly more, than that spent in the previous training phase. This phase marks the start of "committed" training and a serious attitude.

Tests should be conducted throughout the phase. The objectives of improvement should be considered in relation to the year's plan. One should take care not to overemphasize too rapid an improvement. The better benefits of moderate training loads, as opposed to heavy loads, on ultimate performance achievements should be remembered.

The volume of work done, in terms of caloric output, should peak at the end of this training phase. The concentration on training volume that has endured previously should produce a substantial capacity to perform large amounts of low to moderate intensity work.

The theme of this specific, but preparatory, training phase should be one of improving technical and fitness competencies according to some defined plan. Established objectives should be met but not exceeded.

Precompetition Phase

The precompetition phase of training is the second stage of specialized training and marks where specialized training dominates the content. Competition-specific fitness should achieve its maximum level. In terms of training load, this phase is the most demanding of all. Work quality is increased and displaces volume as the primary emphasis. The heaviest loading should occur in the next-to-last microcycle, should be followed by an unloading microcycle which concludes the phase.

The precompetition phase is the most critical part of an annual training plan. It is likely that most problems associated with fitness training could occur in this phase. Coaches will have to be very cautious and objective in their assessments of the training responses of swimmers. Since this discussion concentrates on fitness development, it downplays the attention that should be given to technique. Coaches have to determine whether the training fatigue that is developed during this stage hinders more important technique development. If it does, then opportunities for recovery should be increased so that harmful fatigue can be avoided. The severity of training stimuli will be governed by the coaching decision of how much fatigue can be tolerated with each training stimulus and the effect of that fatigue on skills.

From the completion of the previous specific preparatory phase to the onset of the next phase should be a period of about 6-8 weeks -- two relatively stressful macrocycles. Specific fitness capacities should be fully developed by the end of this training period. This will allow athletes to move into specific maintenance-training programs in the subsequent competition phase. The intensity of the overall training load will be governed by when competitions will occur. The activities of this training phase should approximate and model the intensities, durations, and stroke forms that will occur in competitions.

Thus, the precompetition phase emphasizes, from a fitness viewpoint, the final development to maximum levels of those specific fitness combinations that govern the performance of intended races. Remotely related activities are almost non-existent in the latter microcycles. The only purposes for their inclusion would be to assist in recovery and regeneration and, for psychological reasons, training program variety. Auxiliary training activities should cease by the end of this phase.

Testing should continue. The specificity of the tests and their relationship to critical features of the sport should be emphasized. Previous tests which have less than a relevant and direct implication for competition performances should cease. It is likely that the most useful tests will center on pace-specific performance rather than isolated fitness variables. The results of these tests should be used to indicate progress to athletes or the achievement of maximum competition-specific fitness states and movement capacities. The frequency of performance fitness assessment should be at its highest during this stage. During the final quality-dominant training bouts, testing and monitoring should be increased to note at the earliest possible time the attainment of development plateaus or any onset of overtraining.

General non-specific activities are beneficial in the early stages of an annual training plan, but are potentially harmful in the latter stages of training. The reason for this reversal in benefit is that the nervous system is particularly fragile. Technique training should emphasize the development of competition-specific neuromuscular patterns. Non-specific activities have the potential to confuse or disrupt the development of those fine-technique structures. If irrelevant patterns become dominant over desired movement patterns, the state of "erroneous specialization" occurs. As the competition period approaches, potentially incorrect patterns of movement should be removed from the training content so that those which remain are competition-specific. This also has direct relevance to how much training is done in debilitating fatigue states in training sessions. With each occurrence of fatigue, imprecise patterns of movement are enacted. The volume of these patterns should never come to exceed those of precise patterns (otherwise another form of "erroneous specialization" would result). If that was to occur, the body would be dominated by incorrect patterns of movement. In competition fatigue, it is likely that these incorrect movements would be evoked since they had been strengthened ("conditioned") through large amounts of training repetition. Coaches should constantly weigh the value of the volume of poor-quality technique work with that of good-quality work. The quality of training efforts should be monitored very closely. With regard to any training stimulus experience at any time, a coach's decision-making should follow these steps:

The volume of poor work should never approach that of good work. The techniques to be used in competitions should achieve their highest levels of precision and volume by the end of this phase.

The success of the precompetition phase is dependent upon the volume of training achieved in the previous two phases, the introduction of judicious amounts of competition-quality stimulation, the achievement of performance-specific peak fitness levels in all critical capacities, the performance of skills under competition-like circumstances, and the final refinement of skills.

Competition Phase

Competitive performances are built on a foundation of training. The training which precedes the competition phase should demonstrate a gradual improvement in the amount of specific training that has occurred. Prior to entering this phase, all competition-specific physical combinations and technical elements should have reached their highest levels of development. The competitive phase involves the implementation of the benefits of previous training. The focus of athlete development in this phase is psychological and tactical.

The amount of fitness work that is done in this stage should be that which is appropriate for maintenance training. Each competition should be preceded by an unloading microcycle, the primary function of which is to allow for adequate resources to be applied to the other stresses which surround competitions (e.g., travel, competition hype, media).

The normal Western-orientation to competition-phase training is to start with a period of reduced work called the "taper." A taper is necessary if an athlete is unduly fatigued and recovery is required. With this suggested structure of an annual plan, the unloading cycle at the end of the precompetition phase allows for regeneration. Thus, the competition phase is not confounded by the anxiety associated with trying to time a "taper" to allow maximum regeneration to occur in concert with the competition. The maintenance training associated with this phase should not allow athletes to be fatigued to any unnecessary degree nor will they regress in fitness. They should be able to proceed with competition-specific training. This marks a major difference from the excessive-work-ethic-training of the West and the Eastern judicious-rest form of training. The latter is supported by scientific research findings and principles.

Some training sessions should model the psychological atmosphere and demands of competitions. Athletes should perform their competition routines in these simulated conditions. Such simulations will reduce the stress of competition (Rushall 1979, 1986; Rushall & Potgieter, 1987). The degree to which simulations do mimic the actual organization, atmosphere, and expectations of competition will govern the success of the preparatory experience practice.

Usually, it is too late to attempt technique changes in this stage of training. There will be insufficient practice trials to allow newer technique features to be conditioned to sufficient strength to supersede previously established movement patterns. There is a psychological principle that indicates that the more stressful a situation, the more primitive will be the responses. This means that the more important is a competition, the further back in training time an athlete will regress with regard to the movement patterns used. It is for this reason that the precompetition phase stresses the final attainment of competition-level technical features. During the competition phase, through repetition, athletes should condition those elements to an even stronger degree. No attempts to alter them should occur. The stress of late (panic) learning should be avoided so that competition performances can be attempted with confident techniques.

The training stimuli of the competition phase should be the most specific of any training phase. The major emphasis is on training intensity, which should, in major part, be the same as parts of the competition performance. Training at speeds other than race-pace (non-specific training) should be confined to recovery swimming and occasional maintenance training sets. Specific training can be attempted without covering the actual competition distance in its entirety.

Within this phase there still is a transition. Right throughout the annual plan, the transition from one phase to the next should be subtle and hardly, if at all, noticeable to the athletes. The early stage of the competition phase should include practice and low-level competitions that are interspersed with stimulating, maintenance-training sessions. These early competitions should be used as testing grounds for the tactical, technical, and psychological features which have been developed. The latter part of the phase should be the period of serious competitions, and by this time, all elements of intended events should have been developed. Only alterations in the emphasis or sequence of already established performance elements should be new features. From a fitness viewpoint, maintenance training should continue to provide the energy base for specific performance. The nature and amount of that training will depend upon what training has occurred in previous phases. The latter stages of this phase should concentrate on providing positive and enjoyable training sessions, only involving activities that have been demonstrated at earlier training sessions or in competitions.

The nature of the competitions and their scheduling will determine what occurs in this phase. Ideally, it would be best to have a period of serious training, perhaps two microcycles, and then an unloading microcycle at the end of which is the primary competition. After each competition, there should be a very brief unloading or moderated microcycle to allow the athlete to recover from the other-than-physical stresses of competitions. Unfortunately, most high-level competitions and agendas do not allow these ideal conditions to occur. An important coaching decision will be whether or not to permit alternations of training and competition microcycles.

The schedule of competitions will affect coaching decisions. The greater the number of competitions, the more stressed athletes will become. In the absence of stimulating training, stresses on frequent competitors tend to accumulate, placing them in a detraining spiral. The various forms of event-specific physical fatigue that result from participation do not occur with sufficient volume or frequency to generate a training overload. Thus, the benefits that have been gained from a final intense training phase will eventually be lost if stimulating training cannot be reintroduced. Consequently, an athlete can detrain while being engaged in frequent, although serious, competitions. The occurrence of other competitive disruptions, such as unexpected travel, rescheduled competitions, injuries, etc., all produce lessened occurrences of physical training stimuli.

Close attention should be paid to the activities of the athlete outside the sporting environment. A conscious attempt should be made to minimize the stress of other features of life-style.

If an annual training plan has been completed successfully, the competition phase will replace the taper procedure of older philosophies of training. The competition phase should be one of enjoying the fruits of previously completed training. It should allow ideal physiological and psychological states to be achieved for implementation in serious and important races.


Peaking concerns the development of an athlete to the point of being capable of performing his or her very best. It is a feature that is influenced more critically by psychological factors than by either fitness or skill. Psychological factors mediate the peaking response. The annual plan that is proposed here asserts that both fitness and skill factors should be fully developed before peaking is attempted.

Where possible, competitions should be planned for the end of macrocycles. That time period facilitates adequate development and unloading to occur before the competition. Peak performances generally occur after maximum specific fitness and skill states have been attained -- one of the reasons for attempting to attain those states at the end of the precompetition phase. Peak performances cannot be accelerated by sudden increases in training loads or the introduction of new technique items. The maximum training response will only occur when the stimulation is optimum for an individual. Unexpected distractions and stresses detract from the peaking response, reducing the quantity of resources that can be applied to the competitive performance. Peaking in a maintained fitness state is the least complicated procedure. Consistent fitness states will contribute to consistent performances.

Peaking under the plan that has been described here will be new in concept and implementation when compared to traditional Western training procedures. Indications of performance capacities occur well before the competition since fitness and skill levels will have been attained. Their maintenance will allow other performance factors to be emphasized. This means that gradually, as the competition approaches, athletes should feel good about their fitness and skill precision, and be encouraged by the greater emphasis on factors that are purely related to the competition (e.g., tactics and psychology). This will occur as a refreshing change in the training regimen and will do much to promote high levels of self-efficacy in athletes. This contrasts with the "normal" peaking procedure (tapering) where recovery, skill refinement, tactical development, and psychological focusing all appear to occur simultaneously in a relatively brief time period. The problem with this simultaneity is that a coach or athlete cannot tell which area is progressing well and which is not: it deteriorates into a hit-or-miss process. Such a situation does not need to arise if training plans have been formulated and implemented properly.

Two-peak Annual Plan

The partitions of the training program that have been outlined for the annual plan are maintained, but in abbreviated form, when there are two major competition periods in a year. The alterations that are needed are as follows.

In situations which have more than two, but distinct, periods of competition, the competitive phases should be linked by unloading and specific preparatory phases. The cost of frequent peaked competitions will be the base of training and the possibility of exhausting the potential to improve in each subsequent competition peak.

Excessive Competitions Plan

For programs where weekly or even more frequent competitions occur, it is generally not possible to maintain peak performances. As has been mentioned above, there are not enough meaningful training stimuli which occur frequently enough to produce even a maintenance training form of program. Fitness states deteriorate over the period of excessive competitions. Psychological fatigue ("loss of form", "in a slump") is quite prominent at various stages throughout an excessively long competition period. Training intensities, when they occur, diminish as the competitions wear on.

Scholastic Sports

Scholastic sports in the USA used to be the training grounds for athlete development. However, they no longer provide adequate training for satisfactory improvement. They are limited in two ways. First, they do not allow adequate training to occur prior to the first competition. In most situations, sport seasons commence and athletes are expected to perform within the first month of the season. This means that they become used to competing in a less-than-adequately-prepared state. Second, after the competitive program has commenced, further frequent competitions interfere with the quality of ensuing training to the point that fitness declines (Capobianco, 1991). Programs of this nature have two major deficiencies.

The existence of scholastic sports organizations that inhibit the development of sound training programs may be the single most important factor that has added to the decline in international sporting prowess of the United States.

It is not possible to achieve one's maximum potential without adequate stimulation from a sound training program. Any decision made about the content of training should consider all the valid principles and factors that underlie good planning rather than isolating a single or a few items. Sound planning, year-round training, and decisions based on known principles of human performance are the major ingredients required for successful swimming programs. The diminution of any of these factors will degrade the sporting experience.


When planning the general content of a training phase, the major decisions concern how many macrocycles will be included and the number of microcycles in each macrocycle. The objectives of the training phase covering all facets of the sport should be described. The types and frequency of both skill and fitness testing should also be indicated. The determination of competitions that will be entered and an indication of the relative importance of each should also be included. That features is supposed to produce a commitment and understanding as to the nature of the competitions and their relationship to the various training stages and content of the phase. The final feature should highlight the importance of considering unloading microcycles in the training phase plan. This emphasis is in keeping with the major philosophy of this paper: rest is as important as work in the development of sport fitness. Planning forms are included in the Rushall and Pyke (1990).

A general decision-making sheet for establishing the content of an annual plan should focus on the general objectives of the year's experience, the types of competitions and their importance, and the training phases and their dates. Annual planning forms are included in the Rushall and Pyke (1990).

Each sporting situation will have its own requirements and important considerations that need to be heeded. It is very likely that planning forms could be designed that best meet the needs and circumstances of a particular coaching environment. The forms are meant to help in the construction of suitable decision-making guides. This approach is different from other texts, in which one form is usually recommended. That form includes information on all stages of at least an annual plan. But determining exact information early in the planning process would seem to be counter-productive. The exact content of microcycles and training sessions should not be determined until the end of a previous macrocycle. The progress of an athlete through a training program should, in large part, determine the future training experiences that will be provided. It is believed that the planning process presented here will assist a coach to focus on the concepts of training, while still remaining flexible in specific programming. That flexibility should provide for the individual needs of swimmers as they progress through a year's training, and the planning process advocated should allow the coach to be consistent throughout the year with regard to training decisions while tuning those experiences to the needs of athletes for obtaining specific and general objectives.


Annual training plans for swimmers have taken many forms over the past several decades. It was customary for the programs of champions to be published in swimming journals as models of how to train. However, those programs rarely considered a whole year's participation. Recently, this has changed with the exposition of coaches' plans for champions' training (e.g., Touretski, 1993). The problem with such models is that if copied, they will likely be inappropriate for anyone other than the champion for which they are intended. Those of others are likely to be wrong for any other individual. There is no substitute for plans that are devised for individual athletes.

This paper has described the structure and decisional variables that are associated with the elemental structures of annual plans for swimmers. A proper plan requires reasoned decisions to be made in concert with known principles of coaching science. When that is done, it is likely that more consistent coaching and, for the athlete, a more consistent sporting experience, will result. In consistency there is security and implied direction. Even if errors are made in decision-making concerning annual plans, the impact of such errors will be lessened because of stable direction within a well-structured plan.

There is no substitute for basic training as the structure upon which specific training is superimposed. That relationship, when employed correctly, will produce the highest level of performance possible in swimmers. To ignore one or the other is to lessen the value of training and subsequent "maximum" performances. At the 1994 US Swimming National Team Coaches' Meeting the value and need for basic training was echoed by several leading coaches who described it as the foundation for swimming excellence (Rushall, 1994b). Concern was expressed that rather than exploiting this necessity, many coaches were shying away from it in favor of "fad" programs or programs that stressed pure "quality and intensity" or excessive competitive schedules without forming an adequate base of training volume. This paper readdresses the need for solid foundational training that underlies almost all successful athletic performances.

The major difficulty with modern annual plans will be the reorientation of physical conditioning from being the major year-long focus to being the required basis for technique, tactical, and psychological development. The limitations of conditioning require coaches to look for other aspects of swimming to continue opening avenues for performance improvements. Structuring annual plans in an appropriate manner will aid swimming programs to service swimmers with better experiences and to produce better levels of performance.


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