Number 27

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


[Adapted from: Rushall, B. S. (1999). Programming considerations for physical conditioning (pp. 9.1-9.4). Spring Valley, CA: Sports Science Associates.]

Training Priorities

It is generally conceded that the most important aspect of swimming emphasis should be skill. Small changes in stroking skill will translate into large changes in performance whereas moderate changes in fitness and psychology produce only small to modest improvements. Thus, the development of swimming skills should be the primary focus of training at all levels. However, that is not the most popular orientation as the sport still embraces a priority for fitness development.

Training session plans need to consider where technical and tactical skill training should occur to supplement fitness training so that the best learning will be produced. There is sufficient scientific information available to suggest that there is a particular order in which psychological and physiological experiences should occur in a training session. That order is quite different to the sequencing that is followed at most swimming practices.

The skill learning capacity of an individual is moderated by the state of fitness. For the most efficient learning to occur, the fitness elements that are required for the performance of a skill need to exist in a sufficiently trained state to allow the skill to be performed adequately. For example, it would be difficult for a swimmer to attempt an "elbows-up" position in the crawl stroke technique, if he or she did not have sufficient body strength to be able to maintain a stable upper body position that only permitted rotation about the longitudinal axis. The correct execution of the finer technique point is dependent upon having the postural strength to establish a solid foundation for its peripheral movements. If fatigue were to occur, it would interact with the skill precision and either cause performance deterioration or establish a need for a technique alteration. Both reactions are not characteristics of desirable high-level performances. Thus, the most efficient development of technique will occur only when appropriate levels of fitness to support the technique have been attained.

The rate of skill learning is moderated by a considerable number of factors. These determine what is included in a training session, how learning opportunities are distributed in a microcycle, and what are the learning objectives of a macrocycle. Brief descriptions of some of the more important moderators follow.

Fatigue and Learning

The features listed above indicate the need to avoid group instruction sessions when coaching skills. Because group instruction methods have been perpetuated and are easier to administer than individual instructional procedures, does not mean they are the best for learning to occur. Individualized training programs may seem more difficult, but they have to be followed to produce the best training responses in athletes.

There is another feature that must be considered when planning skill development and its inclusion in a training session. It is that fatigue impedes learning. Skills and tactical elements are learned faster and retained better when learning occurs in non-fatigued states. All learning should precede any occurrence of fatigue in a training session. To some coaches, this principle may be contradictory to their understanding of the use of the Principle of Specificity. It is commonly asserted that if skills are to be performed when an athlete is tired, then learning those skills while experiencing the level of fatigue that will occur in the sporting event is the best procedure. However, it has been shown that techniques and tactics learned in non-fatigued states produce better performances in fatigued states than do skills which have been "learned" in the presence of fatigue (Williams, McEwan, Watkins, Gillespie, and Boyd 1979). The physiology of learning supports this finding. The formation of neuromuscular patterns is inhibited by increases in acidity of the supporting physiological environment. Thus, when lactic acid accrues as a result of fatigue, the potential for learning is reduced or even halted.

Structural changes that occur with fatigue also reduce the efficiency of learning. In fatigued states, the recruitment of extra muscle fibers, to support or replace those that are fatigued, produces a different neural organization from that required for an efficient performance. The nature of specific fiber recruitment has not been studied very intensively, but it does appear that patterns of recruitment are situation-dependent. The fibers that are recruited depend upon the circumstances that exist at a particular time. Hence, the pattern of movement in fatigue will vary from experience to experience. This response variation does not increase performance efficiency. Thus it does not make sense to attempt any skill learning when athletes are in fatigued states. Attempts at learning should occur after adequate recovery from previous training-session fatigue and should precede increases in accrued fatigue in the training session. Attempts to learn skills and tactics at other times will produce less than efficient, and often undesirable (e.g., frustration, lack of progress) outcomes. All learning experiences should be planned for the initial stages of a training session.

Structuring a Training Session

The energizing forces of training are the fitness components that are stimulated. Because each component makes different physiological and neurological demands on the body, how those components are presented in a training session should occur in a particular order, intensity, and volume. The duration of a training session will depend upon the tasks presented as training stimuli, the activity forms in these tasks, the athlete's level of physical preparation for each fitness component, and the general training load.

Fatigue is the most important phenomenon that must be considered in the conduct of a training session. Psychological and fatigue states affect the learning of skills and tactics. Fatigue also inhibits the development of speed and coordination, and these performance components should only be trained when the muscles are rested. A particular hierarchy for training fitness components exists, indicating that some training items must occur before others for desirable training outcomes to be produced. Not to adhere to the hierarchy is to diminish the potential value of a training session. The hierarchy of training session activities is as follows.

  1. General warm-up. A general warm-up should initiate every training session. The activities should involve all body components with a view to increasing the temperature of the large and deep muscles. Once an adequate temperature increase is achieved, usually indicated by a light sweat, flexibility activities that involve the major joints, and those joints of particular importance to swimming should be undertaken. This order is often different from what is commonly seen during warm-ups. Flexibility should follow activities that make muscles warm, because warm muscles and joint structures are more flexible than cold ones and are less prone to injury. The common practice of stretching on the deck and then swimming a "warm-up" is wrong.
  2. Learn techniques and tactics. If learning occurs in non-fatigued states, sufficient time should be allocated to ensure that it takes place by producing desirable patterns of response. Hurried learning sessions could result in the development of more errors than desirable outcomes.
  3. Perfect techniques and tactics. Previous learning should be practiced at medium and maximum intensities. Goals for execution precision should be established. Adequate recovery times between repetitions should be provided so that no performance deterioration occurs due to fatigue.
  4. Develop speed. Training stimuli that attempt to improve speed should next be planned. These should be of short duration. Complete recovery between each trial should be permitted. Any fatigue that exists at the start of a trial will reduce the specific nature of any training effect. The common practice of finishing a training session with "sprints" is wrong because the body is usually unable to tax the capacities required for increasing speed. Speed work should occur early in, rather than at the end of a training session.
  5. Develop power. Activities that require speed and strength (power) should next be considered. The rest period between each repetition will depend upon the importance of the speed factor. Interval training, which requires total recovery between repeats is the preferred training format for this fitness component. Since the application of power is skill-dependent, obvious incursions of harmful fatigue should be avoided. Both breaststroke and butterfly require greater power components than crawl or backstroke and should be practiced first.
  6. Develop specific strength. Within a training session, specific strength is best developed through a few maximum efforts (low repetitions with high intensity) with almost complete recovery between trials. Swimming strength is best achieved through maximum swimming efforts (Costill, 1998). It is unadvisable to attempt supplementary training (e.g., weights, pulleys, etc.) during or prior to a training session. Supplementary training is best scheduled after or outside of training sessions, not before training as is commonly practiced. Fatigue from supplementary training should not be carried into a swimming training session.
  7. Develop muscular endurance. Muscular endurance should be presented in two stages. The first bout of repetitions should comprise a moderate amount of repetitions with moderate intensity. The volume then should be increased to a higher number of repetitions with moderate resistance. The repetitions and resistances will depend upon the fitness component requirements for the event and the individual. Race-pace repetitions are most appropriate for this type of work.
  8. Develop high-intensity aerobic endurance. The first level of aerobic endurance work should be the hardest. This is commonly referred to as maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max) training.
  9. Develop low-intensity aerobic endurance. The remaining endurance work should be of a moderate intensity to initiate the winding-down of the training session. This is commonly referred to as anaerobic threshold training.
  10. Recovery routine. A training session should employ a recovery or cool-down routine. The work intensity is reduced and the specific nature of activity may also be reduced. This training segment should allow athletes to leave the practice environment partly recovered and with a positive disposition to promote interest in and enhance motivation for the next training session.

The sequence that has been described above indicates an initial learning emphasis, an intensity peak in the middle, and an endurance dominance at the end (Bompa 1986). It should be realized that not all the activity emphases described would occur in each training session. Once selected training segments should be ordered according to this scheme. Figure 1 illustrates a training session planning sheet that correctly orders potential training activities. When using it for writing a training session, entries should be made only alongside the activities to be performed.

In its simplest form, a training session may consist of only one segment, such as when a distance swimmer goes for a 10-kilometer beach swim. The planning of what components are to be stimulated in a session depends on the requirements of the individual athlete, the microcycle, and the macrocycle in which the session occurs.

The organization of specific training items during a session should consider the following (Bompa 1986).

  1. Exercises should be alternated between each training objective and segment to allow within session recovery/regeneration. Thus a medley swimmer would consider cycling through all strokes in a training session rather than dedicating one part purely and totally to crawl, then the next to backstroke, and the final parts to breaststroke and butterfly. Those stroking forms should be ordered: crawl (greatest speed and least power requirement), backstroke (speed and power), and then breaststroke and butterfly (greatest power and speed). As soon as performance or technique started to deteriorate in crawl, backstroke would commence. This would allow some recovery to occur for the crawl stroke. As soon as the backstroke work began to decline in quality, breaststroke and/or butterfly would commence. This would allow even more recovery for the crawl, while recovery for the backstroke commenced. Then, as the performance features of the breaststroke/butterfly began to deteriorate, crawl would be reintroduced. Cycling activities in this manner may be difficult to organize, but will yield a greater volume of better quality training responses in each training session. This, in turn, would promote faster rates of fitness component improvement. Activity alternation, within the same fitness component, will allow some amount of within session recovery and regeneration.
  2. The greater the training intensity, the less will be the volume of training in a standard time-period. Recovery needs increase as the intensity of training elements increase. The use of recovery periods for instruction in other domains, such as the development of psychological skills and the performance of managerial activities, should be considered to introduce increased productivity in training-time utilization.
  3. The duration of a training session is inversely proportional to the intensity of the training stimulus. Low-intensity sessions can be more time-consuming because of the large amounts of fuel stores that can be accessed and the ability of the organism to maintain activity levels without incurring debilitating fatigue.
  4. The more intense and stressful a training session, the simpler should be its organization. That organization will be enhanced if the content of the session is posted and known to the swimmer before it commences. Athletes are able to better appropriate their capacities to the training segments when they know what will occur.
  5. The heavier and more intense the overall load of one training session, the lighter should be the next session. Thus, the alternation in training sessions of volume and intensity would be a sound planning principle.

The final coaching determinant of training session content is employed during the actual session. When an athlete fatigues during a session, techniques deteriorate and performances become less consistent. When technique and performance diminution occurs, it could reach a stage where any continued participation would serve no productive purpose, and with extreme fatigue, the consequences may even be counter-productive. Since no planning procedure for sports training is precise, coaches will have to exercise their judgment as to when a training segment should be interrupted or altered because of technique and performance deterioration. There seems to be an irrational principle in swimming coaching lore, to the effect that once an athlete commences a training segment, or attempts to achieve a training item goal, activity is not terminated until either or both have been achieved. This is done despite the possible futility of the experience and detrimental effects that such a procedure might have on an athlete. The "hell-week" of swimming and rowing is a good example of the abuse of sound coaching principles (Costill & King, 1983). It is better to subject swimmers to a few good quality experiences than it is to subject them to a few good and a large number of poor experiences. The counter-productivity of excessive and damaging work has not been investigated fully, probably because of the ethics involved in deliberately subjecting athletes to such harmful experiences. However, such considerations do not seem to concern some swimming coaches, when they should. As a general coaching rule, the advice that was given many years ago by the great Australian swimming coach-scientist, Forbes Carlile, is most appropriate here: "It is better to undertrain than to overtrain".


  1. Bompa, T. O. (1986). Theory and methodology of training. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
  2. Costill, D. L., & King, D. S. (1983). Workout evaluation. Swimming Technique, August-October, 24-27.
  3. Costill, D. L. (1998). Training adaptations for optimal performance. Invited lecture at the Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming VIII Conference, Jyvaskulla, Finland.
  4. Williams, L. R. T., McEwan, E. A. S., Watkins, C. D., Gillespie, L., & Boyd, H. (1979). Motor learning and performance and physical fatigue and the specificity principle. Canadian Journal of Applied Sport Sciences, 4, 302-308.

Figure 1. A training session planning sheet with correctly ordered activities.


Microcycle session: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Training Session Severity: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Date: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Heavy . . . . medium . . . . light . . . .

Training Factor

Activities and Coaching Points



1. Warm-up


2. Technique Learning


3. Tactical Learning


4. Technique Practice


5. Tactical Practice


6. Speed


7. Power


8. Strength


9. Muscular Endurance


10. Aerobic Endurance High


11. Aerobic Endurance Low


12 Recovery


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