Produced, edited, and copyrighted by
Professor Brent S. Rushall, San Diego State University
Volume 4, Number 2: 30 May, 1997


When enthusiasm to swim distance training is high and training work volume and/or intensity is increased, excessive fatigue often results usually after only a few weeks. That excessive fatigue interferes with the ability to adapt further. In this situation actions need to be taken which will allow the whole body to regenerate itself to a state where further adaptation to the exercise stress induced by swimming can occur.

This issue of the Carlile Coaches' Forum relates procedures that can be followed to produce the fastest and most beneficial recovery from short-term excessive training stress, a state commonly referred to as "over-reaching." It can be considered as the first sign of the onset of overtraining and thus, should be alleviated immediately.

The condition of the body is not the same as that which exists after a hard training session nor is it equivalent to long-term fatigue (the "overtrained" state). Major symptoms of over-reaching are chronic but minor tissue damage and neural fatigue.

The first site of deterioration caused by excessive exercise stress is in the central nervous system. This is evidenced by symptoms such as:

Nervous system deterioration is also evidenced by changes in mood, alterations in personality, less tolerance of challenges, reduced persistence, and less consistent behavior. These are "psychological" symptoms. Perhaps the most prevalent symptoms are those associated with sleep: frequent references to "being tired," feelings of needing a nap, and disturbed or shortened night-time sleep.

Training needs to be altered to recover from this state. However, if pure "rest" is followed there is the potential for some portion of the trained state to be lost as well as disruptions to life-style which themselves result in yet another form of stress. To avoid these potential problems it is in the interest of any swimmer to recover from the excessive stress as quickly as possible provided beneficial outcomes are produced.

Passive rest does not produce the fastest regeneration from excessively fatigued states. Certain activities are needed and can be performed to accelerate recovery. If the period for regeneration can be shortened, there will be less time spent away from training as well as less life-style disruption. Active recovery is another alternative, with participation in another activity or an alteration in training schedule and stress being commonly instituted. However, too much active recovery does not produce the fastest recovery. Only when active and passive recovery activities are coupled is recovery accelerated in an optimal manner (1).

The theory behind recovery is as follows:

Recovery speed is dependent upon the body's metabolism. In passive rest, metabolism is slowed resulting in slower rates of tissue repair and biochemical restitution. However, in activity, with its higher rate of metabolism, repair and restitution are accelerated. This only occurs when metabolism is increased without stressing the central nervous system with the activities that produced the original fatigue and if energy demands remain aerobic.

When activities unrelated to swimming are undertaken, the body mobilizes many resources usually in an excessive manner. This is the "alarm reaction phase" of stress adaptation (2). This exaggerated response increases the body's functions and thus accelerates the recovery process. Accelerated recovery can be associated with non-swimming activities. Alternations between various stimulus modalities increase alarm-reaction-type responses even further.

Both passive and active rest should include activities and procedures which stimulate the metabolism but do not stimulate the exhausted neural/movement patterns of swimming.

Recovery-activity Structure

Once a swimmer has over-reached, training has to diminish considerably but not completely. A general rule-of-thumb is to decrease training session frequency by at least 50% but to maintain normal training intensity in the remaining sessions. The best schedule is one that results in swimming training occurring on every other day. Between-training-sessions recovery is enhanced because of the prolonged non-swimming period. If a swimmer usually trained conscientiously every day the schedule would be altered to every other day until recovery was complete. This amount of swimming will be sufficient to prevent any deterioration in the trained state.

On a daily basis, extended periods of passive-recovery activities should be followed. On non-swimming days active recovery pursuits should be performed. Thus, the emphasis is on recovery, predominantly passive-recovery activities interspersed with swimming-specific and non-specific activities. This regimen assumes that night-rest and diet are adequate and that excessive life-style stresses are removed.

Passive-recovery Activities

The common perception of passive recovery is "doing nothing." However, while remaining passive it is possible to experience various forms of stimulation which result in elevated levels of metabolism. These usually involve extreme alterations in environmental stimulation. Some examples of passive recovery activities are:

This list is not exhaustive. Their common characteristic is the experience of changes in metabolism without incurring any fatigue or exerting very little effort. They are intended to be invigorating. A variety of these experiences should be used rather than emphasizing one repeatedly. Also, these activities usually produce feelings of well-being which affect the swimmer's psychological state.

At least a daily regimen of these pursuits will stimulate recovery and produce an invigorated mental state.

Active-recovery Pursuits

Non-swimming activities should be performed instead of normal training but should not produce fatigue. There are several characteristics for appropriate activities.

Total-body exercise. It is important that exercises which involve the total musculature are selected. Anything less will not stimulate the total organism and therefore, will not stimulate the full capacity to recover.

Variety. Accelerated recovery results from a variety of active exercises of a total-body nature. A variety of experiences is better than single activities. Thus, on active-recovery days different activities should be employed. For example, on the first recovery day cycling might be the activity, on the second recovery day board paddling, and the next running. Those activities could be repeated cyclically until recovery is effected.

Familiarity. Only activities which are familiar and have been performed recently and with some degree of frequency should be used. If the recovering athlete was to perform a completely new activity, it is likely that aches and pains which result from unfamiliar physical activities would occur. Those symptoms will compound and stall recovery rather than enhance it. So if a swimmer can cycle, run, or row without experiencing any post-exercise distress symptoms, then those activities are appropriate.

Alactic/Aerobic. The level of exercise duration and intensity should be that which only excites alactic and aerobic metabolism. This governs the extent of effort in the activity and its duration. The exercises that should be performed have to be of a different intensity to that which is practiced in distance training. Harder or faster than usual performance levels should be performed but of a sufficiently short duration that the energy supply is almost totally alactic. Avoiding lactic (glycolytic) energy use will sustain recovery. The volume of alactic work also stimulates the aerobic energy system which leads to increased overall metabolism.

Stimulation through change in activity effort. Since distance swimming produces a depressed state and often a heightened feeling of sluggishness because of its demand for cyclic moderately-intense exercise, for accelerated recovery to occur, active-recovery pursuits have to contain performance characteristics of speed and vitality (alactic work) alternated with very low-intensity levels of the same exercise (active between-efforts recovery) or rests. Thus, very brief bouts of non-fatiguing rapid and strenuous exercises interspersed with continuous very low levels of exercise or rests are appropriate. A limited (non-fatiguing) amount of ultra-short training with extended between trials rest periods could serve this purpose (2). The volume of these activities cannot be prescribed for they will be particularly individual. They should continue until fatigue is first noticed and then terminated. Examples of activities might be:

No active-recovery exercises should be performed at the same intensity as the swimming intensity that led to the over-reached state. They should entail alternating faster-than (harder-than) and easier-than effort levels to those associated with "normal" distance training. The alternating contrast in exercise intensities is a source of invigoration and revitalization of the psychological state.


For the recovery period the amount of acidic foods (e.g., meats, cheese, eggs) that contain complex proteins as well as complex-carbohydrate foods (e.g., "starches," grains, cereals, breads, legumes, vegetables) should be increased above normal. The overall volume of calories should be monitored to avoid over-eating.

Vitamin intake, particularly the B-group and C, should be increased substantially during the recovery period.

Other Life-stresses

The time and activities pursued outside the training environment should be monitored. If those activities are stressful, they can impede the speed of recovery. It is desirable to plan how to handle the stresses of business, family, school, or whatever the situational-activity is, so that training and recovery will not be compromised. Time away from the swimming training environment should be used to ensure physical and psychological regeneration.


Sleep, particularly night-time sleep, should be accommodated. This is the most important aspect of recovery. Attention should be paid to increasing the regularity and duration of night-rest. The sleeping environment can be improved if intrusive disruptions, lights, and sounds are removed or at least diminished.


Every swimmer will react differently to passive and active-recovery regimens. The means by which accelerated recovery is promoted will vary greatly and depend on activity preferences. The length of time needed to recover from over-reaching will be determined by the attainment of a continued feeling of well-being, an improvement in swimming economy, and the restitution of acceptable performance levels. Once all those features emerge, normal training can be resumed.

Insurance Programming

Rather than waiting for problems to occur, some successful swimmers ritualize recovery microcycles (often called "unloading" microcycles) as insurance against over-reaching and overtraining. An example would be to perform a macrocycle that contains normal training for three weeks and then whether needed or not, engage in an unloading microcycle. That facilitates consolidation of the previous three weeks' training effects. It also ensures that the swimmer is recovered and ready to adapt to the ensuing three weeks of training in the following macrocycle. This pattern of periodization is followed until new training goals are established.

The age-group swimmer. Swimmers who do not have extensive training backgrounds have a tendency to both over-reach and recover faster than individuals who have significant training histories. For such individuals, a macrocycle of three weeks, containing two microcycles of single-week swimming followed by a week-long unloading microcycle, might be appropriate.

The serious swimmer. Serious swimmers who train and race for performance improvement should attempt to increase the number of training microcycles before employing an unloading microcycle. It is advisable to attempt three weeks of overload microcycles and follow them with an unloading microcycle as described above. However, the athlete should be wary of over-reaching and be prepared to implement an unloading microcycle ahead of schedule if the need arises. There is no value in "pushing through" a planned overload microcycle when the body is not in a state to tolerate it.

The high-performance swimmer. The use of unloading microcycles will depend upon the type, volume, and intensity of training that is being followed. Ideally, high-performance experienced swimmers will employ unloading microcycles on a demand schedule, that is, when they are needed. This requires considerable self-discipline and monitoring of bodily and behavioral symptoms of over-reaching. It is best to be too cautious than too adventurous when deciding if an unloading microcycle should be initiated.

The point behind recovery procedures being implemented as soon as over-reaching is recognized is that the time for recovery will be minimal because of the low-severity of the problem and the accelerated recovery which results from the variety of passive and active exercises of a total-body nature. There will be no loss of condition or training effects in the days off. To the contrary, a swimmer's body will benefit from the reduction in the excessive overload which brought about the problem in the first place.

The judicious use of unloading microcycles will promote improved performances and health. This is an occasion when the inclusion of non-swimming activities will benefit swimming performances.

This form of programming should increase the annual volume of training over that which is accommodated through today's usual programming. An added feature to increased volume is the benefit of also improving the quality of practice efforts. These two effects should produce improved race performances.

This approach to programming training sessions for all swimmers is quite different to the usual programs that are currently in vogue. It is based on the principle that performance improvements can only occur through rest and recovery and that fatigue is purely a stimulus that shocks the body to respond in a particular manner. Recovery is anabolic and fatigue is catabolic. If a swimmer is constantly fatigued and rarely given the opportunity to recover, then performance improvements are unlikely to occur other than through growth and maturation. It is unreasonable to restrict swimmers' recovery opportunities to one or two "tapers" per year. Swimmers should be expected and allowed to improve performances frequently. Responding to over-reaching is an avenue to fulfill that expectation.


  1. Sports. (1986, February). Regeneration alternatives in high performance sport. Gloucester, Ontario: Coaching Association of Canada.
  2. Rushall, B. S., & Pyke, F. S. (1990). Training for sports and fitness. Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan.

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