In April 2018 I attended the Commonwealth Games swimming in Australia. The venue was a 50m outdoor pool on the Gold Coast south of Brisbane with seating for 8,000 spectators. I had forgotten the excitement of major live events; last time being the 2005 World Championships in Montreal. Granted you see more detail on television but totally miss the atmosphere! The extremely partisan Australian crowd really got behind their team. Their Women’s 4 X 100 Freestyle Relay set a World Record of 3:30.05 on the first night, with Cate Campbell anchoring in 51.00, the fastest relay split ever. Another highlight was the Women’s 100 Backstroke final. Despite torrential tropical rain, both the winner Canadian Kylie Masse (58.63) and second place local Emily Seebohm (58.66) finished within 0.6 sec of Masse’s world record from Rio. There were also upset victories by swimmers from countries neighbouring Ireland. Duncan Scott of Scotland (with really great stroke technique) won a very tight Men’s 100 freestyle in 48.05, while Alys Thomas from Wales won the Women’s 200 butterfly in a superb 2:05.46. The latter is 28 years old and has persisted through sometimes difficult times. In the shorter fly events her stroke lacks flow, whereas it really worked in this longer event. While the Commonwealth Games only involves about one third of the world’s top swimmers, the results were of a very high standard. Teams from smaller countries get to compete for final and podium positions, with for example the team from Northern Ireland performing very well.
For me there were several “take home” messages which I think are relevant at club level:
- In general, the medallists had the best techniques in terms of starts, turns finishes and underwater and particularly surface strokes. To be the best one must optimise fitness and technique. The skilled and fit swimmer will nearly always beat the “just” fit swimmer! Do you know what works best for you and think about it all the time in practice?
- Top swimmers do far more warming up and down than most Irish swimmers. I know this is constrained by absence of additional practice facilities at many venues. However, where these are available at, for example, most Irish National events, I think we don’t use them enough.
- Most swimmers at the Commonwealth Games were aged between 18 and 30. Swimmers are physically best at these ages. Why do so many individuals of great potential in SWSC quit when in their mid-teens? With detailed organisation it is possible to excel both in swimming and at school. In fact, a recent study by an English neurologist has indicated that people do better in exams if they continue to do reduced training. My friend Jim Martin, who coached SWSC with me in the early 1970s and is now Head of Medicine at McGill University in Montreal, says that sportspeople make the best PhD students, because of their level of planning and their determination. As a University educator, I heartily agree! We want individuals to treat swimming as a lifelong sport through Masters events and triathlon!
The European Championships are being held in Glasgow from 3-9 August this year. I hope you will be watching. I know I will! See you at the Summer Nationals!
Most swimming books are aimed at coaches and are highly technical. These notes instead are aimed at competitive swimmers and their parents. What I’ll try to do is present a single theme monthly. The opinions are my own (and so are any errors), but they are designed to make you think and to start discussion. They are the product of nearly five decades of coaching and observing elite swimming, but also stem from my background as a professional biological educator and researcher. I welcome questions, comments and criticisms from swimmers, and also from parents and club coaches (but directly not electronically). These notes are not designed to replace your interactions with your club coaches (and will all be approved by Director of Aquatics and Head Coach Richard Cassidy). Good interactions with your coaches are absolutely essential to optimising performance. Instead they attempt to assist efforts to make you as good as possible!
Tom Cross, March 2018
Number 1: Being as good as possible!
When Director of the American Swimming Coaches Association John Leonard visited Ireland a few years ago, he was asked what he thought was the most important thing in competitive swimming. He said “Turn up (to all training session and meets)”. He then went on to tell us that Michael Phelps had not missed a single training session in seven years! Can any SWSC swimmer match that record even for the last season? Are you going to achieve it this season?
So what’s “enough” per week. For secondary school age swimmers of your stage it’s probably about 15 hours in the pool and a few hours of land work, consistently through the year, covering c50K per week in the pool. This will give the best chance of improvement. If you do half that number of hours/meters per week you will get about a quarter or less of the potential improvement. (Bill Sweetenham refers to 7-8 hours per week as the “twilight zone”).
No one can make top International level and achieve their full potential without maximal training both in the pool and on land. The two previous Cork Olympians in swimming went to other set ups in their last year before the Olympics, where they got 50%+ more quantity and considerably more intensity. But they had a background of consistency and high mileages in their own clubs. However, others have made great improvements in a domestic setting. One boy who swam for SWSC in the 1970s improved his 100m fly time by over 10% in the year between 14 and 15. He did this by upping his water time by 50% in the old 25 yard pool at Eglington Street.
You train long and hard so you can race better. Training results in improvement in both condition (termed physiological adaptation, with associated improvements in power and flexibility) and technique (behavioural adaptation in pacing; starts, turns and finishes; underwater and particularly surface stroke). It’s now a fashion in sports to say “enjoy what you’re doing”. It’s hard to “enjoy” getting out of bed at 5am on a dark, cold and wet morning to train for two hours (and repeating this more than 300 times in the season!). But it is necessary, if you are to achieve better and better performances in races. You should commit fully for each year at a time. Then at the end of each year you should assess your progress. How much did your competition times improve, did you enjoy the whole experience, how did you manage school and swimming, how good do you think you could be? Being as good as possible in competition is the really enjoyable thing! Being as good as possible in competitive sport is very time consumming but in the words of walker Rob Heffernan after the World Championships “It’s great when you win“.
“For many athletes, being perpetually tired is just a way of life. Training is intense, school has its demands, and often there are simply not enough hours in the day to check everything off the to do list. However, there is a distinct difference between feeling lethargic on a Thursday afternoon after three days of doubles, and having chronic fatigue that affects every aspect of athletic performance. Many athletes, especially females, find themselves so tired that sleeping and relaxing more does not seem to have any effect on their energy levels, and they cannot perform their sport to the best of their ability. ”