The following article is written from a swimmer's perspective, but contains valuable information that can be applied to any sport.
Periodization is the scientific term for splitting your training year into periods. For example, you should spend the off-season and pre-season periods simply working on technique drills, streamline and enhanced force development in the pull and the kick, and basic aerobic endurance in the water. As your competitive season approaches, typically about 12-16 weeks out, you should begin to phase in more difficult sets at closer to a tempo or threshold pace, with an intensity zone that would be considered anaerobic (typically produces a burn in the muscles, a higher heart rate, and more difficulty breathing). The rest periods between these anaerobic efforts should grow shorter and shorter as your competition approaches. Depending on whether your limitation is endurance or speed/power, once you are 4-6 weeks out from competing, you should begin to include very quick and powerful efforts at the highest possible intensity, gradually decreasing the total volume of your swim training as you do so. Finally, 1-2 weeks from your event, significantly decrease volume, and swim only a few very intense sets, with long rest periods. Remember that it’s better to be 5% undertrained than 1% overtrained!
I recommend utilizing a consistent testing method to track your progress in the water. Not only are you provided with added motivation as your test date approaches, but you’ll be able to track your progress efficiently and compare how changes in your training program affect your speed and endurance. I utilize the T-Pace test with most of my coached athletes. The T-Pace test involves a brief warm-up, then a swim at maximum possible intensity for 500-2000 yards, depending on an athlete’s experience. The total time is used to calculate the time per 100 meters, which is called an athlete’s T-Pace. Future training sessions are then based on a speed percentage of that pace. If available, a blood lactate test can be even more precise than a T-Pace test. In this test, an athlete swims at gradually higher intensities for 2-5 minute stages, stopping after each stage to test blood lactate. The speed at which blood lactate shows a significant increase is very near to that athlete’s anaerobic threshold. Once the heart rate and speed at this value are known, future training sessions can be based on a percentage of the threshold. Since most overtraining occurs when an athlete pushes too hard for too long above threshold, knowledge of where the threshold occurs can ensure that the swimmer receives the most benefit out of every training session, without actually overtraining or hitting a plateau.
3. Dry Land Strength Training
Muscles rarely produce forces during the swim stroke that parallel the forces produced during resistance training. So why train on the weights? Because the muscle fiber utilization, neuromuscular adaptations, lean muscle tissue growth, and resistance to fatigue that occurs in the weightroom result in an energy sparing effect in the water. Basically, your muscular and nervous systems “learn” how to contract more efficiently, and produce more power per contraction, while also sparing the amount of carbohydrate used, which is important for distance swimmers. There’s no doubt about it: there is a strong cross-over training effect from weight training to swimming. Additional advantages of dry land strength training include: 1) the development of core musculature, which can enhance balance while practicing “downhill” swimming and create a stronger kinetic chain between the hips and the upper back muscles; and 2) more powerful hips, thighs, and calves, which are strengthened during “triple-extension” movements like the squat and the lunge – very useful for any kick that involves a powerful whipping motion, as well as push-offs from the wall.
4. Rest and Recovery
Often, a plateau simply occurs because the body’s energy systems are never given an opportunity to absorb the effects of all those hours and meters in the pool. True training adaptations actually occur while the body is resting, not during the actual swim session. If your current program includes a hard training session nearly every day of the week, week after week, then you should: 1) begin to include recovery swims at an easy pace at least 1-2 days a week and 2) include a recovery week every 3-5 weeks. You will experience a stepwise effect in fitness that prevents the body from hitting a wall, and ultimately, your potential intensity and volume will become much greater.
The importance of sleep, proper nutrition, and a holistic wellness approach in all aspects of life must be emphasized, and this becomes far more important for athletes and individuals who constantly break their body down and produce free radicals and other damaging metabolites during exercise. Recommendations include: 1) maintaining 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and attempting to follow the body’s natural circadian rhythm by hitting the sack before 11 p.m.; 2) eating high amounts of a large variety of fruits and vegetables, preferably organic; 3) avoiding alcohol, cigarette smoke, pollutants, and exposure to large amounts of detergents and cleaners; 4) completely eliminating consumption of refined and processed sugars, alternative sweeteners, and processed or packaged foods with chemicals and preservatives; 5) daily consumption of at least 0.5-0.9 grams per pound from lean protein sources that provide a complete amino acid profile, like egg, animal, or whey protein (for vegetarians, this requires food combinations, like rice and beans); 6) balancing family, hobbies, and non-stressful activities like softball leagues and concerts over the daily strain of work and training.