train harder or train smarter?

To get faster at swimming you need to train harder. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? Well it might not always be true…

For many swimmers, and indeed coaches, it seems important to be working as hard as possible all the time during training and to swim as many hours as possible. The result? very fit swimmers who often go on to be successful at county, district or even national level. But more often than not success at international level is not forthcoming. Combine this with the fact that many young swimmers simply don’t have the time to train large numbers of hours a week, and that many clubs don’t get enough pool time to meet this demand for training hours and it seems that British swimming should be dominated by the clubs who do the most training. Now to some extent this is true, with clubs such as City of Leeds, Stockport Metro and Portsmouth Northsea sending large numbers of swimmers to the National and Age Group Championships, but there are still those swimmers reaching national finals from smaller clubs who have significantly less pool time, so how do they do it?

Its very easy to put this anomaly down to natural talent and to some extent this may be true, particularly among the younger age groups, but often the biggest factor is technique and as a result efficiency through the water. With fewer pool hours, it is increasingly the case that coaches are relying on improving their swimmer’s technique to counteract any fitness disadvantage that they may have.

Now recently sports scientists have concluded that 70% of the speed of an elite swimmer is due to stroke mechanics and hence efficiency and only the remaining 30% due to fitness. Hence a swimmer would need an enormous physical advantage to beat a competitor with a superior stroke. Terry Laughlin on total immersion tells of a Russian team’s trip to the US. Onlookers were amazed at their training regime which consisted of little more than hours of easy repeats at low intensities, concentrating on perfect technique every stroke, rather than high heart rates, and trying to minise the number of strokes taken per length. The following summer, the Russian team comprehensively out swam most other teams.

Now the Russians may have spent many hours a day training, but the principle remains; they were far more concerned with the perfect stroke every stroke than lactate production. Of course fitness has a part to play, but often a few hours on stroke drills can prove far more beneficial.