How Hard Should We Push our Young Swimmers?

young swimmers

How many hours of training should we put our youngest swimmers through? How intense should training be? When should we ask them to give up other sports and specialize in swimming? These are questions that have been around for a long, long time. And while the swimming world claims to divided on this topic, in practice there is little divisiveness.

On the one hand, we have hard and very visible evidence that elite swimmers started very early. Michael Phelps is a perfect example. He started swimming at age 7, and was world champion and world record holder at 15. To test how consistent this is among elite swimmers, I came up with a list of 20 random swimming superstars, and was able to find out the age they started formalized swimming for 11 of them. The average starting age for these 11? 6.8 years of age.

This early starting age for the superstars has lead to a huge and possibly subconscious movement in swimming to have swimmers start young, and then to have them specialized young. This is why we hear of teams where 10&Unders have multiple morning practices a week, and training camps involving two a day and sometimes three a day practices. Or we hear of competition swims that are truly mind-blowing. Three new girl’s 10&Under Long Course USA records have been set this year: 36.13 for 50 Breaststroke, 1:17.74 for 100 Breaststroke, and 1:08.67 for 100 Butterfly. Incredible!

But this is the problem. You don’t get this fast this young without some serious training behind you. And the data shows that these early results don’t really translate to later success. In fact, quite the opposite.

An oft-quoted ASCA study on this very issue reports the following:

Now, look at that table again and think about what this means. …read more

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What’s the Best Way to Start Off a Swim Season?

season starts 4

A new swim season is about to start, and in the process of preparing my annual training plan I decided to investigate how other swim teams and other sports team start off their seasons. After all, I’ve borrowed enough ideas from cycling and other sports that its possible they have some good ideas in this area as well.

What I found was a bewildering and scary variety of ways to start a season. I’m sure not all of them are relevant to swimming, based on significantly different use of energy systems, length of the sport’s season, and individual goals of the coaches, but it still surprised me.

Early season training theories can be broken down into three broad categories.

Hard Early Training

This category was easily the most common one when looking across sports. Interestingly, the emphasis typically comes with a complete acknowledgement of a relative lack of focus on technique. The idea seems to be to get them in shape, and then worry about technique later. For land-based sports this often involves a LOT of running, which makes sense if the running technique is already sound, or of relatively little importance to the sport. Surprising to me, many swim teams adopt this attitude as well. There doesn’t seem to be much concern about pounding out the swimming distance without ensuring proper technique.

An extreme variation of this is the hell week. It’s amazing to me how many sports teams start off the season with a hell week. Everybody from high school football to local hockey teams to university sports teams like to start the season off with a complete shock to the system. I was surprised to find out that a local non-swim team just started out their season with a hell week, with a first practice that involved up to 2 hours of …read more

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A Look at Slower Second Swims

disappointed swimmer

Slower second (or third) swims in an event seems to be a topic that nobody wants to discuss. After all, since these swims usually only happen at bigger meets, swimming slower isn’t something that people want to draw a lot of attention to. But it’s part of the process and needs to be looked at.

For those of you who aren’t aware of the term, second or third swims refer to usually bigger meets where the swimmer makes semi-finals and possibly finals, and gets to swim the event again. A slower second swim means the swimmer swam slower than the time that got them to that semi-final or final. In other words, when it came time to perform big, the swimmer didn’t come through.

As a coach, I’ve certainly seen these swims many times, and the phenomena intrigues me. Why do these slower second swims happen? And how do they happen?

Why do slower second swims happen?

The question of ‘why?’ appears to boil down to one or more of three things: preparation, experience, and strategy.


It’s hard to imagine that veteran swimmers don’t know how to physically or nutritionally prepare for a second swim. They’d have been through it many times in the past. The important question is whether they’ve mentally prepared themselves. Bigger meets have different protocols, waiting rooms, louder fans, more pressure, etc. Visualizing and mentally rehearsing the process are some of the tools here. But again, they should all know that. For top swimmers, preparation shouldn’t be a problem, but it might be for regional level swimmers.


Inexperience can be a big factor at every level, even the Olympics. Every time a swimmer reaches a new level, it’s a new experience. Some handle it without a problem, while others get distracted by the different energy and pace, by the different distractions …read more

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Swimming By the Numbers: How Elite Men Swim the 200 IM

Michael Phelps

It’s the men’s turn this time. Last week we looked at the 200 IM for women, and determined that it was slightly more oriented towards distance than sprinting, all seem to have strong butterfly splits and much wider split variations for the other 3 strokes, and the fastest tended to have the fastest freestyle splits. Now we’ll see how the men fare.

The 200 IM is a little more difficult to figure out than stroke 200s, as any combination of stroke strengths can combine to form a 200 IM. It’s pretty much a given that you can’t be an elite backstroker without being a strong backstroker.

That aside, I’ve come up with a way to look at the numbers, which brings us to this blog.

The Data

The data set consists of 24 elite swimmers at the time of the 2012 Olympics. I used the fastest 24 times and associated splits from the Olympics and the US Olympic Trials. For each swimmer, I used the fastest time they swam during the competition, and not just their last swim.

I also wanted a way to determine if the swimmer was sprint oriented or distance oriented, or in-between. So I added some analysis by gathering each swimmer’s 50 Free LC PB, 200 Free LC PB and 400 IM LC PB. These are swims that the vast majority of the elite 24 had. I was able to collect or estimate all of the 50 Free PBs, since most of these swimmers either swam a 50, 100 or relay 100 at a big meet in 2012 or 2011. Every selected swimmer has a 200 Free PB individually or on a relay. Interestingly, I had the most problems with the 400 IM. Six of the 200 IM elite 24 had no record of a 400 IM from 2010 to 2012. …read more

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