Use it or Lose it?

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Many swimmers find themselves out of the water during the summer. Some avoid practice due to pure laziness without their scholastic coach to hold them accountable. (See Offseason SUPing for a discussion of cross training options) Others get rewarded with time off after a long build for Olympic Trials, summer nationals, or some other goal meet. Optimal time off (if any) is up for debate and will vary by individual. Because everyone takes time off in their careers whether voluntarily or involuntarily, it is useful to understand the effects of time away and the mechanisms behind performance decrements.

Loss of feel is obvious. We don’t need science to tell any swimmer that a few days out of the water leaves one feeling like a combination of Edward Scissorhands and an inebriated octopus. Unlike terrestrial sports, swimming takes place in the unnatural aquatic environment. Strange as it sounds, walking around the mall may preserve some neural input for running without actually running, but unless you get in the water to swim, feel for the water will inevitably deteriorate. (Check out the COR ShoulderSystem for a complete discussion on the role of neural input!)

Physiological components are easier to measure than feel but we should not rely on them entirely for analysis. Feel is hard to measure itself and even more nebulous in multivariate analysis, so we’re left with piecing together various studies to reach conclusions. How the body reacts after a layoff depends on a complex mix of physiology, feel, and technique.
A few months ago Dr. John reviewed a classic study (Neufer 1987) that examined the effect of reduced training. (Amount of Neural Input in Swimming) To recap: After a five month competitive season, highly trained swimmers previously averaging 9k per day, 6 days per week, were divided into three groups: 1) 3x per week training 3k per day; 2) 1x per week training 3k that day, and 3) group that did not train.

After four weeks, swim bench power output did not decrease in any group, even the inactivity group. However, in-water power output did decrease significantly for all groups. Because swim bench power was maintained while in-water power output decreased, Dr. John indicated much of this difference may result from lack of neural input or feel. (See also, Mujika 2001…”Strength performance in general is readily maintained for up to 4 weeks of inactivity, but highly trained athletes' eccentric force and sport-specific power, and recently acquired isokinetic strength, may decline significantly.”)

Another way to isolate to physiology from feel is to take swimming out of the picture. Consider the non-swimming study by Reitens (2001), which looked at highly trained cyclists in a twenty-one day reduced training block. Cycling is a relatively simple task (especially in a lab) and controls for “technique” or “feel” variables by removing them from the equation. Twelve male cyclists entered the study having previously averaged sixteen hours per week. For the three week study, they reduced training to three days per week for two hours per day. They broke into two groups: One group performed continuous training for two hours while another group performed intermittent or interval training. After three weeks, both groups maintained fitness at pre-study levels. Neither group showed any changes in maximal workload but during a follow up submaximal steady state exercise test, substrate use and heart rate remained unchanged.

One thing standing out both in the field and in the literature is the stark difference between minimal training and zero training. Minimal training may seem like zero training when someone is used to long days with double practices, but the difference between a bare minimum and zero training is immense. Looking back to the Neufer (1987) study, note specifically the difference between the 3x per week group and what happens with total inactivity. The 3x per week group reduced training by 83% from in-season yet had no change in maximal oxygen uptake, stroke rate, or stroke length after four weeks. Yes, power output decreased and lactate increased in a 200yard time trial, but subjectively these numbers suggest the athletes were still “in touch” with their normal fitness.
Contrast this group to the negative adaptations with total inactivity. A companion study by Costill (1985) also examined highly trained swimmers taking four inactive weeks after a five month season. Biopsy specimens from the deltoid muscle revealed that its respiratory capacity decreased by 50%. Blood glycogen decreased significantly after four weeks and blood lactate levels in a 200yard time trial at 90% effort more than doubled (4.2 mmol pre-study; 9.7 post-study).

Time off may affect different types of athletes differently. Sprinters may experience less performance deterioration than distance athletes. Although swim specific power erodes during time off and during significantly reduced training, a strength base still remains for at least a month, as demonstrated by Neufert (1987). Contrast that to the effect on the aerobic system: time off produces a “rapid decline in VO2max and a reduced cardiac output characterized reduced stroke volume insufficiently counterbalanced by increased heart rate.” (Mjuka 2001)

Further, experience may help athletes regain fitness after a lengthy break. Mujika (2001) also noted that “recently acquired VO2max gains are completely lost after training stoppage periods longer than 4 weeks.” Middle distance athletes with years of high level training (i.e., Phelps, Hansen, Beard) are better positioned to return from a lengthy break than a young swimmer who recently established new PR’s.

There may be times when complete breaks are necessary and the temporary loss of fitness is worth absorbing. Such analysis depends on several factors from age, experience, goals, and event specialty. Most important is to understand the effect of time off upon the athlete’s physical state when training resumes. Given these physiological adaptations, what was once an easy workout may become a significant stressor after a hiatus.
If an athlete breaks down during heavy training, perhaps it’s not the heavy training that did them in, but instead that overreaching at the beginning of the season that left them weakened upon commencement of heavier training. Use these concepts to refine athlete monitoring procedures and to establish accurate baselines in the early season if the athlete is returning from a break.

  1. Rietjens GJKeizer HAKuipers HSaris WH. A reduction in training volume and intensity for 21 days does not impair performance in cyclists. Br J Sports Med. 2001 Dec;35(6):431-4.
  2. Mujika IPadilla S. Muscular characteristics of detraining in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Aug;33(8):1297-303.
  3. Mujika IPadilla S. Cardiorespiratory and metabolic characteristics of detraining in humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2001 Mar;33(3):413-21.
  4. Costill DLFink WJHargreaves MKing DSThomas RFielding R. Metabolic characteristics of skeletal muscle during detraining from competitive swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1985 Jun;17(3):339-43.
  5. Neufer PDCostill DLFielding RAFlynn MGKirwan JP. Effect of reduced training on muscular strength and endurance in competitive swimmers. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1987 Oct;19(5):486-90.
By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.


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