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During springtime, many swimmers transition from winter short course training and racing into summer long course season.  Though some teams have the option to alternate long course and short course throughout the year, others swim exclusively in one swimming pool setup regardless of the current competitive season.   We all know that SCY and LCM feel extremely different and have different intervals and race durations.  But what’s exactly underlying these differences and how can we make adjustments, if any?
The most obvious difference between short and long course is the number of turns: “SCY races are a series of events joined together to form a single race.  A swimming phase followed by a turning phase followed by an underwater kicking phase.   Although the same can be said for LCM swimming, the duration of the swimming phases in SCY swimming are very different (Skinner).”   Because swimmers alternate different phases more frequently during short course swimming, the swimming portion can occur at a higher velocity, not only due to “breaks” but also because swimmers achieve the highest velocity off the turns (assuming the turn is not horrible).

Skinner adds, “[a]common denominator in long course race analysis (USA athletes) is the constant stroke rate degradation that occurs on every lap of every race.  It is the extreme exception when I see an athlete maintain their stroke rate across the pool, and in some cases there is a significant drop off in stroke rate during the second half of each lap of the race.  Bottom line here is the fact that the athlete is unable to sustain their neural function all the way across the pool and this leads to significant losses that aren’t that easy to see.”
Keskinen (2007) formally studied different pool lengths (SCM and LCM) and noted the following differences:
  • Significantly higher blood lactate levels for the 50m pool compared to 25m at each point of curve comparing swimming velocity with blood lactate.   
  • Heart rate values were significantly higher LCM.   
  • Maximum swimming velocity was significantly higher in 25m pool owing to the turns.
  • The turning benefit via SCM correlated with the difference in maximal speed, difference in maximal force in tethered swimming baseline test, and the difference in countermovement jump performance.  (Related to dryland jump performance, note also Potdevin (2011), finding a positive effect of plyometric training on starts and turns, but not on kicking propulsion.)
An earlier Keskinen (1996) study assessed biomechanical changes between the two pools. Dr. Rushall summarized this study with the following points:
  • “Stroke length was shorter in all conditions in 50 m swims, the diminution in length increasing as swimming speed increased. Stroke control was better maintained in 25 m pools.
  • Stroke length shortened in both pools at anaerobic threshold.
  • Elite athletes demonstrated high levels of turning skills and used this skill to a greater advantage in short-course swimming than lesser-skilled swimmers.
  • The extra turns in short-course swimming have a direct effect on swimming stroke and metabolic economy. Long course swimming requires higher metabolic activity while stroke length is decreased. The rests for cyclic arm and shoulder activity afforded by the extra 25 m pool turns allows some recovery in energy capacity.
  • The faster an athlete swims in a 50 m pool the shorter will be stroke length relative to 25 m similar-velocity swims and the greater will be the metabolic cost.”
Practical application
One suggestion to prepare for long course events while training in a short course pool is to increase set and rep length if trying to replicate specific sets.  For example, 200yd repeats could become 250yd repeats as specific prep for long course events.  Also remain cognizant of inevitable changes to stroke mechanics when alternating between pool setups.  

Additionally, because turns play a less important role in long course, explosive dryland dedicated for turns should be deemphasized for long course relative to other training objectives.  However, though most long course training takes place during summer months when time restrictions are lessened, the total volume of dryland may actually increase in total but decrease as a percentage.  Whenever total volume increases, the attention to injury prevention efforts must increase correspondingly to ensure the athletes can absorb changes in load, particularly when mixed with changes in pool setup.

Finally, remember that regardless of your swimming pool setup, it is still possible to succeed under any conditions.  Some foreign countries swim almost exclusively long course and succeed at short course meets (whether SCM internationally or SCY in the US college system), while some Americans succeed internationally with limited LCM training compared to their foreign counterparts.     
  1. Keskinen OP, Keskinen KL, Mero AA.  Effect of pool length on blood lactate, heart rate, and velocity in swimming.  Int J Sports Med. 2007 May;28(5):407-13. Epub 2006 Nov 16.
  2. Keskinen, K. L., Keskinen, O. P., & Mero, A. (1996). Effects of pool length on biomechanical performance in front crawl swimming. In J. P. Troup, A. P. Hollander, D. Strasse, S. W. Trappe, J. M. Cappaert, & T. A. Trappe (Eds.), Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming VII (pp. 216-220). London: E & FN Spon.
  3. Skinner, J.  Has Short Course Yards Affected Freestyle Technique
  4. Skinner, J.  Is Short Course Yards USA Swimming’s Achilles Heel
  5. Potdevin FJAlberty MEChevutschi APelayo PSidney MC.  Effects of a 6-week plyometric training program on performances in pubescent swimmers.  J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jan;25(1):80-6. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181fef720.


By Allan Phillips. Allan and his wife Katherine are heavily involved in the strength and conditioning community, for more information refer to Pike Athletics.

Dr. John Mullen, DPT, CSCS world-renowned physical therapist and strength coach.
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