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Data Source: Zamparo P, Bonifazi M (2013). Bioenergetics of cycling sports activities in water.

Coded for Swimming Science by Cameron Yick

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Is "Swim Specific" Dryland Really "Swim Specific"?

Take Home Points
  1. Many dryland methods touted as swim specific really are not swim specific
  2. Mimicking the swim stroke on land may contribute to overtraining, motor confusion
  3. Dryland can be used to teach basic movement patterns (especially at the individual level), but consider the doses in which it is delivered
Swim specificity is a common justification for many dryland activities. And it makes sense that we might use gym time to impart techniques that may be difficult to teach in the middle of a crowded pool with no ability to verbally coach instructions. This is not unique to swimming, as many coaches try to replicate sporting demands in the gym away from the sometimes chaotic environment of the competitive arena. But is this really a “best practice,” especially at advanced levels?

Swim specificity takes many forms from bands, swim bench, balls, and even improvised contraptions such as the one shown below.

Let’s explore this closely as an example. Now, there may be some elements of this exercise which are “swim specific”: long axis alignment, early vertical forearm, body rotation. However, these elements are mitigated by non-swim specific elements such as fixed dorsiflexed ankles, no head rotation for breathing, and the fact that you are on land.

There may be benefits from using dryland to teach parts of the stroke such as early vertical forearm, pointed ankles, hip internal rotation, as self-awareness can be a major hurdle in the early stages of skill acquisition. But once a swimmer is proficient, does performing mimicry exercises actually aid the stroke in the water?

Bearing a resemblance to the stroke is insufficient justification for mimicry. For example, many coaches attempt to mimic early vertical forearm on land, as it is a difficult skill to communicate in the water for many swimmers. Early vertical forearm is not just early vertical forearm…how each individual’s forearm moves is often predicated upon imperceptible microadjustments. Forcing the shoulders into high repetitions of exercise stressing the shoulders can cause problems, especially with injury risks so high in the sport.

"A lot of emphasis is put on “sport-specific” movements (swim bench, cable crossovers, straight arm pulldowns, etc.). Unfortunately, the transference of these movements is uncertain and likely minimal to the sports of swimming. Every land exercise you create is far from the demands in the pool. Despite visual similarities, every swimmer uses unique yet imperceptible microadjustments in their strokes to optimize balance, force, and deceleration. It is impossible to replicate these movements on land and attempting to be too “sport specific” may lead to confused motor programming." (Mullen 2012)

“The intent is not to produce mimicry of sport during training. Of utmost importance during training is that key dysfunctions are improved. The goal of training is not to teach perfect patterns, but to correct the key fault that is causing trouble.” As to the key fault in swimmers, this may be shoulder range of motion, scapular stability, asymmetries, or pain, among other general physical traits that can be addressed on land. (Lewitt 1999, Liebenson 2014)

Further, is “swim specific” dryland the best use of time? Many choices exist on how to spend dryland time, from general strengthening, recovery, mental practice, plyometrics for starts/turns. With sometimes more than 20 hours in the water, is a few minutes of land based swim mimicry going to create meaningful improvements (if so, I’d suggest you analyze room for improvement in the 20 hours spent in the water.)

A related point is with unstable surface training, which is often presented as “swim specific.” But as noted by Behm (2012)

"Some of the characteristics of IRT exercises that are not conducive to optimal strength or power training for athletes, may be favorable for rehabilitation. The instability‐induced deficits in force compared to traditional stable RT exercises, which dampen the strength training stimuli in trained individuals, can be of sufficient intensity for a recuperating muscle." (Behm 2012)


This is ultimately one area where reasoning and common sense must prevail as classifying “swim specific” versus general would be difficulty for research as a qualitative classification. Also, because there are a finite number of possible movement patterns, there will always be cross over between “swim specific” and general exercises. It is one thing to troubleshoot a particular stroke deficit that you believe is better addressed on land, but it is quite another to fill your dryland workout exercise plate with exercises that merely look similar to swim mechanics.


  1. Mullen, J. Five Considerations When Training Swimmers.
  3. Lewitt, K. Manipulative Therapy in Rehabilitation of the Locomotor System. 3ed. Oxford: Butterworth Heinemann, 1999.
  4. Liebenson, C. Functional Training Handbook. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer, 2014. 

Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Training Paralympic Swimmers, Part II

Take Home Points on Training Paralympic Swimmers, Part II
  1. Asymmetry is related to disability classification in Paralympic swimmers
  2. Level of disability appears related to impairment of start velocity
  3. Dryland may improve Paralympic swim performance, but the same questions remain about dryland as with regular swimming
Paralympic swimming has grown enormously in stature during recent Olympic cycles. Once an afterthought compared to “regular” Olympic events, the Paralymipcs have attracted more high level athletes each year, with interest continuing to grow. While basic swimming principles remain uniform compared to able bodied swimmers, certain adjustments are required. 

We have previously reviewed literature on Paralympic swimming (Part I), but recently the team of Dingley et al (2014) published a series of studies on starts and dryland specific to Paralympic swimmers.

In the article on starts the team found:
  • Swimmers with no physical disability were significantly faster in most swim-start phases compared with those with physical disabilities 
  • Swimmers with low-severity disabilities were also significantly faster in starts compared with the mid- and high-severity groups. (Note: this study includes only Paralympic swimmers but not all classifications are considered physical disabilities) 
  • Block velocity was highly negatively correlated with 15-mswimming time for all groups except high-severity disabilities. 
  • Free-swim velocity is a priority area for improving swim-starts for swimmers regardless of disability. 
  • Swimmers with lower body or high-severity disabilities spent a smaller percentage of time overall in the underwater phase. 
Overall, the trends are relatively similar than what we’d expect to find in able bodied swimmers, with block velocity relating to 15m swim time. Key take home from this research is confirming that physical ability is an individual quality and training should be individualized to each swimmer’s capability.

Asymmetry has been a recent topic on thissite. While asymmetry is a key element for able bodied swimmers, asymmetry has greater importance for Paralympic swimmers who may be missing limbs. In a study on force production among Paralympic swimmers, the same research team noted:

Large relationships between mean force and swimming velocity were seen for both the high and low-range groups. 

Asymmetry was related to level of disability, with the smallest difference of in the no-musculoskeletal disability group. This difference increased to in the high- and low-range groups.
Between the first and last 15 s of the swim-bench test, reductions in mean force were small for the physical disabilities groups. 

Changes in asymmetry were small for both the no-physical and low-range groups. Paralympic swimmers with a more severe physical impairment typically generate substantially lower force and velocity.

These results make intuitive sense, but it should be noted that data was collected on a swim bench, so transfer to the water is unclear. However, the same neural drive components may affect force production making the data somewhat instructive for organizing a training approach.

Finally, in a study on dryland by the same team, authors analyzed the effect of dryland on Paralympic swimmers. This definitely is not a perfect study (low sample size, no control group) but it does add information to a niche in where limited information exists. In this study, subjects performed a full body dryland routine. Results from seven elite Paralympic swimmers showed:
  1. 50-m time trials improved by 1.2% 
  2. Increases in both mean power (6.1%, ±5.9%) and acceleration (3.7%, ±3.7%) generated during the dive start enabled swimmers to substantially improve start times to the 5-m (5.5%, ±3.2) and 15-m (1.8%, ±1.1%) marks. 
Despite these results, similar questions remain about the relationship of dryland to swim performance (much too long a discussion to reengage in this post!).


Overall, nothing groundbreaking with this work, but remember that research is a long term process. As Paralympic swimming gains prominence, hopefully more research will emerge specific to disability categories, as each classification has its own unique demands. 


  1. Dingley A1, Pyne DB, Burkett B. Phases of the Swim-start in Paralympic Swimmers are Influenced by Severity and Type of Disability. J Appl Biomech. 2014 Oct;30(5):643-648. Epub 2014 Jul 9.
  2. Dingley AA1, Pyne D2, Burkett B3. Dry-land Bilateral Hand-force Production and Swimming Performance in Paralympic Swimmers. Int J Sports Med. 2014 Oct;35(11):949-53. doi: 10.1055/s-0033-1364023. Epub 2014 Jun 3.
  3. Dingley AA1, Pyne DB, Youngson J, Burkett B. Effectiveness of a dry-land resistance training program on strength, power andswimming performance in Paralympic swimmers. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Sep 15. [Epub ahead of print]
Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Kinesiotape for Swimmers: Length, Strength and Timing. Part II

Take Home Points on Kinesiotape and Swimmers:
  1. The evidence does not suggest that kinesiotape aids athletic performance
  2. Kinesiotape may affect knee mechanics and improve pain in those with patellorfemoral pain syndrome
  3. Kinesiotape has been shown to increase acromiohumeral distance, potentially limiting risk for shoulder impingement symptoms. 
This is not a new topic to this blog (See Part I). But like any topic, one snapshot of the evidence is never the final word. So is there anything new to report in the literature on kinesiotape, especially as it may relate to swimming?

Overall, the general consensus is that the performance effects of kinesiotape are negligible to non-existent. Fortunately though, there appear to be no detrimental effects on performance (minus the potential opportunity cost of forgoing other potentially more effective mechanisms). 

In a recent systematic review, Drouin (2013) noted, “There is scant evidence to support kinesiotaping techniques as a successful means of affecting athletic-based performance outcomes such as improved strength, proprioception and range of motion, in healthy persons.” This appears to be definitive statement on the effects of kinesiotaping, but does it end the discussion?

One problem is that in most studies, kinesiotape is applied randomly as opposed to particular subjects for whom kinesiotaping is theorized to work. While the latter approach may sacrifice objectivity for potential bias, the latter may be more reflective of how the intervention is applied in real life. Be careful of labeling any intervention as “good” or “bad” as a blanket statement. Instead, the follow up should be “good or bad for whom?” It is a mistake to justify kinesiotape for performance based of any supporting literature for injury/pain, just as it is mistaken to outright dismiss kinesiotape as a clinical adjunct based on a lack of evidence to support performance improvements. 

Swimmers often focus on taping for the shoulder, but don’t forget the possibilities in the lower extremities, particularly for dryland and breaststroke. Song (2014) recently found that kinesiotaping caused significant shifts in patellar positioning in females with patellofemoral pain syndrome compared to the application of sham tape or a no tape condition during a single leg squat. However, both the sham tape and kinesiotape were successful in pain reduction. 

One especially pertinent study for swimming (Luque-Suarez 2013) published after our previous blog post, examined whether kinesiotape affects acromiohumerdal distance in healthy subjects (a potential measure of shoulder impingement risk). Authors of this randomized controlled trial noted that although the kinesiotape group had significantly greater increases in acromiohumeral distance compared to the sham taping group, direction of taping did not matter.


Overall, little has changed in the evidence on kinesiotape, especially regarding the lack of support for its theorized improvement on performance. However, recent studies have opened relatively new lines of inquiry regarding potential improvements in knee and shoulder biomechanics, both of which may be helpful for swimming health and technique.


  1. Luque-Suarez A1, Navarro-Ledesma S, Petocz P, Hancock MJ, Hush J. Short term effects of kinesiotaping on acromiohumeral distance in asymptomatic subjects: a randomised controlled trial. Man Ther. 2013 Dec;18(6):573-7. doi: 10.1016/j.math.2013.06.002. Epub 2013 Jul 4.
  2. Song CY1, Huang HY1, Chen SC2, Lin JJ3, Chang AH4. Effects of femoral rotational taping on pain, lower extremity kinematics, and muscle activation in female patients with patellofemoral pain. J Sci Med Sport. 2014 Jul 24. pii: S1440-2440(14)00135-2. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2014.07.009. [Epub ahead of print]
  3. Drouin JL1, McAlpine CT, Primak KA, Kissel J. The effects of kinesiotape on athletic-based performance outcomes in healthy, active individuals: a literature synthesis. J Can Chiropr Assoc. 2013 Dec;57(4):356-65.
Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Dealing with Anticipated Stress

Take Home Points on Dealing with Anticipated Stress
  1. How athletes deal with anticipated is often overlooked in communicating
  2. Elite performers show increased activity of the insular cortex to anticipate adverse events
  3. Psychology intersects with our understanding of the central governor hypothesis
We all know the feeling of an impending hard set, or on a bigger picture, a hard training block or even a Hell Week.  Anticipation of such an event may even trigger physiological responses: pangs of nervousness, sweating, and perhaps nausea.  Yet we also know that under stress, the best athletes simply cope better than lesser athletes?  What may differentiate the elite from the average?

"Individuals optimize exercise level as it relates to differences between expected and experienced exertion, which can be conceptualized as a body prediction error. The process of computing a body prediction error involves the insular cortex, which is important for interoception, i.e. the sense of the physiological condition of the body." (Paulus 2012)

Elite military operators have been shown to be more adept than control subjects in this realm.  Previous research has shown greater neural processing by Navy SEALs in response to threat stimuli via heightened right insular cortex activation.  (Paulus 2012) One interesting note from studies of elite military selection schools is how many candidates drop out of training in the first day.  Surely, the matter is not physical as training has hardly begun.  Not everyone has the physical and mental capability for elite performance in any genre, but it is enlightening to see the power of the mind in this area

In plain terms, this discussion simply means swimmers may psyche themselves out not from current distress but from anticipated future distress.  Interestingly, the general mechanisms may be similar to the proposed theories behind the central governor, which states that physical output reflects our brain’s perception of physical status.  ("During self-paced exercise, the exercise work rate is regulated by the brain based on the integration of numerous signals from various physiological systems. It has been proposed that the brain regulates the degree of muscle activation and thus exercise intensity specifically to prevent harmful physiological disturbances" (Tucker 2009))

Practical Implication
Now, certainly this information can be used to drive swimmers to push harder through discomfort.  There are many different strategies to cope with the discomfort of a hard effort.  But that’s not our main focus here.  Instead, what about the buildup to a hard effort? 

While functional MRIs to measure insular cortex activity are not readily available poolside, simple strategies may help many swimmers.  Ultimately, the key is for swimmers to have strategies to deal with anticipated stress   Everyone responds to different cues.  Some may respond best to an environment in which the enormity of a hard task is minimized.  Others may respond best to getting pumped up by coaches and teammates. 

Key point is to understand that particular physiological mechanisms underlie psychological strategies.  How we think in this realm will ultimately affect our physiology.  Coaches must create the right environment for athletes to choose the best strategies for themselves to handle future physical stress.


  1. Tucker R.  The anticipatory regulation of performance: the physiological basis for pacing strategies and the development of a perception-based model for exercise performance.Br J Sports Med. 2009 Jun;43(6):392-400. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2008.050799. Epub 2009 Feb 17.
  2. Paulus MP1, Simmons ANFitzpatrick SNPotterat EGVan Orden KFBauman JSwain JL.PLoS One. Differential brain activation to angry faces by elite warfighters: neural processing evidence for enhanced threatdetection.2010 Apr 14;5(4):e10096. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0010096.
  3. Paulus MP1, Flagan TSimmons ANGillis KKotturi SThom NJohnson DCVan Orden KFDavenport PWSwainJLSubjecting elite athletes to inspiratory breathing load reveals behavioral and neural signatures of optimalprformers in extreme environments. PLoS One. 2012;7(1):e29394. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0029394. Epub 2012 Jan 19.
Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Should Coaches Change Asymmetries in Swimmers: Part III

Take Home Points on Should Coaches Change Asymmetries in Swimmers: Part III
  1. An appearance of asymmetry does not automatically imply asymmetry of function
  2. Asymmetrical strokes may be related to physical characteristics and physiological capacity
  3. Working with an asymmetrical stroke is a mix of science and art
In previous posts we have reviewed literature on swimming and asymmetries (Part I, Part II). This installment will integrate information recently published by Dr. Formosa, summarized in his interview. What seems like a simple issue can get very complex when we look at all the factors involved. Many kids have had their strokes changed simply because a coach did not like how the stroke looked. Now, I’m not suggesting that kids should be allowed to swim without correction, but rather that correction must rely on more than “it looks bad.” 

Before getting to the interview, recall from a prior post in this series that, "Despite attempts to impose ideal symmetry, a perfectly symmetrical stroke and body are both unrealistic. We all have favored brain hemispheres, eye, ear and limb preferences along with structural differences in how our organs sit within our bodies. Asymmetry may also follow us into the water. But there is still good reason to make swimmers “less asymmetrical” even perfect symmetry is a fiction."

Nearly every swimmer brings asymmetries to the water. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; just something to be accounted for when dealing with technique. A key point from the literature is that we can’t fully determine functional symmetry without measuring force. Yet surely there are ways to estimate whether someone is symmetrical or not, which leads us to Dr. Formosa’s work. 

As Dr. Formosa summarized, 

"The front crawl and backstroke research papers highlight that although an athlete may present with a similar timing from hand entry to hand exit the force profile that they are producing through the water is variable. Therefore, it should not be assumed that if a swimmer presents with a symmetrical timing pattern their force profile is also symmetrical. 

Further, elite athletes that apply force in water based sports such as rowing and kayaking have the ability to subtly manipulate their stroke to optimise force production. The complexity of symmetry is evident with the findings that although athletes demonstrated symmetrical timing their net drag force values were asymmetrical." (Formosa 2011, 2012, 2013)

Practical Application

While better swimmers often deliver force symmetrically, HOW they accomplish via individual can vary greatly and requires a more critical thought process than simply how the swimmer looks. The practical implication here is that coaches must consider all the information. 

We have written previously about movement screening to learn more about swimmers’ individual qualities. Not everyone has access to high tech underwater force measurement devices, but knowing your swimmer’s physical baseline is valuable. Some swimmers move their arms asymmetrically in 2D video but ultimately produce power with symmetry. 

Breathing patterns are also key factors, as preferred breathing style may lead swimmers to gravitate toward an asymmetrical looking stroke. Prior injury may also lead swimmers to develop protective patterns around injury. Yet thanks to the amazing plasticity of the brain, talented athletes can learn to develop force symmetrically despite lasting mechanical limitations. The extent to which this actually happens has yet to be studied but is a possible line of inquiry for future research as the foundation of the current literature on asymmetries expands. 


  1. Formosa, D. P., Mason, B., & Burkett, B. (2011). The force-time profile of elite front crawl swimmers. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29 (8), 811-819.
  2. Formosa, D. P., Sayers, M., & Burkett, B (2012). Front-crawl stroke-coordination and symmetry: A comparison between timing and net drag force protocols. Journal of Sports Sciences, 31 (7), 759 – 66.
  3. Formosa, D. P., Sayers, M., & Burkett, B. Symmetry of elite backstroke swimmers utilising an instantaneous force profile. Journal of Sports Sciences, Accepted 5th July 2013.
Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Programming the Plank for Swimming

Take Home Points Programming the Plank for Swimming
  1. Consider planking options such as the hardstyle plank and suspension trainer planks for shorter durations rather than endurance planks
  2. Planks are easy to teach, but hard to do well
  3. Hardstyle planking may transfer more effectively to lifting exercises than endurance planks
The plank is a common exercise used on the pool deck for dryland programs, for good reason. It requires minimal equipment and is fairly easy to instruct. In general, it is also relatively safe, though as we’ll discuss below, improper form and loading can cause problems. It’s not likely to make arms and legs sore for swimming, yet can give swimmers a good burn to give them buy-in for the program. Further, being an exercise based on straight body alignment, it can be seen as relatively swim specific (though this point is highly debatable and probably the weakest justification for including planks in a program).

Yet the traditional plank has several weaknesses. Though relatively easy to teach (Compared to something like Olympic lifts), it is easy for quality control to suffer, as backs can sag and necks can protrude. To this last point, it all depends on how you program the move. Traditional planking involves rounding up swimmers into a circle on the deck, giving a ready-set-go command and having everyone plank for a length of time while. As groaning increases, backs begin to sag, breathing technique suffers, overall exercise quality becomes scattershot. And with many different levels a group, the strongest go unchallenged while the weakest often lose form. 

Enter the Hardstyle Plank (often referred to as the RKC plank). Dr. John did a video on this for Swimming World, and this was also a key exercise in the lumbar spine section of the Swimming TroubleshootingSystem. As he explained previously,
  • Lie on your stomach, then prop yourself on your forearms and toes. 
  • Keep your spine long, by tucking your pelvis and tightening your core musculature. Also, keep your chin tucked to further enhance the streamlined position. 
  • Once this is accomplished, the athlete can begin tightening their glutes, then their thighs, then attempting to squeeze their thighs together, and lastly attempt pulling their arms down. 
  • These adaptations should be added slowly without compromising the streamlined position. 
  • Perform for approximately 20 seconds. 

Though not studied in peer reviewed literature, Bret Contreras (friend of the blog, see Bret Contreras interview) has conducted EMG studies showing the hardstyle plank for increasing muscle activation significantly for several muscles compared to traditional plank, with the hardstyle plank increased lower abdominal activation by approximately 4x. Again, this isn’t formal research, but Bret is an experienced EMG operator and these results do give insight into compare different strategies.

Also consider that not all increases in muscle activity are good, yet for the plank muscle activity is good as a way to teach full body tension without the distraction of hoisting a weight. Once this basic skill of tension is taught, then the focus can move to specific lifting technique (though it need not be a sequential process as you are always refining both). Further, control of the sagittal plane in the plank can help ease the transition into frontal and transverse plane movements in different plank variations. Progression is key and the hardstyle plank forms an effective foundation. 


In most dryland regimes, the traditional plank is a useful choice of exercise but quality control is essential. The hardstyle plank done intensely for 10-20 seconds is one means of quality control for a dryland regime that simultaneously trains more useful qualities than the ability to suffer in a plank position for extended periods.

Looking for new dryland programs for the Fall year, which includes plank and core progressions? Consider purchasing Dryland for Swimmers!

Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Base Training for Swimming

Take Home Points on Base Training for Swimming:
  1. Different approaches exist for base training
  2. Traditional approaches have focused on building an aerobic base through
  3. Base training should be more individualized than uniform application of high yardage to an entire squad
As swimmers transition from summer training to fall training, many programs move from a
competition focus to base focus.  The term base training is often discussed but often has varied interpretations on the pool deck.  Traditionally, base training has marked a return to less intense and more aerobically based swim training after a summer of racing.  Though some would describe base replenishing the aerobic system after a period of shorter distance focus, optimal dosage is less clear, particularly in determining transfer to shorter events.

One of the most referenced studies in swimming (Costill 1991) found that adding a period of two-a-days for increased mileage in the early portion of a training cycle did not lead to significant short term improvements, but did result in significant improvement after a late season taper.  Was it the traditional base training that led to improvement or some other factors?  Wakayohsi (1993) found that six months of aerobic base training improved 4 x 400m swim test velocity, but its unclear if this training would have effectively transferred to shorter distance racing.  (additionally, this study was only eight male swimmers with no control group).  

Care must also be taken to accommodate swimmers entering base from different starting points.  On a single team you can have swimmers who competed all summer in national and international meets, those who did consistent but not intense training, those who cross trained, and those who barely did anything.  Each type of swimmer will require a different approach, no matter how emotionally invested a coach is in his/her one-size-fits-all program (and no matter how much they want to punish the lazy swimmers who didn’t train during the summer).   This is a key but often overlooked point of base. 

'The longer and more substantial is this basic form of training, the better and longer an athlete will be able to hold a peak performance capability when serious competitions occur. The corollary to this statement is: an athlete's ability to hold a peak performance status is directly proportional to the amount of base (preparatory or background) training that is done." (Rushall 1994)

Now, while most would agree with this statement, the HOW is less clear.  Some interpret this to mean base training should include record setting yardage with ample doses of 400-1000yd repeats.  Others may interpret “longer and substantial” to mean never take a break.  In truth, the varying interpretations of base training reflect the nature of base training as being grounded in as much art as science.  True, it’s possible to measure baseline fitness through time trials, lactate, VO2max, etc but deciding how to improve those parameters and what to do with that information is less well established. 


Though many definitions of base exist, we should all agree that base is about preparing for the next phase of training.  Base can also be seen as having dual purposes, from preparing for future competitions while actively recovering from prior hard training.  This may also support the idea of planned time off in which swimmers focus on non-swimming activities.  

“The basic preparatory phase can include activities drawn from sports which are related to swimming. This phase of training would also include the greatest amount of auxiliary training.  However, because such activities are beneficial for establishing a physiological base, does not mean that they are just as beneficial when highly specialized training is employed. At that time they have the potential to disrupt refined neuromuscular patterns associated with skill.” (Rushall 1994)

Ultimately, base should be seen as simply that: a base.  Determine what the athlete needs for late season success and build the foundation from the base phase.  


  1. Wakayoshi K1, Yoshida TIkuta YMutoh YMiyashita M.  Adaptations to six months of aerobic swim training. Changes in velocity, stroke rate, stroke length and blood lactate.   Int J Sports Med. 1993 Oct;14(7):368-72.
  2. Costill DL1, Thomas RRobergs RAPascoe DLambert CBarr SFink WJ.  Adaptations to swimming training: influence of training volume.  Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991 Mar;23(3):371-7.
  3. Dr. Brent Rushall.  ANNUAL PLANNING FOR SWIMMING FITNESS.  Adapted from NSWIMMING COACHING SCIENCE BULLETIN: Volume 2 Number 6 - July-August, 1994.
Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

Adjusting to College Swimming

Take Home Points on Adjusting to College Swimming

    1. Managing stressors outside the pool is critical for an effective transition between age group and college swimming 
    2. Communication is key as swimmers adapt to new training programs 
    3. Sleep and nutrition are two areas that are common downfalls for swimmers making the transition to college
    The new school year marks a transition for swimmers across the country. An entire
    freshman class is not far from making their college swimming debuts. In this post, we’ll explore key issues in the transition from age group to college swimming.

    Sleep: Sleep has been a major topic on this site. (Sleep Restriction Impairs Performance, Does Extra Sleep Enhance Performance) Though early mornings are not unique to college, swimmers often walk a finer line with an adjustment to college life. The predictable rhythm of days filled with high school class and parental monitoring can give way to varied class schedules and curfew-less nightlife. Sleep also had recent attention in an NCAA report finding that swimmers had the highest use of sleep aids among college athletes. (Swimmers Biggest Users of Sleep Aids in NCAA

    Nutrition: Many programs have resources beyond what is offered in high school (athletic department nutritionists and athlete dining), but as with sleep, the onus is still largely on the swimmer to make good choices independently. (see Swimming Nutritional Program, Peri Workout Nutrition, Dr. Mougios interview, Dr. Rosenbloom interview, Dr Carvalho interview) In the same report cited above, college swimmers (especially females) were shown to have among the highest uses of nutritional supplements compared to other college athletes. 

    Training: Generally, swimmers will choose a program that is compatible with how their bodies historically respond to training. Kids with high yardage, lower intensity backgrounds will be more drawn to similar college programs. Likewise, kids with high intensity backgrounds may favor similar training at the college level. Still, despite recruiting overtures, not every match is perfect, leading some swimmers requiring more time for adjustment in the pool. Communication is key, as some coaches believe their "one-size-fits-all" program is beyond reproach, meaning that any poor performance is the swimmers fault in their eyes! 

    Little fish, big pond. For kids coming from nationally recognized clubs and who have major national and international meet experience, this is less of a shock having been in the water regularly with swimmers better than them. But for those in smaller programs and with more fragile mindsets, it can be a shock. Now, this reaction is perfectly normal and many swimmers do get more comfortable. Unfortunately though, many do not and fail to meet expectations. It is critical to see being surrounded by faster swimmers as an opportunity for growth, not a blow to the ego! 

    Travel: again, probably less adjustment for kids with national and international experience, but the frequency of out of state travel can be a new stressor, even for kids who have international experience. Finding yourself constantly on a bus or plane with school assignments looming is a different type of stress than big international trips during summer vacation. The frequent travel can also compound with other responsibilities, leading to…

    Academics, Social: It might seem odd to lump these two areas together, but both share the common theme of being non-swimming factors with the potential to heavily impact swimming. As with other factors, these too will depend on how the swimmer chooses to react to his/her new environment. History has shown that many swimmers can strike an effective balance, but it does take planning and the right mindset.


    The transition to the collegiate level is an exciting challenge for all. NCAA swimming represents some of the fastest swimming on the planet. Freshmen can establish a foundation for a successful swimming career by entering school with right mindset and by knowing where the most critical challenges reside. 

    Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

    Burnout Among Swim Coaches

    Take Home Points on Burnout Among Swim Coaches
    • Burnout among coaches is a “brain drain” on the sport.
    • Athletes may suffer if coaches are burned out.
    • Understanding causes of burnout is critical for long term development and retention of coaches.
    Burnout is a common but unfortunate topic in the swimming community. (Why do Young
    Swimmers Burnout? and How to Prevent Swimming Burnout) Many swimmers hang up the goggles long before reaching their potential. Sometimes frustration due to injury discourages swimmers from pressing onward. Other times, burnout is purely mental, where a swimmer is fed up with staring at the black line and living by the strict rhythm of the pace clock. 

    Now, no one said swimming (or any sport) at a high level is easy, so attrition is a natural byproduct of rising through the ranks. But most would agree that burnout is far too common. Veterans of the sport all know several swimmers who left the pool early with unmet physical potential. 

    Burnout among swimmers is frequently discussed, but what about burnout among coaches? Coaching swimming can be a tough gig…long and irregular hours, lost weekends, external pressure (parents, institutional, athletes). As a result, many coaches leave the profession before reaching their potential as coaches. This topic is especially poignant with many coaches desperately looking forward to some rest and relaxation after summer season. 

    If a young coach leaves the sport due to burnout, many mentorship hours have been squandered in the process. Secondly, burnout is not sudden, and many coaches aren’t able to give their athletes their very best if they are on the road to burnout. Additionally, potential coaches may be discouraged from entering the field if they suspect burnout will occur, which can contribute to negative self-fulfilling cycles. 

    Though swim coach burnout has not been a hot topic in research-land, there is still much to learn from other sports that have been studied. A survey among Turkish judo coaches (Gencay 2011) revealed “moderate” levels of burnout among those studied. The point here is not to study judo, but instead to explore generally why do coaches burnout? 

    This study found that coaching experience and (lack of) satisfaction from administrators both factored into emotional exhaustion. Authors concluded, “Burnout appears to be a problematic issue for judo coaches. When coaches begin to feel emotionally depleted, they distance themselves from athletes, and experience a reduced sense of meaning about their work; it is likely to affect the quality of the athletic experience for both the coach and the athletes.”

    Malinouskas (2010) found similar correlations among university coaches, with experience greater than 10 years being related to burnout, though gender was not related to burnout. Yet burnout has many dimensions beyond strictly mental depletion. Tashman (2010) studied coaches from multiple sports and found that maladaptive perfectionism (as contrasted with adaptive perfectionism) was linked to burnout.

    Additional research from the world of athletic training also can offer insight. Though athletic training is a completely different field than coaching, the job stresses are very similar: long irregular hours, pressure to perform, low to moderate pay relative to time worked. 

    “No matter their marital or family status, ATs employed at the Division I-A level experienced difficulties balancing their work and home lives. Sources of conflict primarily stemmed from the consuming nature of the profession, travel, inflexible work schedules, and lack of full-time staff members.” (Mazerolle 2008)

    Some of these factors are inherent for any job at high levels of sport. Travel and long hours are unavoidable, but other stressors can be managed. One similar theme that emerges is the role of leadership. In the coaching context, head coaches and administrators can shape the future of assistant coaches. 

    While there is certainly a balance to be had between being too tough and too lax, leaders in the field must recognize the influence they have on their subordinates. “The foundation for a successful work environment in the NCAA Division I clinical setting potentially can center on the management style of the supervisor, especially one who promotes teamwork among his or her staff members. Although a family-friendly work environment is necessary for work-life balance, each member of the athletic training staff must have personal strategies in place to fully achieve a balance.” (Mazerolle 2013)


    Despite the dark and gloomy tone of this article, most would agree that more viable opportunities exist in the coaching field than in the past. Performance levels among young swimmers continue to elevate, in part due to more free access to knowledge for young coaches. But the sport can always do better in cultivating young coaching talent. Understanding what potentially drives some coaching prospects out of the field is one step in the right direction. 


    1. Gencay S1, Gencay OA. Burnout among judo coaches in Turkey. J Occup Health. 2011;53(5):365-70. Epub 2011 Jul 20.
    2. Malinauskas R1, Malinauskiene V, Dumciene A. Burnout and perceived stress among university coaches in Lithuania. J Occup Health. 2010;52(5):302-7. Epub 2010 Aug 6.
    3. Tashman LS1, Tenenbaum G, Eklund R. The effect of perceived stress on the relationship between perfectionism and burnout in coaches. Anxiety Stress Coping. 2010;23(2):195-212. doi: 10.1080/10615800802629922.
    4. Mazerolle SM1, Bruening JE, Casa DJ. Work-family conflict, part I: Antecedents of work-family conflict in national collegiate athletic association division I-A certified athletic trainers. J Athl Train. 2008 Sep-Oct;43(5):505-12. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-43.5.505.
    5. Mazerolle SM1, Goodman A. Fulfillment of work-life balance from the organizational perspective: a case study. J Athl Train. 2013 Sep-Oct;48(5):668-77. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-48.3.24.
    Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

    Does Altitude Training Work for Swimming?: Part II

    Take Home Points on Does Altitude Training Work for Swimming?: Part II
    1. Individuality is a key point in recent literature on altitude training.
    2. Altitude may change biological markers, but changes in race swim speed are uncertain.
    3. Despite the prevalence of individuality, individual response is not a fixed trait.
    Altitude training is always a controversial topic in swimming and sports as a whole.  We
    have covered this topic before, but it is worthwhile to review the recent literature to note recent updates.  Many teams have taken swimmers to altitude locations during the summer and are anticipating meaningful improvements at late summer long course meets. 

    One key point in recent literature is how responses to altitude training are highly individual.  Though teams will often take an entire squad to an altitude site, swimmers under the same program may respond in highly varied ways to similar workouts.  Whereas certain athletes thrive on altitude, others may be overstressed just by the altitude exposure before factoring in training.  As Chapman writes (2013),

    “some athletes are clearly more negatively affected during exercise in hypoxia than other athletes. With careful screening, it may be possible to develop a protocol for determining which athletes may be the most negatively affected during competition and/or training at altitude.”

    Screening protocols may be effective but altitude responsiveness is a moving target.  McLean (2013) studied elite footballers in 19 and 18 day training camps at altitude spaced on year apart.  Most swimmers improved physiological markers through altitude training, but “the same individuals generally did not change their hemoglobin consistently from year to year. Thus, a 'responder' or 'non-responder' to altitude for hemoglobin does not appear to be a fixed trait.” 

    Many studies such as the one cited above will measure progress through hemoglobin levels.  But is this change in physiology meaningful to actual swimming performance? 

    Boone (2014) studied elite swimmers at a 3-4 week “live high-train high” altitude camp and compared them to a similar group training at sea level.  Authors noted that the altitude group improved hemoglobin mass and swim performance in the incremental step test and in the 3000m time trial more than the sea level group.  There was no significant difference between groups in the 4 x 50m test, though both groups did improve.  Thus, at least in this study, altitude appeared beneficial for swimming performance (but did they actually race faster when it mattered?). 

    Garvican-Lewis (2013) studied elite water polo players in Australia over repeated exposures to altitude training and likewise found improvements in hemoglobin mass.  However, because competition performance is determined by many factors (especially in water polo), authors were guarded with the conclusion "since match performance is nuanced by many factors it is impossible to ascertain whether the increased hemoglobin contributed to Australia's Bronze medal."


    As always with altitude training, remember that potential benefits may result from repeated exposure or through a sequestration effect in which swimmers may have the opportunity to focus on training without real world distractions.  Despite the abundance of literature, there’s still much we don’t fully understand.    

    Though there is nothing groundbreaking in the recent literature, be reminded about the importance of individuality, especially when it much more convenient to package a team into a single training plan at a camp.  Also critical is that responses within individual athletes may change over time.  


    1. Chapman RF.  The individual response to training and competition at altitude.  Br J Sports Med. 2013 Dec;47 Suppl 1:i40-4. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092837
    2. Bonne TC1, Lundby CJørgensen SJohansen LMrgan MBech SRSander MPapoti MNordsborg NB.  "Live High-Train High" increases hemoglobin mass in Olympic swimmers.  Eur J Appl Physiol. 2014 Jul;114(7):1439-49. doi: 10.1007/s00421-014-2863-4. Epub 2014 Mar 27.
    3. Garvican-Lewis LA1, Clark SAPolglaze TMcFadden GGore CJ.  Ten days of simulated live high:train low altitude training increases Hbmass in elite water polo players.  Br J Sports Med. 2013 Dec;47 Suppl 1:i70-3. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092746.
    4. McLean BD1, Buttifant DGore CJWhite KKemp J.  Year-to-year variability in haemoglobin mass response to two altitude training camps.  Br J Sports Med. 2013 Dec;47 Suppl 1:i51-8. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092744.

    Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.

    USRPT and the Concept of Failure

    Take Home Points on USRPT and the Concept of Failure
    1. Failing reps carries negative connotations, often leading to poor understanding of USRPT.
    2. Failure, as defined by the USRPT system, is a key element for set progress It is important to properly define failure for optimal application

    One of the most misunderstood yet critical elements of the USRPT system is the concept of failure.  For those currently applying USRPT in their own programs, this post will be very elementary.  But for those with a passing knowledge of USRPT, this post will hopefully clear up misunderstanding.  Unfortunately, a full description of USRPT is impossible in this single article, but most readers are at least aware that USRPT involves copious amounts of repetitions performed at (or very near) race pace. (for previous discussion on this site, see HIT, HIIT, USRPT, Traditional Training)

    With the growing awareness of the value in race pace training, more teams have
    integrated what they believe to be USRPT.  Certainly, completing many high quality, successful repetitions is a key component of any training plan.  Yet some might call low doses of race pace training to be relatively meaningless if performed in low volumes.  However, most would also agree that training to excess would stifle improvement as well. 

    Failure lies at the center of this discussion and is largely what separates the USRPT system from “just doing a bunch of race pace reps to cover our bases.”  When most think of failure, they think of complete physical failure where body is completely unable to perform the demands asked of it.  Best example is doing a weightlifting set in which the weight simply won’t move at the end of the set.  Now, complete failure in the pool is rare as the body can typically still function after a failed rep but at lower loads, even after complete exhaustion. (ie, Noakes Central Governor Theory...See Neural Fatigue and Swimming for related discussion)

    USRPT employs a different concept of failure, which we might define as goal time failure.  In goal time failure, it means the swimmer has failed to achieve the goal time for a particular.  In fact, copious volume may still be possible for the remainder of the session and through the rest of the day.  Failure may also be caused by losing mental focus, poor execution of a turn, or extrinsic factors (collision, etc), the latter of which are not “counted against” the swimmer. 

    Failure in this latter context involves separate purposes.  One purpose is to allow the swimmer to cognitively reevaluate what is necessary to get back on pace for the remainder of the set.  Secondly, pursuing failure is one way to go right up to the edge of work tolerance without going overboard.  There are other safeguards built into the system to ensure overreaching does not occur, but for now just understand that goal time failure is one of these safeguards. 

    In a “traditional set” or even in a High Intensity Interval set (typically shorter rest than USRPT) the rest period becomes less and less until an interval is missed.  By that point the swimmer has exhausted much of his or her reserves hanging on for several reps.  The swimmer may be as much as 10 seconds off goal pace (or more if doing long distance repeats).  In USRPT, rest and pace are held constant. 


    Training to failure evokes negative connotations that lead to many misunderstandings in the application of USRPT training, some of which I had personally bought into before reading the full story.  It is hard to discuss failure in isolation of the whole system, but hopefully this clears up some misconceptions and distinguishes USRPT failure from negatively associated failure in tradition or HIIT.  

    Written by Allan Phillips is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and owner of Pike Athletics. He is also an ASCA Level II coach and USA Triathlon coach. Allan is a co-author of the Troubleshooting System and was selected by Dr. Mullen as an assistant editor of the Swimming Science Research Review. He is currently pursuing a Doctorate in Physical Therapy at US Army-Baylor University.