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.

    Closed Kinetic Chain Upper Extremity Testing for Swimmers

    Take Home Points on Closed Kinetic Chain Upper Extremity Testing
    1. Predicting injury has been difficult in swimming
    2. Closed kinetic chain upper extremity testing may help identify factors in the future
    3. Recent literature shows differences in upper extremity stability between males and females
    Preventing injury remains a daunting task for coaches at all levels.  Though more information continually emerges to help us identify swimmers at risk, the process remains an imperfect science.  As Dr. Mullen and I wrote in the opening to the Troubleshooting System

    "Injury and poor performance often result from unchecked movement dysfunction. While smart training remains paramount, coaches should be heartened that overuse is not the cause of all injuries. Training exposes movement deficiencies. Greater training demands require a higher physical preparedness standard."

    One form of testing that has been gaining acceptance in land based sports with upper
    extremity demands has been closed kinetic chain testing.  Such testing is common for lower body dominant land sports, as most of the injuries occur in a closed kinetic chain for the lower body (Squat mechanics assessment is one common example).  However, most upper body demands occur in an open kinetic chain (distal point not fixed).  Swimming presents an interesting case, for although the hand is never truly fixed to an anchor like the foot is to the ground, there are elements of anchoring in the swim stroke, particularly underwater when we talk of “catching” and “holding” water.   

    Though literature is relatively new in this area for swimmers, some data is emerging.  Butler (2014) studied male and female division I swimmers and assessed all subjects in the upper quarter Y balance test (UQ-YBT).  The UQ-VBT involves upper extremity stability in the closed chain and examines reach distance in three directions: medial, inferolateral, and superolateral.  Essentially, the subject/swimmer is asked to reach in different directions while supporting himself/herself with a stationary anchored arm. 

    Results indicated, “Average scores in the medial and inferolateral directions and composite score were higher in men than in women." (this means the only measure not shown to have significant gender difference was superolateral).

    Though these patterns don’t exactly mimic the swim stroke, the results do suggest greater stability in males with greater reach in different positions.  This study only tracks gender difference and does not directly aid with injury prediction, but future literature may lead this direction.  (For additional discussion on injury prediction factors see Dr. Angela Tate interview).

    Despite the lack of predictive literature thus far for the UQ-YBT and swimmers, we do know that significant differences do exist between genders in this sample.  Now, its unclear if we can generalize this across the entire swimming population, as we don’t know how these swimmers were coached leading up to the study (same coaching staff, same dryland staff?), but there are significant differences to suggest gender may indeed be a critical factor in planning dryland training. (See Should Females Train Differently Than Males, Part I, Part II, Part III)  


    With many teams nearing the end of summer season and with a fresh fall/winter on the horizon, consider closed kinetic chain upper extremity testing as part of your team’s preseason intake.  Not only can such testing help organize information as a preseason baseline, it can also help guide return-to-swim protocols if injuries occur later in the season.  


    1. Butler R1, Arms JReiman MPlisky PKiesel KTaylor DQueen R.  Sex Differences in Dynamic Closed Kinetic Chain Upper Quarter Function in Collegiate Swimmers. J Athl Train. 2014 Jul 11. [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.

    Hypermobility and Swimming: Part II

    Take Home Points on Hypermobility and Swimming
    1. Breaststrokers derive mobility mostly from knee external rotation, hip internal rotation, and ankle supination
    2. As a rule, we cannot define breaststrokers as “hypermobile” based on localized mobility specific to the stroke as mobility is often met with stiffness elsewhere
    3. Assess for each swimmer whether the mobility results from tissue extensibility or bony alignment to select appropriate interventions.
    Would you classify breaststrokers as hypermobile? Most swimmers can’t get into those crazy positions with their knees, so breaststrokers must be hypermobile freaks?

    In the previous installment we focused on hypermobility in general. We also noted prior research showing that swimmers may exhibit DECREASED shoulder ROM compared to non-swimming controls. Among non-swimming preadolescents, those with hypermobility were shown to have no difference in Functional Movement Screen scores.

    As always, breaststrokers are a curious study. We’ve addressed several related breaststroke topics in the past, but have not directly addressed the question of what actually makes great breaststrokers highly mobile? In this post we’ll address the sources of breaststroke mobility and answer whether breaststrokers can be classified as hypermobile.
    Breastroke mobility comes from several key sources (Jagomagi 2005), which we’ll address individually below.
    • Knees
    • Hips
    • Ankles
    Remember from the previous installment that one measure of hypermobility in the Beighton criteria is knee hyperextension. Yet for breaststrokers, the most critical knee motion is external rotation, making the Beighton criteria for the knee relatively inapplicable to assess breaststroke kicking (Jagomagi 2005, Strzala 2012). Now, most think of the knee as being strictly sagittal plane (flexion and extension), but the knee joints do allow for varying degrees of movement in other planes. Also consider the importance of knee cap (patellar) mobility, which is discussed less frequently as it is more difficult to quantify for research purposes. Despite this reality, it still matters and must be noted in evaluating breaststrokers and potential breaststrokers.

    The hips are another mobility source often discussed on this site and by the Swim Sci team elsewhere. But again, there’s no evidence of a relation between isolated hip joint movements and clinically defined hypermobility. That said, previous data reveals that hip internal rotation is a robust predictor of breaststroke speed, but ranges do not appear within the realm of HYPERmobility.

    While there is reason to believe that strategies such as self myofascial release (SMR) may aid mobility in the hips, bony architecture perhaps more than joint laxity plays a key role in having the requisite hip mobility for breaststroke. Most likely it would be inaccurate to describe highly mobile breaststrokers as hypermobile, as their hip range of motion may result strictly from biomechanical angles and not from soft tissue qualities.

    The ankles are ultimately what drive many breaststrokers in the stroke specialty. Whereas long axis and butterfly specialists demonstrate extreme plantar flexion at the elite levels, many. Reasons for this are unclear, but stiff ankles would violate the idea of full body hypermobility. So ultimately, it’s not that breaststrokers are necessarily more mobile systemically, but instead they demonstrate particular patters of mobility beneficial for the stroke.


    One explanation that I use to explain breaststroke is two fixed points bracketing the mobile segments. This analogy is highly simplified but hopefully makes the point of the need for balancing mobility with stability. Any good (and healthy) breastroker will demonstrate a mix of both qualities.

    Stroke speciality is generally not a precise way to classify someone has hypermobile. Though breaststrokers demonstrate extreme ranges of motion at particular joint segments, many high level breaststrokers found their stroke niche due to lower leg stiffness expressed through ankle dorsiflexion.


    1. Jagomägi G1, Jürimäe T. The influence of anthropometrical and flexibility parameters on the results of breaststroke swimming. Anthropol Anz. 2005 Jun;63(2):213-9.
    2. Strzała M1, Krężałek P, Kaca M, Głąb G, Ostrowski A, Stanula A, Tyka A. Swimming speed of the breaststroke kick. J Hum Kinet. 2012 Dec;35:133-9. doi: 10.2478/v10078-012-0087-4. Epub 2012 Dec 30.
    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.

    Hypermobility and Swimming

    Take Home Points on Hypermobility and Swimming
    1. Clinical hypermobility is different than “being very flexible”
    2. Extreme flexibility and movement instability often coexist.
    3. Never allow self proclaimed hypermobility to serve as an excuse for poor body control.

    Hypermobility is a term often thrown around the pool deck and other training venues. Many will self-proclaim themselves as hypermobile, either to show off circus tricks their body can perform, or as an excuse if unable to perform balance or stability tasks. Despite the inexact language often used to describe hypermobility, definite standards do exist. Such standards are important to ensure that training is individualized for each swimmer’s needs. 

    Clinically, hypermobility is often classified according to the Beighton score, which is a quick and easy movement assessment nearly anyone can perform. The Beighton score is generally accepted as useful, and has been shown to have inter and intra rater reliability when screening females ages 15-45 (Boyle 2003). Each side is tested independently and one point is recorded for each positive result:

    • Forward bend with hands on the floor, back straight 
    • R/L elbow bent backwards 
    • R/L knee bent backwards 
    • R/L thumb bent back to touch forearm 
    • R/L little finger bent back to 90 degrees 
    Any score of four or more is considered a positive under the major Beighton criteria. Joint pain in four joints for more than three months may also qualify as a positive finding. Minor Beighton criteria include three or fewer findings, along with several general health measures such as skin quality, vision, and a propensity for joint dislocation. In short, simply being very flexible does not qualify someone as being clinically hypermobile. 

    Note that if a young swimmer does demonstrate clinical hypermobility via a high Beighton score, it does not prevent them from performing basic movement tasks. Recently, Paszkewicz (2013) found no correlation between Functional Movement Screen scores and Beighton scores in a group of adolescent subjects. Now, anecdotally, hypermobile swimmers may have a slower learning curve for advanced dryland movements, but most are not fully precluded for satisfactory dryland performance. 

    In the water, hypermobility may be an asset at times, but it depends on the swimmer. As we have discussed before, extreme ankle mobility and knee hyperextension are both elite characteristics allowing certain swimmers to attain vast joint excursions. This alone will not lead to fast swimming, but combine freakish mobility with refined motor control (among many other qualities) and you have the makings of a potential elite swimmer. 

    Yet contrary to conventional wisdom, literature has shown that swimmers show no greater propensity for joint laxity than non-swimmers. Now, this may change within a specific subgroup of swimmers, but know that among a sample of age group swimmers, the swimmers were shown to be no more flexible than non-swimming, age matched controls. (Jansson 2005) In fact, swimmers were shown to have reduced internal and external shoulder rotation compared to the control group. 

    You may ask, how do you deal with swimmers who seem hypermobile, but in reality are just unstable? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer, as everyone is different. Most important is to recognize who truly falls into the hypermobile category and who is simply flexible but perhaps with poor stability, as many different choices exist for intervention. (See Swimming Science Troubleshooting System)

    Bottom Line

    Know that a difference exists between true hypermobility and extreme flexibility. True hypermobility is often accompanied by other clinical symptoms, so don’t let your swimmers fool you into thinking they are “hypermobile” when they are likely unstable and/or weak. Though much of this discussion relates to keeping swimmers safe on land, always consider individual body characteristics when building a stroke in the water, as certain characteristics shared with clinical hypermobility may be advantages for swimming movement patterns. 


    1. Boyle KL1, Witt P, Riegger-Krugh C. Intrarater and Interrater Reliability of the Beighton and Horan Joint Mobility Index. J Athl Train. 2003 Dec;38(4):281-285.
    2. Jansson A1, Saartok T, Werner S, Renström P. Evaluation of general joint laxity, shoulder laxity and mobility in competitive swimmers during growth and in normal controls. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2005 Jun;15(3):169-76.
    3. Paszkewicz JR1, McCarty CW, Van Lunen BL. Comparison of functional and static evaluation tools among adolescent athletes. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Oct;27(10):2842-50. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182815770.
    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.

    External vs Internal Focus Cues for Optimal Acquisition and Retention

    External vs Internal Focus Cues for Optimal Acquisition and Retention
    1. External focus cues may interact with different feedback strategies based on expectations of results
    2. There is some, but not definitive evidence, that males and females may respond differently to different focus strategies
    3. Evidence suggests no difference exists in efficacy of external vs internal focus cues for simple tasks, but external focus cues may be more appropriate for complex task
    A couple years ago we posted a well received post on different strategies of attentional
    focus (External vs Internal Focus for Optimal Skill Acquisition).  In general, focus strategies can be grouped into external focus versus internal focus.  Think of external focus as being related to external factors, such as a whole movement pattern or an external object (“push the water back”), or internal factors, such as movement of a body part (“pull your arm back”).

    This is a relatively novel line of research with much of the evidence appearing in the last 10-15 years.  Though a relatively simple concept, there are many different ways to apply this concept, with the best approach often not as simple as one strategy being uniformly better than the other.  While most of the evidence tends toward favoring external focus strategies over internal focus strategies, different situations may call for different approaches. (See also, Age Group Swim Coaching Tips: External Cues For Reading the Clock and Leaving on Time).

    As with most general research, specific swimming applications are limited, so we must extrapolate from non-swimming studies (but note, Freudenheim 2010, external focus superior in 25m sprint trials).  One non-swim study with potential swim applications (Ille 2013) involved external vs internal focus strategies on sprint start performance.  Novice and expert athletes were tested in sprint starts under three different conditions: external focus, internal focus, neutral instructions.  Authors found that, “The reaction time and the running time were significantly shorter in the external focus condition than in the internal focus condition, for both expert and novice participants.”

    Yet rarely does any focus strategy occur in a vacuum.  Focus cues must always be interpreted with the myriad of thoughts and feedback circulating throughout the swimmer’s head simultaneously.   For example, a focus strategy in which the athlete is blinded to the results may be different than how the swimmer processes information  when results are known (and that doesn’t even account for the added variable of “real” competition results, which can’t be replicated in the lab).  

    Pascua (2014) partially addressed this issue in a study blending focus cues with performance expectancy, meaning subjects were provided with social-comparative feedback before subsequent trials were attempted.  All subjects were tested under external vs internal focus combined with enhanced expectancy or non-enhanced expectancy.   Results showed that external focus combined with enhanced expectancy (positive feedback), had the best results in target throwing accuracy and skill retention in the novel throwing task performed with subjects’ non-dominant hand. 

    Finally it’s possible, that situational and intrinsic factors may both affect the optimal focus strategy.  Becker (2013) studied children and adults of both genders in novel balancing tasks classified as simple or complex.  In contrast to many studies showing uniform superiority of external focus cues, this study showed no difference in performance or retention for simple tasks.  However, consistent with prior literature, external focus was superior for the complex task both in performance and retention.  Note though, this latter finding was only applicable for males. 

    Practical Implication

    As with prior findings, recent literature shows that external focus cues result in better performance and better retention for complex skills.  In general, coaches should frame technical cues in external focus terms, but this guideline is not universal.  One recent study has shown that males and females respond differently to different cueing strategies in a novel balance task, but more research is needed to clarify if fundamental gender differences exist. 


    1. Becker K1, Smith PJ2.  Age, task complexity, and sex as potential moderators of attentional focus effects.  Percept Mot Skills. 2013 Aug;117(1):1172-86.
    2. Pascua LA1, Wulf G, Lewthwaite R.  Additive benefits of external focus and enhanced performance expectancy for motor learning.  J Sports Sci. 2014 May 29:1-9. [Epub ahead of print]
    3. Ille A1, Selin I, Do MC, Thon B.  Attentional focus effects on sprint start performance as a function of skill level.  J Sports Sci. 2013;31(15):1705-12. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2013.797097. Epub 2013 May 28.
    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.