The Space Between


At Carmel High School and Carmel Swim Club, we just finished the annual cycle of the Indiana High School Championship meets. In many ways these meets were successful, the Carmel High School girls team won its 26th consecutive state championship and the boys won their third in a row and 14th overall. Carmel Swim Club was also extremely successful and well represented through the ranks of nearby high school swim teams. I imagine there are numerous college and club coaches in the same proverbial boat as us at Carmel– we’ve had success at the first championship meet, but now what?  

First, we need to recognize human behavior. With any margin of success, there is a natural human tendency to relent, to give yourself a pat on the back, to enjoy your success, and to say, “this is far enough.” I feel it myself, and the swimmers have displayed these behaviors and attitudes in workouts over the past few weeks. At the same time, I know there are faster swims in our team. From the beginning of the season, our plan has been to swim fast in February and March. Speaking from my own experiences both as a coach and an athlete, you can see the most improvement in a swimmer, particularly with a focused and driven athlete, after a rest or taper period. This time is a golden opportunity to improve: you have rested and licked your wounds, speed is abundant, weaknesses or areas to improve are fresh in the mind, and you have another quality meet to attend in a short amount of time.
Personally, I know significant improvements can happen; the best example I can give is when I went from 4:26 in the 500 free at Big Ten’s (ninth place at the time) to 4:22 at the NCAA meet (12th place). As a swimmer goes through the season, you are not always sure of where you stand. For me, performance is reality and my Big Ten meet told me exactly where I stood. From there, I was able to swim with confidence and knew what I had to do to get better: improve my turns, swim faster pace times in workout, and find “easy speed”. I have heard former Auburn coach and current Notre Dame women’s coach Brian Barnes discuss how much better the Auburn men got from SEC’s to NCAA’s. Brian pointed out to me the men at Auburn spent a lot of time fixing the details; their starts, turns, and technique. Simply, they were not satisfied. As coaches, we need to find ways to motivate and prevent complacency in attitudes and behaviors in our swimmers. Opportunities for further improvement are bountiful, and we have an impetus to prepare each athlete to be at their best again.
I believe it comes down to mindset. We must have strength in our convictions, work to maintain trust in our plan and its execution, and have an unshakeable faith in ourselves and in those around us. We must know better swims are there for each swimmer, and that going forward and improving is the only way. As coaches, we must trust in the athlete, preach opportunity, and know that success is not divided into pieces of the same pie. Rather, success can be found in abundance. One of the most difficult issues for our high school team is the limitations on entries for our state tournament series to three spots per event.  The pie is only so big. At USS meets and for those vying for the next step up the ladder, success is everywhere. There is no limit on the number of swimmers that can swim at the Olympic Trials, US Open, Junior Nationals, Sectionals, or the LSC State meet. It is a gift that the day after our high school season ends we can remind our swimmers of this. In turn, they work to create an enthusiastic and positive practice environment, which helps our team immensely from the close of high school season into our next club championship meet. 
Lastly, keep on trying. For example, in early June 2008, we had an athlete just miss the Olympic Trial cut in the 200 IM at a meet we peaked for. Ten days later, she narrowly missed the cut at another meet. After the event she is crying, happy, and relieved all at the same time because her quest for an Olympic Trial cut was over—or so she thought. We asked her to time trial one more time, and she got the cut the next night! Our belief in this swimmer’s ability was unshakable. We breathed confidence into her and her teammates in the possibility of opportunity. How many cuts do swimmers get in the Time Trials at Nationals and Junior Nationals? I see plenty and you know they rested and tapered sometime in the three to four weeks prior to the meet. Somehow, someway those swimmers and coaches found ways to improve in the space between.

By Chris Plumb. He is the head coach of Carmel Swim Club in Carmel, Indiana. As Carmel high school head coach Chris has coached the team for the last 5 of their 25 consecutive women and 2 of the boys last 13 state titles.

Beep, Beep, Beep

Throwing up in the huddle...
Timing is everything.  Finding a date for Friday night, getting a free sandwich, networking with potential colleagues – many opportunities in daily life can be attributed to time and space.  One of the most famous football leaders of all time, Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday, may have put the coaches’ perspective on timing the best: “Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small.  I mean one-half step too late, or too early, you don't quite make it.  One-half second too slow or too fast and you don't quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us.  They are in every break of the game, every minute, every second.”  Okay, so maybe Al read some great lines amidst smooth background music, LL Cool J getting amped, and flashy cinematography, but the half second too slow or too fast resonates with me. 
To take a more scientific approach, consider timing in skill acquisition: the muscles fire at the right time and fire in the right order, this stimulates the correct number of muscle fibers, which in turn leads to athletic success.  The Talent Code author, Daniel Coyle, talks about building superhighways of myelin-sheathed neural pathways in the skill acquisition process to lead to athletic superiority.  If you take enough golf swings in a highly concentrated practice, and the timing of your swing becomes impeccable due to the myelin sheath around that particular neural pathway, you too could become the next Tiger Woods, in theory anyway.    

What does all of this mean in terms of swimming?  As swim coaches, we have some options in creating and building race ready strokes for our swimmers.  On account of the cyclical nature of our sport, one of the most impactful ways to refine your swimmers’ stroke is to examine their stroke rate.  Tempo (balanced with distance per stroke) is a crucial determinate in an elite stroke; you can develop athletes to swim at an individually correct rate.  This is where the tempo trainer, a well-used tool at the Carmel Swim Club, comes into play.  I defer to G. John Mullen on the science of what timing a beep to a stroke does to the body and brain, but to my observant eye, I see a remarkable difference in concentration when an athlete puts a tempo trainer in their cap.  The tempo trainer objectively holds each swimmer accountable to a time or rate and as such is extremely effective.   The beauty is, instead of the coach constantly droning, “go faster!” your swimmer is motivated to hit a pace or tempo more intrinsically – or at least by the beep in their head.

While you can use the tempo trainer in a multitude of ways, we use them most often at Carmel Swim Club in the following four modes:
  1. Race Pace Tempo Training
  2. Race Pace Time Training
  3. Kick Tempo Training (Dolphin Kick and Breaststroke Kick)
  4. Swimming with Intent
Race Pace Tempo Training
Many of you have seen the chart that was originally inserted with the Finis tempo trainers that lists a single cycle and three stroke cycle tempo minimum, maximum, and average for each event and each gender.  We utilize a version of this chart that our assistant coach, Maggie Moss, generated while she was coaching at Indiana University from 2007-2008.  Maggie updated the chart by looking at the top-20 all-time performances in each event on the USA Swimming website.  The race analysis data offered for each event provides the minimum (fastest), average, and maximum (slowest) tempo within each performance.  Maggie took that data from each of those performances and averaged each minimum, average, and maximum for a single cycle count and for cycles per minute.  The results are distributed on the chart here:


While we realize these tempos are not necessarily going to be a perfect fit for our swimmers, this chart gives us a guideline for what to work towards.  After all, if we want to develop elite swimmers, it is important to expose our swimmers to what the best of the best are doing.  We encourage our swimmers to start with the average tempo for their event on the chart, and then we work with them to adjust the tempo up or down depending on how their stroke looks.  At Carmel, one of our favorite ways to work this is in short bursts of about 15 meters or in a set number of stroke cycles during a longer distance.  For example, we do a set long course (usually in preparation for blue sets) where swimmers do four to six 100s.  During each 100, swimmers must pick 15 meters anywhere within the 100 to hit race pace tempo.  


Race Pace Time Training
We call this type of training, “Beat the Beep” at Carmel.  We look at a swimmer’s goal time in an event and set the tempo trainer to half the time it takes for a swimmer to swim 25 yards or one-fourth of the time it takes to swim 50 meters at the indicated pace.  Here is an example:  Say a swimmer wants to go 50.0 in a 100 yard event, or 12.5 seconds per 25.  Half of 12.5 in 6.25, and thus you set the tempo trainer to that time.  The swimmer knows the tempo trainer will beep every 6.25 seconds, so, right before a beep, the swimmer goes underwater in order to push off the wall precisely on a beep. Their goal is to “beat the beep” for the designated distance.  If we are doing a set of 25s in this exercise, a swimmer will have to reach the 12.5 by the second beep (counting the beep when they depart the wall as the first) and then reach the 25 by the third beep.  The pattern continues for whichever distance we choose to pace that day.  To make sure we are effectively measuring pace, we have our swimmers go to their feet.  “Beat the Beep” does not necessarily have to be for race pace training, but can be used for any kind of training in practice where having your swimmers hit a certain time is the goal.  


Kick Temp Training
Want to speed up or slow down a dolphin kicker?  Put a tempo trainer in their cap.  I believe the tempo trainer is effective for dolphin kick as it often informs swimmers that they are not kicking nearly fast enough (or as fast as they think they are kicking).  One tradeoff of manipulating a swimmer’s dolphin kick may be a decrease in the size of the kick.  It is therefore essential that the coach and athlete work together to ensure that the kick’s amplitude remains appropriate for each swimmer.  We also find the tempo trainer useful in breaststroke kicking.  The device helps hold the swimmer accountable to maintaining a proper tempo for practice.  Again, you can play with the rate and adjust accordingly through a set, but it is important to keep a close eye on how the swimmer maintains the size of their kick.

Swim with Intent
I find one of the biggest challenges of being a swim coach to be getting swimmers to transfer great looking moderate swimming into race-hardened technique.  The tempo trainer is useful to bridge great technique with race appropriate speeds.  Use the tempo trainer to gradually transition moderate swimming into race pace swimming.  It’s interesting to watch the swimmers manipulate their strokes and listen to them discuss where breakdowns are occurring as the rate increases.  I recommend doing 25’s in groups of four or six and gradually increasing the rate until the preferred technique breaks down.  

Wrap-up
Hopefully the information and suggested uses for the tempo trainers offered here helps get you thinking about how tempo work and different pace exercises can work within your program.  The most important thing I’ve learned after working with these tools over the years is that they offer a guideline of where to begin with tempo.  Work closely with your swimmers to figure out what works best with them.  Encourage them to play with it, let them have fun and take ownership in communicating what happens to their stroke at different paces and tempos.  Timing is everything, of course, but each swimmer has their own timing that works the best for them.

By Chris Plumb. He is the head coach of Carmel Swim Club in Carmel, Indiana. As Carmel high school head coach Chris has coached the team for the last 5 of their 25 consecutive women and 2 of the boys last 13 state titles.

The Swim Coaches Guide to Shoulder Injury Prevention

The injured shoulder – perhaps the most deeply despised foe of swim coaches – tends to frustrate both the athlete and coach. Every time the terms “shoulder injury” and “swimmer” are used together in a sentence people tend to think an athletic career is in jeopardy. No coach likes to see one of their athletes in serious pain, and the psychology of the injury on both the athlete and their teammates is draining. Besides losing valuable training time, an injured athlete has the potential to pull resources away from the rest of the team when the coach must now create different workouts and space for a hurt swimmer. Unfortunately, injuries are a consequence of aspiring athletes who are learning to test their physical and mental boundaries. As coaches, we must undertake this balancing act: how do we push the athletes hard enough to elicit a proper training response without injuring the shoulder?


As Tony Dungy said “the most important ability is availability.” A coach must do everything in his or her power to keep their athletes “available” and ready to practice every day. The shoulder signifies the swimmer’s keystone to success. Therefore, waiting until the shoulder is injured to start doing rehabilitation exercises is backwards – get out in front of the shoulder injuries before they occur.


Today, you can go on the internet and find a plethora of quality (and some not so quality) information and exercises you can do to prevent shoulder injuries. I recommend you become extremely knowledgeable on the ins and outs of everything regarding the shoulder. Here is a great places to start on researching the shoulder:
The one problem I have with all this information is figuring out how to use it to effectively safeguard our swimmers’ shoulders. How do we coaches put this knowledge into our daily, weekly, and seasonal plan? I certainly do not have all the answers (and I am weary of anyone who says they do), but at Carmel Swim Club we have found success with a few particular methods. By success, I mean that our shoulder injuries are minimized, which allows each athlete more time and resources for practice.


Here are my suggestions to start with:


1. Mobilize the shoulder – Mobility is the ability to move a limb through the full range of motion, with control. A joint mobility exercise stimulates and circulates synovial fluid in the bursa, helping prepare and clean the joint. Some exercises to do mobilize the shoulder:
  • What to do: Arm Swings – forward and backward, small, medium, big
  • When to do it: Every day before you get in the water or early in the warm-up portion of the swim practice
  • What to do: PVC Mobility
        
  • When to do it: Every other day before you get in the water or in the warm-up portion of the practice
2. Stabilize Around the Shoulder – Stability in a joint is the ability of the joint to withstand mechanical shocks and movement without being injured. Stability exercises help strengthen the muscles around the joint to protect it from dislocation or other injuries. Swimmers shoulders are generally not very stable, thus stabilization work such as that suggested below is important:
  • What to do: Dynamic Stretch Cord Series 
  • When to do it: Every other day or every day before you get in the water
  • What to do: Crawling Series (Bear Crawl/Spiderman Crawl/Side-plank Crawl)
  • When to do it: Two to three times a week, before swimming or dryland
3. Stabilize the Scapula – Swimmers shoulder instability typically manifests around the scapula. Therefore, a particular emphasis on scapular stabilization exercises plays a critical role in preventing shoulder injuries.
  • What to do: H-Y-Fly on Rings (Video in link below)
  • When to do it: Two to three times a week in the early portion of your dryland (before muscle fatigue from the workout sets in)
  • What to do: Arm Step-Ups
  • When to do it: Two to three times a week (before muscle fatigue from the workout sets in)
  • What to do: Push-Up Plus
  • When to do it: Two to three times a week(before muscle fatigue from the workout sets in)
4. Strength – Almost all of our upper-body work is done using the rings – pull-ups, body-rows, and push-ups. The freedom of the range of motion helps stabilize the shoulder.
  • See some of the exercises we do at Carmel here
5. Stretching – Post practice or dryland session, take the time to stretch the pectoral muscle and the Latissimus dorsi muscle.
  • Stretch – post practice for :30 seconds – every day or after dryland session
To summarize, I recommend examining your weekly program and adding a few exercises prior to getting in the water, arm step-ups and High-Y-Fly in your dryland program, and a post-practice stretch to keep the shoulder healthy.


By Chris Plumb. He is the head coach of Carmel Swim Club in Carmel, Indiana. As Carmel high school head coach Chris has coached the team for the last 5 of their 25 consecutive women and 2 of the boys last 13 state titles.

Anaerobic Capacity in Swimming

For most swim coaches in the United States, fall training means implementing technique changes, completing a large quantity of yardage, and generally preparing their athletes for the upcoming season.  The result is a high-volume training cycle intending to get our athletes “in shape.”  I am certainly an advocate of creating aerobic changes, particularly for the high school athlete.  After all, aerobic development is a necessity for long-term success, and over time, many elite swimmers have emerged from clubs with highly intensive aerobic programs.  While there are exceptions to this, most swim coaches would agree that to have continued success at an elite level intense aerobic training is a necessity for athletes.

I am not here to argue against this model of aerobic training for the club swimmer as much as I am proposing you must have balance in your program: we cannot neglect the anaerobic component.  I am in favor of capacity training, both aerobic and anaerobic capacity.  Given that roughly 50% of a 200 and 30% of the 400 is anaerobic, why would you not train that system throughout the season?  

What exactly is capacity?
In the most basic terms, capacity is aptitude, capability, or productivity.  For our intents and purposes, it is necessary to distinguish between aerobic and anaerobic capacity.  In The Science of Winning, J. Olbrecht classifies aerobic capacity effect as the “increase of maximal oxygen uptake,” and anaerobic capacity effect as “the increase of the maximal glycolytic rate, also called the maximal lactate production capacity.”  



So how do we put that in training terms?  In his book, Swimformation Clive Rushton states, “Capacity training increases the total amount of energy available for use.  Aerobic capacity training increases the total amount available aerobically, and anaerobic training increases the amount available anaerobically.”   Rushton also discusses recruitment of muscle fibers, “The faster the speed the greater the amount of muscle tension required so more and more FT (Fast Twitch) fibers are recruited and the more the anaerobic capacity is stressed.”

Simplified, capacity is the ability to do work.  

For most of us club coaches, we love aerobic capacity above all things; in fact, we should have a mutual affinity for both anaerobic and aerobic capacity.  The lactate generated by anaerobic capacity training is a positive substance to have in the blood stream, and the high school athlete must be given consistent opportunities to enhance their anaerobic systems.  Despite common lore, anaerobic capacity does demonstrate qualities of change: “But – and this is where our findings conflict with the common belief – we found that anaerobic capacity can be improved by training, although it takes quite a long time” says Olbrecht.  Timothy Noakes notes his findings from his work with runners, “Studies indicate that high intensity training coupled with aerobic or base training improves performance and lowers blood lactate concentrations at high exercise intensities in training, without altering the V02 max.”

Lactate – good or bad?
Science has demonstrated that lactate is something we want during exercise and it is critical that we stop blaming lactate acid as the enemy!  As Noakes states in Lore of Running, “In fact, lactate may be one of the most important energy fuels in the body.  Let us banish once and for all that bad publicity that lactic acid has attracted for so long and elevate it to its rightful place as one of the most important of the body’s fuels.”  I encourage you to use lactate to your advantage and have athletes produce lactate in the weekly cycle through anaerobic work.

So, what does this mean for training exactly?
I believe that you must thread anaerobic capacity work through most of the capacity portion of your season.  For us at the Carmel Swim Club, it means once a week we do shorter, faster work on a rest to work ratio greater than 1:1 and preferably near 2:1 or even 4:1.  

The following are examples of some anaerobic sets we do at Carmel throughout the fall:    
  • 16x50 on 1:30
  • 12x50 on 2:00
  • 40x25 on :45
  • 6x75 on 4:00

There is no limit on the sets you can do, and we often perform this facet of our training with variable restrictions such as kick-out buoys or stroke counts to increase the challenge that the athletes face.    

To demonstrate the effectiveness of this sort of training in a practical application at Carmel, we did an anaerobic capacity set once a week to complement our aerobic capacity work all through September, October, and November of last year.  I believe this work played a large role in our strong results—a highlight that comes to mind are the four high school girls from Carmel Swim Club who were 1:49 or better in the 200 freestyle.  I think there is a strong correlation from taking the time to do complimentary anaerobic work early in the season to the end of season results.  

By Chris Plumb. He is the head coach of Carmel Swim Club in Carmel, Indiana. As Carmel high school head coach Chris has coached the team for the last 5 of their 25 consecutive women and 2 of the boys last 13 state titles.