Take Home Points on Progressive Overload in Elite Swimmer
Novice swimmers are constantly pushed. Pushing during warm-up to kick sets, produce overload during the traditional form of training. Elite swimmers can perform many training sets without much stress. This complacency can impede performance as overload doesn't occur. Many elite swimmers still improve ~3 - 4% during puberty (Sweetenham 2013). Once maturation halts many swimmers "peak" and minimal improvements continue. After maturation (and ideally during maturation) continual stress and progressive overload yields improvement (overload principle). The progressive overload principle is often applied to volume in swimming, an aspect of overload, but a potential burnout pitfall. Overload has a wider spectrum, ranging from volume to biomechanics to psychology. Thomas Delorme developed this principle while rehabilitating soldiers in World War II and is defined as (Kraemer 2007):
"the gradual increase of stress placed upon the body during exercise training."
Now, many elite swimmers show excellent skill acquisition and the unrelenting desire for improvement. This desire is sometimes present in young athletes resulting in coaches pushing these swimmers to burnout. Early specialization rarely works in sport and swimming isn't different [see Guide to LTAD in Swimmers].
Instead, fostering an environment focusing on skill acquisition while applying progressive overload is essential. Yet, creating this environment is exhausting, but essential for the elite and ultra elite. Swimming provides it's difficulties for progressive overload, but also provides many possible variables. Think of all the methods possible for challenging a swimmer during a workout: times, stroke counts, tempos, biomechanics, etc. Challenging an elite athlete on one of these variables helps them focus feeds their desire of improvement. However, finding the balance of pushing the swimmer, but not knocking them over is part of the art of coaching.
This is essential for gifted students/athletes of any field. Think no further than Michael Phelps the most successful Olympian and from our sport. During training, Coach Bowman continually challenged him. Now, this didn't and doesn't mean every aspect of training for Michael was recorded and stressed, but progressive overload was applied. Once again, pushing them, but not knocking them over is key.
Michael was continually challenged during all periods of training. I have heard countless stories of fellow swimmers (often considered co-coaches in elite programs as peers provide vital feedback) giving Phelps challenges during sets. In these stories, Phelps' teammate report him making unbelievable intervals during workout! It is these stories of being pushed and achieving success which create psychological and physiological overload and improvement for the ultra elite.
If you coach one of these swimmers, apply purposeful, monitored progressive overload closely. If this swimmer hasn't reached maturity keep their success and potential in mind, as the most up-to-date research suggest early specialization impairs long-term success. However, if you have a pubescent swimmer ~14-years-old with these characteristics, apply this progressive overload, focusing on their weaknesses during their races. Remember, push them, but don't knock them over!
- Kraemer, WJ, Fleck SJ. Optimizing Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2007.
- Sweetenham B. ASCA Swimming Newsletter. 2013.