The Basics- What is the best workout?

  • Science studies in swimming: tough to generalize
  • Specificity: muscle groups, muscle types and strokes
  • Playing the physics game vs. the biology game
  • Elite athletes: their start point and maximum ability to train


What’s the best workout?

If we could answer this one question correctly on a daily basis, every swimmer would consistently and constantly get better until they maximize their full genetic potential…yay!

But we don’t know the answer (at least not well enough)… sad face :( Swimming is not like cycling, where they have workouts planned to the nearest watt. We are studying our sport with each kid in the water, every practice of the week, and each race of the season. There is a lot of debate out there about how we should train. Whether that’s High Intensity vs. USRPT vs. Garbage yards. We will take a look at why there is so much confusion and/or conflicting science about proper training.

The other problem to answering our question is that the answer changes depending on the person, their level of training and the race itself. This information may seem boring and useless, but it’s why swimmers (more than any other sport) need coaches. Our goal in Part II of the BOS (Biology of Swimming) is not to answer our big question directly. Instead, we will go through different workouts and see how they affect the adaptation of the Swimming Machine and give coaches and swimmers a better footing when designing workouts and season plans.

But first, let’s talk about the basics.


Science studies in swimming: tough to generalize

Do you remember learning about science in middle school? You have to make a hypothesis, design an experiment with two groups, try to control all the variables except one and then see what changes. Unfortunately, middle school oversimplified things, and left out some details. Those details make it really, really hard to create an experiment and find a worthwhile answer when it comes to swimming.

Let’s say we want to run an experiment with swimmers. Pretend we want to test high volume kicking vs. high intensity kicking to see what gives swimmers a better leg workout. We will actually need 3 groups: Intensity, Volume and a Control (they won’t do any kick sets). The groups need to be the same. That means the swimmers needs to start with the same ability (able to kick a 100 in about 90 seconds for instance), the swimmers need to be the same age, gender and have the same body physique (shoe size).

Tangent: We could get around controlling all these itty bitty variables by having each group be made of 100s of swimmers, but few teams are so large. Most research in swimming involves only a few swimmers in each group.

For our experiment, each group needs to have about 20 swimmers and they need to train in same pool, at same time, and the other parts of their workouts needs to be the same (dryland, pulling, and so on…).

Lastly, we need a good test set to figure out which training is best. A 100 all out for time? 10x 100s on 2:00 best average? Timed 3000 kick? These test sets are very different from each other, and each training group is likely to “win” different test sets (the Intensity group would probably improve more in the 100 all out, while the Volume group would improve in the other tests). So even the test set you choose could totally change the answer to the question of which kick training is the best. We have to change our question to: Which kick training is the best for this one test set?

Of course, we don’t really care about improving that one kick set. What we are really after is:

Did it help at the end of the season with your big race?

Again, that depends on the race. Maybe we can tell if we have a big enough group, but this thing called “taper” throws a wrench in everything since swimmers (especially younger ones) tend to out-perform at the big meets relative to mid-season meets and practice. Is that because of the workout difference or the psychological change of taper? How do you control the variable of phycology and motivation… it’s very difficult.

Maybe you could get around it by only testing on high end elite swimmers like Division I athletes. But how many coaches do you know will let a scientist take full control of their program just to figure out which kick set is better? Or we could run the kicking test set again shaved, suited and during taper… good luck convincing a kid trying to get into a good college program to throw away a season so you can answer your little question.

It gets worse! Let’s say you find a real training effect and now you know which kick set is the best for training your legs. Does it transfer to other swimmers across the world? Take pool temperature for example. Just because one type of workout works for swimmers training at 85° doesn’t mean the same workout will work at 78°. Something as simple as temperature can make your great science experiment non-generalizable (that means it doesn’t apply to other groups doing similar, but not exactly the same thing). This applies to all the variables we talked about before. Just because one training type works for 15 year old girls with Sectional cuts training at 6am in a pool that is 83° for 30,000 yards a week doesn’t mean the same workout will work for a group of 21 year old Division I men training in a pool that is 77° for 70,000 yards a week. (oh… and good luck trying to compare to Masters swimmers while you’re at it).

Tangent: This is why one scientific study in any field of science doesn’t mean much by itself. The science needs to replicate consistently in order for those results to have a lot of convincing power. This is also why it looks like science seems to change its mind a lot. One day smoking cigarettes is good for you, the next they are the worst invention of all time. It all depends on how future science studies hash things out. We don’t get much of that in swimming :(

Now you could run another experiment just with pool temperature, and another for pulling with paddles or without, and another for using a cap/drag suit in practice, and so on and on and on… Maybe after a few decades of research, and a few million dollars, we might distill the final best ever workout program for everyone at every age in every environment… but we are not there. Enter stage left… coaches!

Another reason studying swimming is tough is because testing basic science in swimmers requires changing the dynamics of the swimmer in the water. Let’s say you want to test VO2 max during a swim. You have to hook up a swimmer to a special snorkel hanging from the ceiling that travels along with the swimmer on a cable (no flipturns allowed). We need this to know exactly how many molecules of oxygen and CO2 are being breathed in and out during the swim. That’s gonna change your swimming a bit I think, and anything that changes your swimming will change the end results (because of Specificity, coming up).

Same with testing speed and power. To get a good number, you have to hook the swimmer up to a cable and have them sprint away against some resistance. That’s not exactly mimicking the race (similar to the Heisenberg uncertainty principal), but it’s the best we have and we need to extrapolate. Also, the most sprinting we can do with this is 50m, so it would be tough to measure changes in power over longer distances… which would have been nice.

Finally, one of the most useful things we can do to determine how the body is changing, adapting and reacting to training is to take muscle biopsies. People, and especially elite athletes, don’t like losing pieces of muscle just to see how their sugar stores are doing or whether their capillary networks are growing. Especially when you tell them those muscle cells won’t grow back.

As we implicated earlier, the level of training of a swimmer is a big deal too. If we take a couch potato and make them run every day, their swimming will get better too. But that won't work for an elite athlete or even well training high schooler. So who you choose for your swimming science will affect the results, just more variables to control.

The good news is, we can learn from others sports. We can learn from the basic human sciences. And we can learn what works for us every season. This is why you need to pay attention to how your Swimming Machine reacts to different workouts over the course of weeks and seasons. You and your coach need to figure out what works best for you, because the science we have now is only a guideline, not a rule.

Specificity: muscle groups, muscle types and strokes

Remember our question: What is the best workout?

If you read Part I of the BOS, you probably understand the swimming machine is a little complicated. Because of that complexity, an arm pulling in freestyle is not the same as an arm pulling in breastroke. Different muscle fibers within the same muscle can be used at different times for different strokes for different speeds by firing different motor units so that the body achieves what it wants, when it wants it. Even nerves change, and we will see later in more detail how muscles and brain communicate to create habits and techniques.

All this means there is a best way to train something. There is a best way to train butterfly, kicking, and even pullouts. That best way needs to involve training the best muscle fibers, the best motor units, the best capillaries and the best technique (nerves). Maybe these pictures from convince you this is true.

Scientist have known about this phenomenon for a while and call it “Specificity.” That means if you want something to improve, train it as specifically as possible. For example, if you want to get better at breastroke… do breastroke. Doing freestyle will help, but not as much because it is less specific than breastroke. The further away you get from training what you want to improve, the less effective (in general) it will be.

This is why dryland is not as important as wetland, why running won’t help your kick as much as you think, and why “cross training” has its limits.

Again, this concept gets more complicated depending on the elite-ness of the swimmer. A couch potato doing freestyle will improve their breastroke. But a champion breastroker may be plateauing even if they only train breast, so they start breaking down the stroke into its components to train those aspects specifically: the kick, the pullout, the dive, the arm pull, the body motion.

This is especially important to understand in swimming because every race we do has many components. For each swimmer, one or more pieces of the puzzle is going to be weaker than the others. That means if you want to work on that weakness, you have to get as specific as possible. Let’s stick with our breastroker. Say they have a great pullout, but their kicking is lacking. Training breastroke overall is the most specific training for breastroke, but if we want to improve breastroke kicking, we need to train that specifically with things like vertical kicks, wall kicking, and kick based drills because those are more specific to breastroke kicking and will improve that component of the swim faster and better.

Tangent: Some elite sprinters go so far as to never ever swim slow freestyle. If they swim any freestyle, it is a 100% top speed. Otherwise, they just work drills or swim another stroke. Specificity in action.

When you train or write workouts, you should always ask: Is this as specific as I can get towards my goal? Different days, different points in the season and different swimmers will all have slightly different goals, but those should be pursued by the most specific way possible. This will help you on your journey to find “the best workout.”


Playing the physics game vs. the biology game

What’s better for freestyle, a gallop stroke or balanced swimming? Depends which game you’re playing, physics or biology.

A gallop stroke (in our view at least) is unbalanced and involves pulling with one arm more than the other, rotating unevenly from side to side and usually has a full body undulation. Because of the imbalance, galloping has more ups and downs in speed during a stroke cycle. This is not good physics because the higher spikes in speed cause an exponentially higher drag. Having said that, galloping probably has more of a glide phase with better relaxation and has a better breathing pattern (at least… that’s an opinion). In summary, galloping allows the Swimming Machine to function better on a cellular level and win the biology game during a race or practice.

Balanced swimming is equal between the arms, rotation and timing. In theory, balanced swimming is the more physics efficient way to move through the water since there is a more constant speed and less overall drag. It may not have as big a relaxation phase as galloping, but balanced swimming wins the physics game.

Another common example would be breastroke tempo. Pausing in the streamline or glide phase of breastroke is more drag efficient, winning the physics game. But between gliding and pullouts, that’s a lot of breathe holding, so some swimmers may find it more beneficial to glide less, increase their tempo and increase their rate of breathing, feeding their biology.

So which game should you play more? Both obviously. At the end of the day it’s about how you train (remember specificity), it’s about what the race wants (50 vs. 200), and it’s what works for the swimmer. Depending on the swimmer’s genetic disposition towards muscle fiber types, body shape and other factors, different swimmers will naturally be pulled toward physics or biology. Or your coach can help you balance the two in a way that is best for you.

At some point in a swimmer’s career, one of these forces will win, and that’s ok, just don’t neglect the other when that time comes.

This all comes back to our question: What’s the best workout? Sometimes, the best workout will focus on the physics game, maybe through drills and equipment use. Other times, the biology game, through tough sets and more equipment. Whatever the workout is, it may be worthwhile to ask yourself: Is this the best workout I can do for myself or my swimmers in terms of what they need, physics or biology?

Tangent: A huge mistake committed by swimmers and coaches is that they try to mimic the swimming (either technique, training or race strategy) of the best single swimmer in the world at the time. That’s like running a science experiment with only one subject in each group. This is not good science, it’s an outlier until more subjects are involved. And when a new “best swimmer of the moment” comes along, we all change our mind about how to do things. Does that mean the correct answer of “what’s the best workout” constantly changing? No… only your perception of the correct answer is changing.


Elite athletes: their start point and maximum ability to train

We all know that some people are born with better athletic ability than others. On top of that, they develop those abilities to greater degree as well (a better maximum limit). I am a big fan of simplifying and visualizing, so here is how to think about it. Think about a graph with sprinting and endurance on each axis. These don’t represent anything specific, just a general ability. The farther to the right, the better your endurance. The farther up, the better your sprinting.

Let’s take four dots and put them on the graph. These will be our Baseline ability for four different people. Where these dots are shows us what these people are naturally good at: sprinting, mile-ing, both or neither. Genetics determines where these dots start. This can include factors such as body shape, heart size, muscle fiber type… anything physical you can think of really.  

However, as training starts, the circle begins to grow. Let’s assume everyone on this graph gets the ideal training for their individual selves. At first, all swimmers improve both endurance and sprinting ability, and the circle expands. The size of the circle represents how awesome someone is at swimming. You may notice our “normal person’s” circle is not growing as fast. That means they are not adapting as quickly to their training. It’s like they have a limit on how fast they can improve themselves. A realistic way of thinking about this concept is recovery time. Some people recover better than others and are able to build from one workout to the next at a faster rate.

As the Swimming Machine improves more and more, the circle will keep growing until it hits a limit. This is their genetically determined limit of performance. Despite having ideal training programs and the same starting locations, elite athletes still manage to grow their circle bigger than average athletes because of their genetics. That’s what makes them “elite.” The limit doesn’t have to be evenly spread. Some will have better limits of endurance or sprinting for instance, and the circle grows more in that direction. Anything and everything can account for these limits: myostatin levels, connective tissue, mitochondrial size… and the list keeps going.

So why are we talking about this? How is this going to help us figure out what the best workout is?

As we said before, each of these four Guinea pigs is receiving the ideal training for them. That means their workouts from day to day are different (in our ideal world of course). Depending on who you are and how you are developing, it seems fair to say that different people need different workouts to maximize their training and reach their full potential.

Let’s talk about this “limit” for a second. It is easy to fall into the trap of believing you have hit your limit and can’t improve anymore. But, if I juiced you up with steroids and EPO and all sorts of “helpers,” you would get better no matter how well trained you are. These drugs don’t change your genetics, they just tweak how the genes are read. The same thing happens with training. Training causes your body to teak how genes are read, and so they construct adaptations to improve performance. That means if you just change your training to get the same tweaking effect on genes that could achieve with drugs, then the limit you think you are hitting will disappear. The key is to realize that doing the same thing over and over won’t change the result, you have to explore new ways to train!

Tangent: You Swimming Machine is like the USS Enterprise from Star Trek. Here is what I mean. The Enterprise is capable of so much, yet it is limited by its crew. There are multiple times when aliens come on board with greater knowledge and without changing any physical mechanics of the ship, empower the Enterprise to far exceed its initial engineering and do things like travel to the end of the universe instantly. Just by saying the right words in the right order the Enterprise proves it can do anything. The trick is figuring out what the right words are (which its crew has not, even though they designed the ship in the first place). In the same way, you Swimming Machine is capable of incredible abilities. You just have to figure out the right words (workouts) to say and do.