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Mike's Mailbag: Understanding Winter Training

1/13/2014

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Hi Mike,
I was wondering if you could answer this question: I am a club swimmer who swims high school as well. I know that coming off Christmas training our bodies are worn out, tired, and broken down so we are not going to go personal bests mid-season. I just need more help to understand this process.

Sincerely,
Worried Swimmer

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Hi Worried Swimmer,

Winter/Christmas training is the gauntlet of every swimmer’s season. There’s no school, no distractions, and no time limits. Which means, of course, long, grueling practices. Most coaches like to give swimmers very difficult sets over this break knowing their swimmers won’t have school so they can recover and give 100%. These few weeks are, usually, extremely difficult, but when you’re finished, they can be incredibly rewarding.

I understand you’re worried about swimming fast right now. But it’s OK to not swim fast right now. This is when your body is broken down by winter training. It will take time to build back up.

Imagine swimming to be like a slingshot, and your swim training to be like a rubber band. Every single practice, you pull that rubber band a little farther back. (During winter training, you pulled it back a heck of a lot.) Every good practice, pull it a little farther back. Every good set, a little farther back. Every good flip turn, a tiny, little bit farther back. And so on.

At the end of the swim season, during taper, you let go of that slingshot and see how far you can go.

Swimming is not like other sports. In other sports, you might continue to progress throughout a season, but you don’t necessarily “train” for one competitive point at the end. In swimming, it’s all about the end of the season. It’s all about the finished product. They don’t award Olympic gold medals for in-season performances.

Here’s another analogy, which is a little lame, but go with me: Imagine swimming to be like cooking a soup. Throughout the process, you throw all sorts of things into the soup: Technique, visualization, 10x400 IMs, winter training, reaction drills, dryland…. Then you mix it all together. All the ingredients are there, but it takes time until that soup will taste good. You have to let it simmer and give it time. You have to season it. Even just a pinch of salt is the difference between a great tasting soup and a mediocre soup. Winter training is sort of like putting in the meat ‘n’ potatoes into the soup. But until you add the seasoning (taper), the soup just won’t taste the same. Sometimes, like right now, it will taste terrible. That doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong track, though.

You’re broken down, Worried Swimmer. And when you’re broken down, you just won’t swim as fast as you normally would, even if you really, really want to. Look at Ryan Lochte: He hardly ever swims fast in the middle of the season. He’s usually so broken down, he’s getting 5th places, 7th places, 8th places… He’s not breaking world records, and he’s not winning. And, you know what else? He’s not worried. He trusts he’ll get to where he needs to be at the end of the season, when the time comes. Going back to that slingshot analogy, he’s just taking his time, pulling back that rubber band throughout the season, and taking aim on his goals until it’s time to shoot.

I’ll admit some coaches take winter training too far. Winter training should not be the only point in the swim season where hard training takes place, nor should it be this overly aggressive, insane, kill-your-shoulders-burn-out-all-your-swimmers training. Be wary of coaches who amp up the intensity from 5 mph to 95mph just for a few weeks over the winter. Just because you work hard two weeks in the winter doesn’t mean you’ll swim fast by the end of the season. It takes consistency. Winter training should be an increase of intensity, but not anything that will destroy your swimmers. Remember, coaches: You want to break swimmers down, but not to the point where you can no longer build them back up. You want to give a few practices and sets to swimmers where they can say to themselves: “If I can survive that, I can survive anything.”

Much of winter training is mental. Like that quote above. The swimmers who can confidently walk into a swim meet and know they gave their everything will have more confidence than the swimmers who self-doubt their training, who wonder if they have worked hard enough.

When you step up to the blocks at your championship meet, you want all the confidence you can have. While it’s frustrating not to have the confidence of a few best in-season times, instead, focus on your training.

Trust your training. And if you did good work over winter training, then good news: You’re getting there.

Tell yourself, “I’ve busted my butt to get here, more so than the person in the lane next to me, and now it’s time to prove it.” Don’t agonize over the races that don’t go your way when you’re broken down. You’re not supposed to swim fast right now in the middle of the season. Try your best at meets, but if it doesn’t work out, don’t beat yourself up. The only thing that matters when coming off winter training is that you give effort.

After all, you just added your meat ‘n’ potatoes. Give it some time, and continue giving effort, and trust the recipe for success, and by the end of the season, you’ll get to where you need to be.  


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