A 46 year old swimmer from Azerbaijan has been working with me for some months through the Mediterra Swim Dojo, our online training site, to prepare for 10 km swimming this summer. Within the last year or so he’s gone from essentially a non-swimmer to a confident and capable distance swimmer. Each month he performs a gradually longer test swim – the latest was 8 km continuous – in the pool!
He’s not focused merely on distance, but on deep stroke refinement. Like me – he is obsessed with making it feel and perform better and better. Because of his recent entry into swimming, and because of his age and how far he has come in his technical control we both agreed it would be good for him to spend some time working on the other end of the swimming spectrum, in 100 meter sprint work. This would work his muscles, joints and neural pathways in a different and important way. So, I finally gathered my notes and composed our Training Plan 100 on the Dojo so he could be the first online student to work through it.
Yet, he asked how might sprint work help him with distance? Good question!
These were the first reasons that came to mind for a distance swimmer to do some sprint work for part of the season…
Reason #1: Building Strength
For those who are over 40, losing muscle mass and muscle power is a serious concern. We’ve got to do more than we used to in order to maintain what we’ve got.
As we age, the body will more readily remove muscles cells that are not being used. We need to build up the muscle fibers we have and prevent the body from retiring the unused ones. This will help us preserve strength longer in life.
Sprint work, done well, is like lifting heavier weights. It will build muscle power. Although we may not grow new muscle cells, we can greatly increase the strength of the ones that remain.
A swimmer with stronger muscle fibers to do the work, with more muscle fibers to distribute the work among, will be able to swim longer distance and enjoy a shorter, less uncomfortable recovery after a strenuous effort.
Reason #2: Work At Higher Intensity
It might be more attractive for adults to pick up distance swimming because it feels easier to swim at moderate effort for longer duration than to work at high intensity for short duration. But, by doing this most never quite work into the zone where the body is stressed enough to provoke consistent growth. The athlete may be doing more overall distance, but not enough with high intensity.
By stressing the performance systems to a point beyond our current capabilities, we provoke those systems to adapt and expand. We need these performance systems, not only for swimming, but for simply protecting our bodies as we get older. Stronger, active, agile adults have less falls, less fractures, less decay. Higher intensity work makes more resilient bodies.
Most distance swimmers, without a knowledgeable coach pushing them to work a bit harder, to work with a bit more quality, are likely not working in the zone that will really provoke improvement in capabilities. When we are suppose to go easy we usually don’t go easy enough, and when we are suppose to go hard we usually don’t go hard enough. Instead we spend too much time training in the middle zone that is not very effective at making the athlete better.
Sprint work forces us to work at high intensity, in terms of cardiovascular effort, in muscle fiber recruitment, and in neural stimulation. If it is assumed we have been doing all we can to improve our technical control, then I can only see benefits for the distance swimmer having more power to draw from – short, high intensity work is going to build power far better than long distance work at moderate intensity will.
Reason #3: Get More Comfortable With Discomfort
Life often presents difficulties, usually at the least convenient times. The best life comes, not to those who somehow are lucky enough to avoid difficulties, but to those who can more quickly accept and more easily adapt to the inevitable arrival of hardship. By developing a better attitude about working productively in the midst of discomfort, about getting hard work done well, we are in much better position to focus on adapting, rather than complaining or giving up.
Sprint work imposes certain kinds of discomfort, obviously. This is why people avoid it.
But, sprint work done well is exacting. We measure time in tenths of seconds. We measure in half-strokes. Tempo is adjusted in .01 second increments. Rest is strictly limited. Failures in quality and in time are quickly assessed and corrections made for the next repeat. With this precise way of controlling the work, receiving feedback and making measurements, we can be caught up in the intrigue of the work and more easily disregard the discomfort… even come to enjoy it in many ways. It becomes part of the game.
Sprint work – in the way we do it – trains the mind to stay productively engaged in the task in order to make a positive impact on the next outcome. This is a superb way to handle any kind of hardship in life.
Reason #4: Get More Honest Assessment Of Our Capabilities
With such a consistent requirement for quality effort, with such precise measurements, with such rigorous testing, practice after practice, we get a more objective sense of what we are really capable of. A 100 (meter or yard) personal record sprint time is a universal measure among swimmers.
The test of an open water swimmer comes from actually dealing with the conditions only wild open water presents, on top of the demands of swimming itself. We seek that complexity in open water.
But with sprint work, in the pool between two precisely spaced walls, we can strip all of that environmental concern away and see just what this body can do alone with the water.
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