What It Takes to Be a World-Class Medley Swimmer

Bowman, Bob

The IM-and, in particular, the 400 IM-has progressed to the point where you need to be technically proficient in all four strokes, have superb endurance, great speed and power, and the ability to think strategically.

There are four major components that go into developing a world-class individual medley swimmer:

* Technical Proficiency

* Endurance Capability

* Speed and Power

* Strategic Thinking

If Michael Phelps takes the fly out in 55 seconds and follows with a minute for the backstroke, you don’t want him just swimming through the breaststroke, then bringing it home. You can’t get away with that any longer. If you try, someone from Hungary or Russia or wherever will eat you up on your weak strokes and beat you to the wall.

Technical Proficiency. If you want to be an elite, world-class 400 IMer-and especially if you want to be a world record holder-at the very least you need to be a U.S. national finalist in all four strokes, Michael Phelps has won U.S. national titles in the 200 fly, where he is the world record holder; the 200 back, where he is the second-fastest all-time; and the 200 free, in which he holds the American record. The only stroke in which he has not been a national finalist is the breaststroke, but that’s because he hasn’t entered the 200 breast at a U.S. nationals yet. When he does, I believe he’ll be fast enough to be a finalist.

To be world-class in the IM, you must be able to do all the strokes at a very sophisticated technical level. In essence, you must also be a 200-meter stroke specialist. That’s what separates the good medley swimmers from the great ones. It used to be-before the 400 medley became so competitive-that an elite 400 IMer was either a breaststroker with endurance or a miler and, in either case, a training animal. No longer. Now you have to be at the elite level in all four strokes-and you still have to be a training animal.

Endurance Capability. Success in every swimming event is predicated upon having the aerobic background that gives a swimmer great endurance capability. But endurance capability is not only the framework for success in a particular event. It is also what allows a swimmer to compete in several events and be successful in all of them.

This, I believe, is where some people misunderstand what training is all about. Yes, you want to have specificity of training. But the training delivers more than just the specific training stimulus. You also want a swimmer to have multi-event capability. That can’t happen unless he or she has extraordinary endurance built upon a foundation of aerobic conditioning.

Sometimes I am asked, “Does Michael really need to do 10 x 800 in practice to swim a great 400 IM?” The answer is: not specifically for the 400 IM.

But if he wants to swim the 200 back, then come back half an hour later and do the 200 fly, then come back again in 45 minutes and win the 400 IM-yes, he does need to swim ten 800s.

Speed and Power. Nowadays, an elite IMer needs to have great speed and the ability to use that speed to take a race out fast. Michael can take his 400 IM out in 55 seconds. Tom Dolan, who held the world record before Michael, could only go out in a 58. You can’t win at the international level unless you have great speed and power to go along with technical proficiency and tremendous endurance capability.

Strategic Thinking. Without question, the 400 IM demands more strategic thinking than any other event. A worldclass IMer needs to know the five strokes-I count underwater skills as a separate stroke-how to use them to maximum effect and how they fit together, especially the transition from breaststroke to freestyle.


Technical Proficiency

The way you go about gaining technical proficiency is by mastering one thing at a time. There may be five things wrong with a swimmer’s technique, but you can’t change your whole laundry list of five things at once. You need to list the changes to be made, prioritize them, work on the first item on your list until it has been mastered, switch to the second item and master it, do the same with the third, and so on. After mastering any particular item on the list, you may want to switch and go back to a previous skill.

Lay a foundation of Skills. We like to lay a foundation of basic skills for all our swimmers by emphasizing all five strokes with individual days of training. For each weekly cycle, we’ll have one day where we’ll focus primarily on backstroke, another will be a big breaststroke day, then we’ll have a big distance free day, a primary stroke day, an IM day and another technique day. Flyers can do butterfly on the primary stroke day, and we dole out small doses of fly on all the other days.

Isolate Skills and Prioritize. I like to prioritize and then work on my highest priorities first. In Fort Lauderdale in 2002, when Michael went into that final turn of the 400 IM behind Erik Vendt, then came off that wall with a full 15 meters of underwater dolphin kicking, that was no accident or spur-of-the-moment decision. That strategic move came as a product of six months of preparation.

Building Endurance Capability

There are several different types of endurance, and to be a world-class medley swimmer, you have to work on all of them.

Central endurance, or cardiovascular endurance, of course, is essential to all swimming events except the 50s. Fortunately, the body can become aerobically fit in only about six weeks.

In contrast, peripheral endurance, or muscular endurance, takes much longer to develop, about three to six months. Here you are training the neuromuscular system to do things repetitively, and that process takes a lot of repetition. Needless to say, it’s essential that the repetition be done with the proper movement pattern.

General and specific endurance are the two remaining types of endurance needed to produce an athlete who is able to handle the workload and the physical and mental stresses of training. General endurance results in a better athlete, one who can recover faster from all stresses and can handle a higher training volume. Specific endurance, not surprisingly, refers to the specific skill, itself-being able to finish a 200 fly or 200 breast, for example. These are two different types of endurance, but a world-class IMer must have both, and both types are major components of our training.

Speed and Power

We focus on basic (technical) speed-that is, high speed, swum faster than race pace and with perfect technique-at the end of workout when the swimmers are tired. What we do are short sprints-25, 20 or 12-1/2 yards or meters-with plenty of rest. These are done at the end of workout mainly because the body is already under a significant amount of stress. When we’re swimming long course, we might typically go a 25-meter sprint at faster than race pace, then swim easy to the end of the pool. These sprints allow the body, while under a load of fatigue, to swim faster than race pace.

We also do race-pace sprints. The purpose of these sprints is to condition the stroke to respond appropriately to the race feel and conditions. They simulate in the workout the stress of competition while maintaining optimum technique.

While building speed and power, an elite IMer must also refine the technical details of his or her race, including starts, turns and underwater swimming. Don’t neglect stroke rate and distance-per-cycle, which has a lot to do with race-pace training because it is literally building the stroke the swimmer will use in the race, then conditioning that stroke to respond. If the swimmer does that on a regular basis, his body will respond automatically when faced with virtually any challenge that might arise in competition.

Strategic Thinking

In training world-class medley swimmers, I believe you go with your strengths before you try to minimize any weaknesses. It’s a fundamental principle: always go with your strengths first. That way you won’t lose sight of developing your strengths because you are trying to improve your weaknesses.

The opportunities for improvement are important to a swimmer’s success. I call this kind of improvement “raising the basement.” I want your worst technical skill to be better than it was before. I want your baseline technical ability, your baseline endurance capability, your baseline speed and strength to increase progressively over time because then your peak level will also increase.

These two things-improvements in baseline and peak levels-don’t happen independently of each other. So, as you’re going with your strengths, you are also minimizing your weaknesses.

Stroke Modulation. In thinking strategi- cally about an event or a race, a swimmer needs to analyze his or her strengths and make appropriate choices. Different races should be swum differently. We call this stroke modulation. For example, in the backstroke portion of the 400 IM, a swimmer typically will emphasize a faster arm tempo, de-emphasizing the intensity of the kick so he can have the legs avail- able for the breaststroke.

Here’s another example of stroke mod- ulation:

Very strong flyers can swim the butterfly portion of the race more relaxed simply because they are able to swim easier than their competition at a faster speed. This is one of Michael’s great strengths in the 400 IM-he can swim a 55 for the opening 100 meters of fly, and it will he easy and relaxed for him. That gives him a tremendous advantage over his competition, who either must struggle to try and keep up, or concede several seconds to Michael in the first quarter of the race-seconds that will not be easy to make up.

Momentum Changers. Momentum changers are key points in a race where you can take advantage of an opportunity to make a move or take the lead and change the complexion of that race. It could be during the underwater, or at a certain turn, or at a specific spot in a lap.

The most important potential momentum changer is the transition from breaststroke to freestyle. The speed difference between the swimmer swimming freestyle and the other guy doing breaststroke creates a deficit that simply can’t be made up.

The 400 IM vs. the 200 IM

Normally, 400 IMers are good 1500 meter swimmers. Tom Dolan and Janet Evans are excellent examples. In contrast, 200 IMers are often outstanding 200 freestylers. Massi Rosolino and Attila Czene illustrate that tendency.

Swimmers who swim both races well always train and race down from the 400 to the 200. Think of Michael Phelps, Tracy Caulkins, Tamas Darnyi and Yana Klochkova. I can’t think of anyone who was a successful world-class 200 IMer who then added the 400.

There are identifiable patterns of related events for both IMs. On the one hand, 400 IMers tend to be good at the mile and 200 meter stroke events. Dolan was an outstanding 1500 meter swimmer who was also world-class in the 200 back, breast and free. On the other hand, 200 IMers most often are good 200 freestylers and 100-meter stroke swimmers. Attila Czene, for example, was world-class in the 100 and 200 free as well as the 100 back.

400 IM

The following are my admittedly subjective feelings about how best to race both medley events.

Here are what I believe to be the keys to swimming the 400 IM:

* Butterfly. The first 50 meters must be relaxed. The second 50 is often the most important lap of the race. This is the best opportunity to open up and hurt your competitors and gain the most advantage.

Almost everyone overswims the first 50 or is impatient while swimming it. Michael Phelps’ 400 individual medley really took off only after he learned to relax on the first 50. Once he did that, he could make his move on the second 50, building momentum.

The others swimmers might have committed the strategic error of pressing too hard on that first 50, then coming off that first turn, thinking, “Man, this hurts a little…and I’ve got 350 meters to go.” Meanwhile, Michael is building momentum.

* Backstroke. Use more arm tempo and lighter legs.

* Breaststroke. The pullouts are critical to establishing the rhythm of the stroke. You’ve got to be carrying momentum and speed from the underwater pullout to the surface, particularly in the 400 IM, where you’re under so much stress. You don’t want a short pullout, then just pop up, have no momentum and have to start from scratch. You’ve got to carry that speed off the wall.

* Freestyle. As I mentioned earlier, the breast-to-free transition is a very big opportunity. If you’ve made the turn and are swimming freestyle while everyone else is still doing breaststroke, they can’t make up the advantage and will never be able to catch you. Essentially, the race is over.

Still, the final 100 meters should be swum strategically. Build the first 50 meters; then on the final 50, throw your kick into it. Kill your legs as you head for the touch pads.

If you decide to go for that long underwater dolphin off the final turn, you’ve got to train for it. As I wrote earlier, when Michael used the underwater dolphin to overtake Erik Vendt at the 2002 Summer Nationals, we’d been training it every day for six months. That turned out to he Michael’s margin of victory as both guys went under Tom Dolan’s world record. You’ve got to train it every day.

200 IM

The 200 IM is a very different race. Here are the keys to swimming it:

* Butterfly. Try to maximize your start and use those body dolphin movements to carry your momentum from the start and build speed.

* Backstroke. Use more legs and underwater than in the 400. Again, maximize what you get from those underwater 15 meters of dolphin kick.

* Breaststroke. Here the breaststroke is much more power- and more tempo-oriented than in the 400. That’s the reason why some mediocre breaststrokers can get by in the 200 IM, but not the 400.

* Freestyle. Here, as in the 400 IM, build off the breast-to-free transition, and kick hard.

Key Elements of the NBAC Training Program

The guiding principles of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club (NBAC) training program are:

* Attitude Development

* Incremental Technical Improvement

* Continuous Preparation

* Condition the Stroke

Attitude Development

The single most important thing we demand of our athletes is that they approach what they are doing with the proper attitude: is it an ordeal or an adventure? We try to tell them what the proper attitude is, but ultimately it’s up to each individual athlete.

On “adventure” days, when Michael comes to the pool, I can see it immediately in his eyes, his demeanor. On those days, I could drop him off at the lake, have him swim on his own for two hours, and he would still get in a world-class workout. But on “ordeal” days, he could have several coaches and doctors standing over him the entire time, and it wouldn’t make a difference.

If you don’t have the proper attitude, you’re not going to accomplish anything worthwhile.

Incremental Technical Improvement

We view the development of a worldclass swimmer as a long-term operation. It’s an operation in which years of small changes eventually add up to major principles. At NBAC, a Michael Phelps or a Katie Hoff is four to six years in the making.

Continuous Preparation

Continuous preparation is the key to continuous improvement. The NBAC program never shuts down. Never! Our feeling is the more time a swimmer spends in that foreign medium-the water-the better he or she will be. It enhances feel for the water. You can’t get that when you’re constantly interrupting the program. So we don’t have a break between short course and long course seasons, and we don’t break at the end of summer.

Swimmers may take a few days off at the end of a season, but these breaks are set up on an individual basis.

We also train seven days a week-not five or six. In a typical week, we’ll have doubles on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and one practice on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. When there’s no school, we usually make Tuesday a doubles day.

Condition the Stroke

Conditioning the stroke is a very important concept I learned from (NBAC Head Coach) Murray Stephens. It merges ideas from exercise physiology, biomechanics and other scientific perspectives to have the swimmer’s strokes develop an integrated, conditioned response to the demands of a competitive environment.

A biomechanist looks at arms and legs, levers and vectors, and they equal a swimmer. A physiologist looks at the heart, lungs and blood and, to him, they equal a swimmer. These are valuable perspectives, but when you’re doing a training set, you’re trying to condition the stroke to respond as you’d like it to do in a race. You want an integrated response.

We don’t look at training and say, on a particular day, that we’re focusing on EN1 and the only thing that matters is keeping the swimmer’s heart rate at 150 or 140. That’s not enough. There are also neuromuscular, technique and psychological factors to consider. We try to tie all these factors together in a comprehensive package of development.

Dryland Training

Our attitude toward dryland training is that it must enhance performance, not destroy it. The philosophy is: the best way to swim fast in competition is to swim fast in practice.

Consequently, our dryland training must complement what is going on in the water, and it must pass the test of helping the athlete to swim faster in practice. That’s why we never use weights, which are stressful, tear the athlete down and take 48 hours for recovery.

All of our dryland training is done directly after swimming. We usually go for 30-60 minutes every day but Sunday, and use medicine balls, the VASA Trainer, Total Gym, and so on.

Bob Bowman is the senior coach at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club in Maryland and has trained Michael Phelps for the last seven years.

Copyright Sports Publications, Inc. Apr-Jun 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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