Swimming Training: Philosophy and Practice with Dr. Allen Stark

Swimming Training:
Philosophy and Practice with Dr. Allen Stark


Presenting the newest contribution by U.S. Masters swimmer Allen Stark, M.D.! In this featured article, Allen introduces his take on swimming training. Every swimmer has a training philosophy geared towards his or her individual needs, and we love to hear from a variety of different perspectives. We believe swimmers should first get a coach to analyze their stroke technique prior to designing workouts. This will allow you to determine what type of workouts are right for you! Check out Allen’s philosophy and training method below.

Swim training is highly individualized

Swim training is highly individualized

Swimming is a lifelong sport. We want to live healthy lives for as long as possible. Ideally, swimming workouts should improve health and longevity and should be enjoyable enough that you look forward to doing them. How you structure your workout depends upon your goals. If your goal is to swim as many yards as possible in the time allotted, then swim continuously. If your goal is to maximize aerobic fitness, then swim longer distances with shorter rests, such as 200s with 15 seconds rest. If your goal is to compete in certain events, then you should design your training around those events. If you want to swim events fast, then you will need to incorporate race pace training.

Fortunately for me, I really enjoy the feeling of swimming fast, especially in the breaststroke and the butterfly, and I want to have race pace sets. The main focus of my workouts are the 50, 100 and 200 breaststroke events, and, secondarily, the 100 and 200 fly. Two good types of race pace sets that I use include High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and Ultra Short Race Pace Training (USRPT). There is a great deal that has been written about both USRPT and HIIT, and while I am certainly no expert in either, here is my take.

Allen Stark at the 2011 National Championships.

Allen Stark at the 2011 National Championships.

For USRPT, the goal is to have distances short enough to not generate more lactic acid than you can process in a short amount of time. If your goal distance is 100, divide your goal time for the 100 by 4 to generate your goal time for each 25. For simplicity’s sake, let’s say your goal time is 1 minute 20 seconds for a 100, or 80 seconds. In this case, 20 seconds is your goal time for each of the 25s. Allow 15 seconds of rest between swims, so you are going on the :35 interval. If you swim slower than 20 seconds for a 25, it is a fail. However, never fear: you want to fail occasionally, as failure is where adaptation comes in. When you fail, you would skip the next interval (taking an extra 35 seconds rest in this example) and go again. Two fails in a row or three total ends the set completely. If you get to 30 swims, that also will end the set but it simultaneously means that your goal was too slow. You shouldn’t be able to do that.

For 200s, again, divide your 200 goal time by 4 to get your 50 goal time. Dr. Rushall, who developed USRPT, recommends 20 seconds of rest for the 50s. So if your goal time is 2 minutes, 40 seconds, or 160 seconds, your goal time for the 50 is 40 seconds, plus 20 seconds rest is 50s on 60 seconds. The same rules of failure apply to this. For me, that allotted time is not enough rest for breaststroke or butterfly, so I give myself a 1:1 rest ratio. Along this line of thinking, my goal time is 38 seconds and I rest 38 seconds; I do 50s on the 1:16. 20 seconds seems to work fine with me for freestyle sets or breaststroke pull/dolphin kick with fins sets.

Rushall’s sprint sets are very much like HIIT sets. There are many different ways to do HIIT and I tend to rest longer than most recommend. For me, HIIT is built around half the race distance with the goal time being your goal split for the second half of the race. If your goal time for the 100s is 1:20 and you want a 4 second difference between the 1st and 2nd 50 (which is a good goal for a breaststroke race), your goal time would be :42. This should generate significant lactic acid, and in this case I want much more time to recover. I’d say start with a 1:1 swim/rest ratio and see if you can make your goal time. If not, go to 1:2 swim/rest. If not, then 1:3 or even 1:4. Make the rest an active rest by slow swimming to help get out the lactic acid. At 68 years old, I find that I frequently need the 1:4 interval for breaststroke. If possible at your pool, do these sets starting from the blocks, but, subtract 2 seconds from your goal time for the start. For example, your goal time is :42. From the blocks that would be minus 2 seconds – so for :40, 40×2 equals 80 seconds rest, so at 1:2 it would be 50s on the 2 minutes. 40+80=120 seconds, or 2 minutes. At 1:3 it is 40×3=120 seconds rest, plus 40 is 160 or 50s on the 2:40. At 1:4, it’s 40×4=160 seconds rest plus 40 = 200 seconds, so it is 50s on the 3:20. For sprinters, Rushall recommends swimming 25s on the 4 minutes to give plenty of time to make each one as perfect as possible.

A variety of training techniques are used by swimmers.

A variety of training techniques are used by swimmers.

In terms of my own training, I swim 4 days per week. Of the 4 days, 1 day is 50 pace day, 1 is 100 pace day, 1 is 200 pace day and the 4th one is either another race pace day at whichever pace I want to work on, or long slow work, mostly drills, or whatever interests me. Whichever workout I do, I choose between HIIT or USRPT or a set of each, whichever seems more fun for me that day, or seems less likely to hurt me. If you are swimming for the long haul, you need to find workouts that are sustainable, which mostly means that they need to be fun and not workouts that might get you injured. If you start swimming competitively in your 40s and you are aiming to swim into your 100s, that is a total of 60 years in the pool. If you are like me and started Masters at age 25, and are aiming for 100, that’s 75 years. Thinking about it that way makes sustainability the most important factor.

As I said, I swim 4 days a week. If I swim more than that I tend to get hurt. If I swim more than 250 yards race pace breaststroke, I tend to get hurt. If I swim more than 125 yards as fast as possible breaststroke, I tend to get hurt. If I get a twinge – meaning a joint or a tendon pain – I stop what I am doing and do something else. I was at the U.S. Masters Swimming camp at the Olympic Training Center in 2003 and the physical therapy instructor at the camp said something that I have tried to take to heart. He said, “I know how you swimmers are. You pull a muscle and, if you rested it for just two days, you’d be fine. But you don’t rest it. You keep going. Pretty soon you have tendonitis or a torn tendon and you are out for six months.” Since I limit how much race pace breaststroke I do, much of my workout is breaststroke pull/dolphin kick with fins. I do these with a flip turn, as it is hard to do open turns with fins and it adds to the difficulty of the pull out.

Allen Stark at the FINA Masters World Championships

Allen Stark at the FINA Masters World Championships

Another important element to training, especially for Masters swimmers who are doing race pace work, is warming up. I usually warm up for a minimum of 15 minutes, and sometimes over 20 minutes if I feel my muscles are tight. One thing I don’t think is effective that many people do in their workout is sprinting only at the end of practice. Technique is vital in sprinting, but if you are always practicing when you’re tired, your technique will suffer. My typical swim workout is 15 to 20 minutes of warm up and 40 minutes of mostly race pace work, followed by 10 minutes of stretching. I do my main sets within the 40 minute time frame. Instead of setting up a distance goal, I set up the time goal. That means I really don’t care how far I swim, and I find it distracting to try and keep count. If I feel my turns aren’t sharp, I will stop and do a series of turns. If I want to do vertical kicking, I will stop and do vertical kicking. Personally, if I were focused on how many yards I was doing, it would inhibit my flexibility in the workouts.

I also try to lift weights twice a week, ideally right after I swim. I find that if I lift after swimming, it doesn’t affect my swimming technique and I start lifting very warmed up from the swimming, so I am less likely to get hurt.
That’s my individual take on swimming and training. I hope this helps you to understand what I am doing and why I am doing it, and maybe you will also find it useful in your own training!

Dr. Allen Stark, M.D. is a U.S. Masters Swimmer based in the state of Oregon. A breaststroke specialist, Allen has held several national and world individual records, and is part of two currently held national relay records. When he’s not swimming, Allen runs his own psychiatry practice with his wife and fellow swimmer, Dr. Carol L. R. Stark, M.D. 

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