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By Bill Sweetenham

The progression of Endurance Training begins with an athlete having learnt rhythm of movement … control of technique … and breathing patterns to suit their individual strengths and weaknesses. These individual strengths and weaknesses will depend on the athlete's core body strength and flexibility to both develop great technique and then be able to comfortably hold or maintain this skill for the length of a training session under pressure. Notice that I said training session … not the athlete's particular event.

The athlete, at this stage, must love the sport and seek the challenge of competition. The athlete must be hungry for winning and the rewards that go with winning, and be continually stimulated that way. Continuous exposure to sprint training and sprint competition tends to over-expose this stimulus, promote stroke faults and bring on early age group performance plateauing.

The pursuit of endurance development must then progress into developing an aerobic and skill training base. Aerobic training is doing the most amount of work in the shortest possible time … with the minimum of rest … where the heart rate does not exceed 30BBM and should not go below 50BBM – and the athlete maintains quality technique and is fully recovered for the next workout. (BBM = beats below maximum)

However, young age groupers and women may and should go harder than 40BBM frequently with this demand; changing over time as maturation sets in and recovery skills are identified and enhanced.

This initial aerobic/skill base training year should occur at approximately 13 years of age for females and 14 years of age for males. The model that I use is 2,400kms per year in a 44-week year, in a total of 900 training hours. Competition is in addition to this set of standards. My rule of thumb for competition is that at 13 years – 13 competitions per year increasing at a rate of each additional year then add an additional competition (above-below and at standard).

With the exception of female 200 Breaststrokers, and female and male 800-1,500m swimmers, the vast majority of competitive swimmers peak at around 18-20 years of age. There exists a limited corridor of opportunity for this development to take place.

Females — due to a lack of muscle mass and greater recovery skills — can benefit to a much greater extent by having a much longer and more consistent aerobic training base. I find this point to be a massive weakness in the current coaching philosophies.

It has been my findings that, with the vast majority of age group athletes, there does not need to be specific high-level endurance sets completed at training prior to 13 years. The vast majority of all training should be aerobic and skill enhancement with little need for heart rate specific type work and more emphasis on short rest and over distance type training with varying stimulus. It is said that in aerobic training you get bored before you get tired. Coaches and good coaching will make the difference.

A simple rule of thumb training guideline is:

Total Volume

70% Minimum

Aerobic training at 70% of VO2

20% Maximum

Endurance training including high performance endurance sets

10% Maximum

Speed and Quality training (understand the difference between speed and effort)

In summary of the above points:

  1. Do not taper Age Groupers – simply rest and sharpen them.

  2. More volume and intensity of aerobic training for females.

  3. With rare exception (200 women's breaststroke and men's/women's distance events) Age Group swimmers need not specialise in doing high performance endurance training sets.

  4. Train down to high performance endurance sets – i.e. achieve 45x100 on 1.20 at any heart rate and reduce to 30x100 on 1.45/2.00 on a prescribed high level heart rate 20BBM.

  5. Vary the stimulus … heart rate compared to speed; speed compared to heart rate; both compared to recovery, length of set and repeats.

  6. Backstroke is a highly recommended technique for developing an aerobic base.

  7. Utilise negative split training for repeats longer than 200 metres, especially for female swimmers. All swimmers should complete training sets with even split training performances including "feet on wall" times.

  8. Develop every Age Grouper 13-14 years as a 200-400 Individual Medley swimmer, then specialise into specific strong events and more importantly, specific training for those events. Hold back two events for development should plateauing occur during maturation. These two events should be endurance based events.

  9. Rather than have one-off weekly high training volumes, develop continuity of average volumes of training over an extended period. Volume of training – continuity prepares the athlete to train. Intensity prepares the athlete to race and compete.

  10. For Age Group swimmers, have a "recovery/adaptation on need" model or standard with perhaps exceptions of exam times, and first week back at school time. Observe and "read" your swimmers continuously. At Age Level observe the recovery skill of the athlete, not only the sprint or distance ability of the athlete.

  11. Teach your athlete a progression of:
    Stroke Counts
    Pacing and Stroke Counts
    Maximum Heart Rate
    Heart Rate Recording relative to Speed
    Stroke Counts, Stroke Rates relative to Speed
    Speed relative to Heart Rate
    Combination of all of the above
    Do not go to the next step until the athlete fully grasps the last step.

  12. Understand that senior athletes with an adequate and continuing aerobic (top up consistency) base, will respond much quicker to a training or competition stimulus than an Age Group swimmer or one who does not have this training base.

  13. Efficiency at slow speed is a pre-requisite for efficiency at high speed. Stroke and technique enhancement can be done at aerobic speeds at a young age.

  14. Train in your second stroke for a race distance above your perceived best distance.

  15. In the vast majority of athletes, high performance endurance tests are far more advantageous done at a constant speed and/or heart rate. Some outstanding talents may be able to get by with descend sets as high performance endurance sets, but for specific endurance these are rare exceptions.

  16. For two beat or cross over kickers in distance freestylers, the combination of left hand entry – right foot kick (down) and right hand entry – left foot kick (down) with the same emphasis of a dolphin kick (deep hip kick) must be supported by aerobic training sets and high performance endurance kick sets.

With the demands, obligations and expectations of frequent and continuous competitions at Senior and Open level, combined with the greater retention of senior athletes with extended life span in the sport, I strongly recommend a secondary aerobic base/skill enhancement phase of training for one year at first year of Open competition -–i.e. 16-17 years. The goal that I have pursued in previous years is 2,000kms in 44 weeks of training in the similar but slightly shorter total number of training hours (800). Training should continue over 46-48 weeks of every year but, in particular, these two aerobic base years and aerobic training must be utilised during the rest of the training life at approximately 70% of the total training volume … just as some speed and quality training should be included in these aerobic overload phases (years).

It is my experience that unless ALL of this progression of development has occurred, then the benefits of the high performance endurance sets will:

  1. Have short-term benefits and plateau.

  2. Not allow the athlete to adjust to this specific stress.

  3. Have minimal beneficial effect.

These high performance sets, in my opinion, and with the exception of some male sprinters and women's breaststroke events, should contain very little descend work in them, vary in distance of repeats, and vary the stimulus – i.e. heart rate demand, speed demand, length of set (but not too much), and the amount of recovery … especially when initiating the young athlete to these sets as with all quality training type work.

Commence this type of training one year out from an anticipated or expected result from this type of work. Allow for delayed on-set affect and athlete adaptation.

However, having done at least all of these training and development progression, these sets can produce outstanding results. Kicking, resistance (as against leg floated), pull, and drills can be included in the makeup of high performance endurance training sets.


Establish "Individual Checking Speed", utilising sprint test workout (10x50, 5x100, 2x200, 1x400).

Set No.1


18x100 on 1.45

6x100 on 2.00

Heart rate at 20BBM-15BBM

(BBM = beats below maximum)

Record Times, Stroke Counts, Breathing Patterns

  1. Average of Total Set

  2. Average of first 18x100

  3. Average of last 6x100

(Do not include fastest and slowest time)

  • Compare heart rate to speed

Set No. 2

18 x 100 on 2.00

Hold the fastest average of above Set No.1 and record Heart Rates and Stroke Counts from Set No.1

  • Compare speed to heart rates

Set No. 3

24/30 x 100 on 1.45

Hold above times and heart rates from Set No.2 and compare speed and heart rate to shorter rest interval.

On consecutive cycles, speed and heart rate from this set can be compared to performances with longer rest in Set No.1, or with extended swim in Set No.4.

Set No.4

Either a T2000 or T3000 Test. Repeat progression of sets No.1 to No.4 on a fortnightly basis looking for improved performance. Set No.4 may be then done on three week to a monthly basis after several progressions early season.

This progression can be used utilising 50, 100, 150 and 200's or combinations of these repeat distances. However, 50's should be done at the back end of the set after fatigue has occurred. Progress 200 down through the week and season.

Workouts containing these sets should utilise a common set warm up and for Sets 1, 2 & 3 and should be followed by a sub maximal moderate but controlled and descending over distance swim of approximately 1,500-2,000m. Leading into these sets I would recommend utilising a drill progression which would include linking drills. All repeats must be even split swims.

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