5 Hot Swimming Topics for Elite Swimmers

As a take home message:

  1. Some of the hot topics for elite swimmers are shared in this piece
  2. I will elaborate on what Science tell us on those topics and what we have yet to learn
  3. For further reading, I will share a few papers and interviews with leading researchers

We are on the road to two major international competitions: Kazan 2015 and Rio 2016. Everybody is looking forward for both competitions. Those that work on the backstage, such as analysts and researchers, hopefully are experienced, as hot topics can diverge training plans, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst.

Here you will find five selected hot topics, based on my personal opinion, that several coaches and elite swimmers have been seeking advice. You are most welcome to add more topics on the bottom of this piece. Please, be my guest.

The piece is structured in a not-too-wordy FAQ style:

  1. What do we know so far? I.e., what is the solid scientific knowledge on the topic and the take home message;
  2. What we don’t know yet? I.e., what are the gaps that we still find in the Science, the grey zone, or the limitations reported by the researchers;
  3. Where do I find more details on this? You can have deeper insight on these topics referring to selected research papers or interviews with leading researchers.

And without further ado, the selected topics are……

5 Hot Swimming Topics for Elite Swimmers

  1. High-intensity (interval) training & Ultra-short race-pace training

What do we know so far?

We do know that for low-tier swimmers, any training program is effective. Can be HI(I)T or any other program, including MICE (acronym

High Intensity Swimming Training

for “moderate-intensity continuous exercise”).

HI(I)T is on one end of the spectrum (High-intensity; low-volume) and MICE on the opposite end (Low-intensity; high-volume). USRPT is considered by some people as an extension of HI(I)T although including some extra features. We also find “mixed” programs with different Hi-Lo combinations of volume and intensity.

Mid-tier swimmers show the same performance enhancement regardless of the program being HI(I)T or MICE. Hence, HI(I)T can be considered as more efficient because they get the same outcome with lower physical and psychological stress.

What we don’t know yet?

We find anecdotal reports and claims that a few elite swimmers showed improvements or delivered good performances after a HI(I)T/USRPT program.

We don’t have solid scientific evidence that HI(I)T/USRPT is more or less effective in high-performance swimmers though. I.e., there is not sufficient evidence to endorse or discontinue HI(I)T/USRPT in elite swimmers.

Nevertheless, I am wondering if world-class coaches, at some point of the periodization program, include in their training sessions some of the HI(I)T concepts.

Where do I find more details on this?

Interviews to leading researchers on the topic can be found here and here.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

  1. Altitude

What do we know so far?

An altitude training camp should take roughly 4 weeks. The best times are posted 2-4 weeks after returning to sea level.

On the first week at sea level, performance might even impair. So re-acclimatization is a good moment for tapering before major competitions.

The duration of this recovery seems to be dependent on the event to be raced and individual characteristics of the swimmer.

Altitude training is related to the hypoxia effect, but also the fact of swimmers and coaches are completely focused on the training round the clock, with no need to juggle between different commitments.

Most of the times these camps are held at venues where swimmers can easily approach support staff (e.g., biomechanists, physiologists, Mireia Belmonte VO2 swimming test Altitude Trainingnutritionists, physical therapists, etc.) to be monitored, seeking their advice and thoughts (seems to improve performance at least by 3%).

What we don’t know yet?

There is an individual response to altitude, hence swimmers that are low-responders should be flagged beforehand.

The effect of intermediate- v high-altitude training is still a little bit controversial. I.e., what is the minimum altitude needed?

A lot of research will be done on the different combinations of Hi and Lo regimens.

The nocebo and placebo effects of being part on this kind of training camps is still to be studied.

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic can be found here.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

  1. Warm-up

What do we know so far?

Active warm-up has a positive effect on the swimmer’s performance. Bigger effects were found notably for middle- and long-distance (i.e. 200m onwards) than for sprint events.

Pre-race dry-land stretching drills are a common practice as a complement to the in-water warm-up; despite no effects preventing injuries or enhancing the performance. Clarification: I’m talking about stretching before the race and not about a well-designed program over time to enhance flexibility to an optimal range of motion.

The in-water warm-up should last for 15–25 min, including a moderate-intensity set, another of specific drills focusing also on the stroke efficiency, a set with reps at the race pace, starts and turns.

For the time-lag between the in-water warm-up and the race, passive warm-up should be considered.

What we don’t know yet?

The optimal design (e.g., duration, volume, intensity, type of drills and recovery period) according to the event to be raced is not yet fully understood.

Little is known on the effect of different passive warm-up strategies, although none should rise the body temperature above 39 degrees Celsius, otherwise performance might impair.

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic: still to come. Stay tuned.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

  1. Strength & conditioning

What do we know so far?

A S&C program concurrent to the in-water training helps to prevent injuries and enhance the performance.

A S&C coach should also monitor anthropometric features and sometimes a preliminary assessment of the body posture and limbs’ alignments. However, physiotherapists can run more comprehensive clinical tests.

The program must be coupled with a proper diet according to the goals to be achieved (i.e. swimmer should refer to a nutritionist).12th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) - Day Three

S&C can help when the swimmer pushes solid bodies (i.e. block-start; wall-turns) being explosive power a major determinant.

Performance can also be improved while he pulls a fluid body (i.e. water-swim strokes).

Dryland S&C does not have a direct effect on the performance. The earlier one will have an influence on specific in-water parameters and the later on the performance.

As rule of thumb, routines should change every 3-4 weeks (i.e., mesocycle or block) and training loads adjusted to remain effective and avoid injuries.

What we don’t know yet?

The challenge though is the transfer of dry-land strength & power to water and make the best use of it swimming, turning and starting.

More reliable in-water measuring techniques could be developed in the new future. E.g., handgrip testing is not specific enough and tethered swim has some hydrodynamic limitations. Obviously, these tests also have some pros, but I won’t elaborate on that today.

One concern that we cannot rule out is how to build-up power (that is based on maximal strength) avoiding the significant increase of body surface area and weight that affects drag force, buoyancy and underwater torque.

Should the S&C session be before or after the in-water training?

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic can be found here.

One research paper can be retrieved here and here.

  1. Starts & turns

What do we know so far?Doha 2014 Dive

Starts plus turns can account up to 50% in a sprint.

Turns can represent up to 30% of the race time in middle- and long-distance events.

Streamline gliding and dolphin kicks are important phases in both race moments.

Over the start, underwater phase (i.e. gliding and dolphin kick) depends upon above-water phases (i.e., take-off horizontal velocity and optimal flight trajectory).

What we don’t know yet?

The body of knowledge on the start seems to be more solid and consistent than for the turns.

The big challenge for the swimmer is to understand when to stop gliding and begin the dolphin kicks, stop the kicking and start or resume the swim stroke.

Where do I find more details on this?

The interview to a leading researcher on the topic can be found here and here.

One research paper can be retrieved here.

By Tiago M. Barbosa PhD degree recipient in Sport Sciences and faculty at the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

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More Research on Altitude Training for Swimmers with Dr. Ferran Rodríguez

This interview is with Dr. Ferran Rodríguez. Dr. Rodríguez is one of the leading researchers for the Altitude Project, and here are some of Dr. Rodríguez’s latest publications:

  1. Rodríguez FA, Iglesias X, Feriche B, Calderón-Soto C, Chaverri D​, Wachsmuth​ NB, Schmidt W, Levine BD (​2015​) Altitude training in elite swimmers for sea level performance (Altitude Project). Med​ SciSports ​Exerc. DOI 00005768-900000000-97816.​ [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271522415_Altitude_training_in_elite_swimmers_for_sea_level_performance_%28Altitude_Project%29​]
  2. Rodríguez FA (2010) Training at real and simulated altitude in swimming: too high expectations? In: Kjendlie P-L, Stallman RK, Cabri J, editors. Biomechanics and Medicine in Swimming XI. Oslo: Norwegian School of Sport Science. pp. 30-32​ [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/239521844_Training_at_real_and_simulated_altitude_in_swimming_too_high_expectations]
  3. Rodríguez FA, Truijens MJ, Townsend NE, Stray-Gundersen J, Gore CJ, ​Levine BD​ (2007) Performance of runners and swimmers after four weeks of intermittent hypobaric hypoxic exposure plus sea level training. J Appl Physiol 103: 1523-1535. [https://www.researchgate.net/publication/6149845_Performance_of_runners_and_swimmers_after_four_weeks_of_intermittent_hypobaric_hypoxic_exposure_plus_sea_level_training]​

1. Please introduce yourself to the readers (how you started in the Ferran Rodriguez, top reseracher on altitude training for swimmersprofession, education, credentials, experience, etc.).

​My name is ​Ferran A. Rodríguez. I hold an MD, and a PhD and a Sports Medicine Specialty degrees and, after 25 years of sports medicine practice, I now work as a professor in the National Institute of Physical Education of Catalonia (INEFC), University of Barcelona. I have worked with swimmers ​and water polo players ​
​for more than 30 years, from beginners to Olympic medalists, and served as a physician and physiologist for the Spanish national and Olympic teams in both sports. I am currently the coordinator and PI of the INEFC-Barcelona Sport Sciences Research Group (www.inefcresearch.wordpress.com​)​.

​2. You recently published an article on altitude training. Could you explain the possible physiological benefits of altitude training?

Altitude/hypoxic training is a common practice among swimmers​, but ​its benefits are still controversial in scientific literature. While acute hypoxia deteriorates swimming performance, chronic hypoxia may induce acclimatization effects, mainly through the acceleration of red blood cell production, which could improve aerobic capacity and therewith performance upon return to sea level. Other potential benefits ​have been postulated, ​ such as improved exercise economy, enhanced muscle buffer capacity and pH regulation, and improved mitochondrial function. ​ However, back in 2010 I published a review entitled “Training at real and simulated altitude in swimming: Too high expectations?” (see references above), somehow expressing my reticence to accept the available evidence as compelling.

3. What are the various types of altitude training and the potential benefits of each?

Traditional altitude training (“live high-train high”​, Hi-Hi​) is still the most frequently used method in swimming, even though from a physiological perspective​,​ the “live high-train low”
(Hi-Lo)​ appeared​ to be more promising ​based on studies with runners and orienteers. Based on available scientific literature, there ​was no evidence that training ​at natural altitude enhances swimming performance more than training at sea level. Based on research conducted in other sports, the optimal approach ​seemed to be ​Hi​-​Lo​, in which one “lives high” (i.e. 2,100-2,500 m) to get the benefits of altitude acclimatization and “trains low” (1,250 m or less) to avoid the detrimental effects of hypoxic exercise. Training at hypoxia (as in ​Hi-Hi​ or IHT​, intermittent hypoxic training​) does not appear to provide any physiologic advantage over normoxic exercise and might even impair performance. Swimming performance enhancement by means of ​intermittent hypoxic exposure (​IHE​)​ is still controversial. However, it is likely that at least 12 h/day at 2,100–3,000 m​ ​for 3 to 4 weeks may suffice to achieve a significant increase of red cell mass. Shorter exposure to more severe hypoxia (e.g. 4,000 to 5,500 m, 3 h/day for 2 to 4 weeks) combined with sea-level training may enhance VO2max, ventilatory threshold and middle-distance swimming performance after pre-competition tapering, although the mechanisms are unclear​ (Rodríguez et al. 2007)​. In any case, there is substantial individual variability in the outcome of every AT strategy. Since none of these approaches has conclusively proven to enhance swimming performance, more research is warranted to clarify their effects and mechanisms.

4. What did your study look at?

Our article (Rodríguez et al. 2015) derives from the ALTITUDE Training Project​, an international collaborative research study ​on the impact of different strategies of altitude training on performance, technique and health status in elite swimmers​. We wanted to determine the effectiveness of altitude training using the Hi-Hi​ (for 3 or 4 weeks) or the Hi-​Hi​ Lo (living high ​and training ​high and at lower altitude) model​s​, in comparison with sea level training​ (Lo-Lo), as well as to ​establish the physiological mechanisms involved​ and the impact on ​swimming technique​. We also wanted to uncover any negative impact on athletes’ health and performance​, as well as to ​identify markers of individual response and adaptation to training at altitude that could help clarify which athletes are likely to respond to an altitude training swimming camp.​ ​

The project involved 65 international elite swimmers from eight nations (including China, Australia and Spain, among others) and a high-profile international group of researchers belonging to universities and national swimming organizations of Spain, USA, Finland, Slovenia, UK, and The Netherlands. Training camps at sea level were implemented in Barcelona and Madrid, and the altitude camps in the Altitude Training Center of Sierra Nevada, Spain (2,320 m).

5. What were the results of your study?

​The article published in MSSE covers only the effects on performance, VO2max and hemoglobin mass. For the first time using a controlled designed (i.e. compared with a sea level group), we carbon monoxide test for total hemoglobin mass assessment in the altitude training studyfound performance improvements after a natural altitude training intervention in swimmers. Although there were no changes –or in some cases a worsening of performance– immediately following 3-4 weeks of any training strategy, swimming performance in stroke-specific 100 or 200 m improved significantly by ∼3.1–3.7% after 1 to 4 weeks of recovery following completion of a coach-prescribed training camp conducted at sea level or at moderate altitude (2,320 m). When using the Hi-HiLo strategy (i.e. 2 weekly sessions of high intensity training at 700 m), a greater improvement in performance occurred 2 and 4 weeks after the training camp (5.3 and 6.3%, respectively). A greater improvement was also observed in 400 and 50 m front crawl, 2 weeks (4.2% and 5.2%, respectively) and 4 weeks (4.7% and 5.5%, respectively) upon return to sea level. Surprisingly, his substantial performance enhancement was not linked to changes in VO2max, oxygen kinetics or hemoglobin mass, hence could not be attributed exclusively to enhanced oxygen transport capacity.

6. What were the practical implications for coaches and swimmers from your study?

Based on ​our results, ​performance ​can be expected to substantially improve as a result of a well-implemented training camp, regardless of whether it is held at altitude or not​. However, ​a greater benefit can be expected by “living high-training high and low” (Hi-HiLo)​. However, ​we need to be careful ​not to generalize these improvements to all swimmers, since substantial individual variability was noted in this as well as other studies including swimmers performing altitude training. Another important practical implication of our results is that performance is likely to be unchanged or worsened immediately, and that benefits can only be expected to occur following 1 to 4 weeks after the intervention. This delayed response could eventually provide a time window for tapering before competition.
Monitoring individual training load and adaptation (e.g. resting, exercise and recovery HR response, HR variability, exercise perception and state of fatigue) during and after the altitude camp to avoid excessive overload or detraining, as well as assessing individual peaking performance profile, are strongly recommended before directly applying these rules to individual cases.

7. Do you think the results would be different if you had older or untrained swimmers?

​We were committed to recruit truly elite athletes​ even if ​​that, particularly during an Olympic season, certainly added substantial complexity to our study. It is difficult to answer this question without experimental data, but I see no reason why these effects should not be seen in less trained or older swimmers with good health and training response capacity. However, the costs involved with altitude training (i.e. time, travel, accommodation, etc.) make altitude training a strategy mostly used by high-level swimmers. 

8. Are there any other tests you wanted to do on these swimmers?

​We would have liked to make muscle biopsies, but this was out of the question with elite swimmers in an Olympic year. As an alternative, we proposed to the coaches to run specific tests to explore the muscular adaptations​, but testing burden was already too high for the swimmers.​

9. Do you think the results would be different if the study lasted longer?

Again, it is difficult to say. We need to consider the substantial psychological and physical stress of living at altitude for more than 4 weeks. We advice the coaches to spend no longer than 4 weeks and to repeat the altitude camp several time during the season (i.e. 4-5 times in our most successful swimmers).​

This is a very compromising question! There are many excellent experts that conduct high-level research in many different places (USA, Australia, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, France, Spain, among others). Not naming all will not be righteous.
This project ​is the result of efforts from a large number of people. Anecdotally, the first time I thought of such an endeavour​ was back in the 90’s when I was listening to Prof. Being Saltin –who passed away last year– saying that any sound altitude training study with elite athletes could only be done through the collaboration of scientists, swimmers​ and ​coaches from​ different ​nations. ​
​This is what we actually did and what makes this research so special.​

12. Which teachers have most influenced your research?

Prof.​ Alois Mader (German Sports University at Cologne​, Germany) was my PhD supervisor in rowing physiology and my coworker many years later in swimming. He taught me the importance of a deep understanding of sports physiology. Prof.Ben Levine ​(Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine, Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas) challenged my ideas and helped me to find the right answers through systematic research.

13. If a coach wants to do altitude training, how should they begin?

I think they should start by training at sea level…​ Seriously, our study shows that performance might ​increase about 3% regardless of whether ​a 3-4 weeks training camp ​it is held at altitude or not​.​ That means that benefit can be obtained simply by taking part on a training camp set up in a controlled environment (i.e. no school or job, good nutrition, good rest, physical therapy, etc.). A much greater benefit can be obtained using 4 weeks of altitude training, with training in hypoxia most of the time but doing high-intensity training twice a week at lower level (i.e. <1,000 m). Shorter altitude camps (e.g., 2-3 weeks) can be advised for non experienced or younger swimmers for them to “test” hypoxia and experience the effects of altitude on the own organism, as well as to gauge their short-term acclimatization.

14. What research or projects are you currently working on or should we look from you in the future?

We continue to work on the results of the Altitude Project. In parallel, we continue our work on oxygen and heart rate kinetics in swimming, energetics and nutrition ​in triathlon​, and physiological demands of synchronized swimming.​

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