I’m often asked what swimmers should do over the Christmas holidays. It’s a very good question, and one that doesn’t easily lead to a good answer for all levels.
There are two factors at war with each other.
- Swimmers typically don’t reach their peak until their 20s, and so there really should be no rush to get swimmers training hard at a young age. Learning the basic techniques, and learning to have fun with swimming at a young age, can lead to an enjoyable sport and the potential to still be swimming in their 20s. However, pushing too much training on swimmers at a young age can easily lead to burn out. There is a long history of fantastic young 10 year olds quitting by the time they’re 16. In fact, USA swimming did a study a few years ago in which they monitored the top 16 swimmers in each age group over a period of decades, and then calculated what percentage of top young age group swimmers ever became top senior swimmers. The results were disheartening. Only 11% of top 12&under swimmers ever became top senior swimmers. In fact, only 47% of top 15-16 years olds ever became top senior swimmers. In other words, success at a young age was not strongly related to success when older.
- Moderate success at a young age is often a requirement for a swimmer to want to train harder and harder as they grow older. In other words, a lack of success is less likely to lead to a young swimmer wanting to eventually train 5-6 days a week, with 6 am morning practices. To make it worse, many coaches at top teams have conditions on their employment that the team must perform at a certain level compared to other teams. With 10&Under points worth the same as Senior points, the result is foreseeable. On those teams, young kids were trained vigorously in the hopes of gaining those important job-retaining points for the coach. We have many of those teams in Ontario.
So here is our philosophy on what our swimmers should do over the holidays.
The answer for this level is easy. Having fun in the water, and learning stroke techniques are the primary and overriding concerns for Entry level swimmers. A two week break isn’t going to hurt them at all, and they may even come back finding that they miss swimming and are ready to get right back into it.
By the time swimmers get to the Novice level they are more serious about swimming, and often more intent on doing well in swim meets. In fact there are some teams out there who hold mini-training camps over the holidays for swimmers at this age. Here’s where our team (and most other teams) draw the line. Young swimmers at this level don’t need to get into training camps, and they don’t need to stress about conditioning or missing practices. It’s far better that they enjoy the holidays and family time, and come back ready to work hard again.
For those that want to swim a little, we do have three optional practices scheduled over the holidays for Novice and up. For Novice, these practices are just to help them remember their strokes and technique, and make it a little easier for when we start again in January.
Junior and Senior Swimmers
Now we get into the older and more serious swimmers. Most big teams, and almost every university team, hold rigorous training camps at this time of year, often at remote locations. These may involve up to three practices a day, with huge distances and massive workloads. I view it as a tradition, albeit essentially an unthinking one (as most traditions are).
One of Canada’s top swim coaches, Randy Bennett, has moved away from this tradition, but for reasons far, far different from mine. I was at a talk he gave where he described how his superbly conditioned older swimmers were coming out of these incredibly intense training camps swimming too fast! While this sounds like a strange problem to have, he said that swimming that fast at that time of the season meant they would likely not be swimming as fast as he wants at the big meets. As a result, he had to back off on intense training over the holidays. However, I think the key to his problem is that he was dealing with mature, older and incredibly conditioned swimmers.
In our case, my main concern is that by following this tradition we risk physically and / or mentally overtraining our swimmers. But we also cannot afford to give the swimmers two weeks completely off. So my goals for these two weeks are a) that we don’t lose too much conditioning or strength; b) that we get a holiday from the regular swimming grind; and c) that we find a way to improve something. After all, we really don’t want to spend the first 2-3 weeks in January just trying to catch up to where we were before.
And so we came up with our strategy – unusual, but one that seems to have worked in past years. The idea is that with a relatively small time investment, we can focus mainly on dryland to increase our strength, and especially our core strength, and then supplement with three swim workouts.
The result is our Christmas dryland program which includes 10 home-based 30-45 minute sessions over the two weeks (instead of our usual 3 / week), plus swim workouts on Dec. 23 and 30, and Jan. 3. Hopefully this combination will work as well as in past years, with swimmers looking forward to getting back in the water in January.
However it works out, I wish everyone a Happy Holidays, and please drive safely. See you all in January!