Christmas Camp versus Christmas Break

Swim Training Camps

The idea of a Christmas Camp versus a Christmas Break should really be a hot topic. After all, it’s a pretty clear tradeoff: use the holidays to train swimmers extra hard; or give swimmers a rest and a chance to enjoy the holidays with their family. Unfortunately, it’s not a hot topic. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be much of a topic at all.

Now, don’t get me wrong. As a university swimmer I went to many Christmas training camps and thoroughly enjoyed them. But what worries me is the proliferation of Christmas training camps for kids as young as 12, and for large groups of swimmers irrespective of commitment.

Before I go further, I should explain that when I talk about a Christmas training camp, I’m really only talking about 5-10 day training camps where the coach pretty much has complete control of the swimmers. I’m not referring to 3-day local training camps where the kids go home between sessions. Those mini-camps can be fun, and effective as team bonding events, but rarely serve the same purpose as the lengthy and grueling training camps we all know about.

Here are the Pros and Cons of a serious training camp as I see them.

Pros

  • For programs that involve a lot of mileage and grinding, this is the ultimate grind. Most such camps involve a mixture of 2 and 3 practices/day, usually with other physical activities during leisure time.
  • Builds team spirit and enhances the team culture
  • Develops mental toughness, as the sets are usually much tougher and longer than normal training sets
  • There are no distractions and no school work, providing a relative lack of outside stress, and ideally there is adequate rest and recovery time

Cons

  • The vast majority of training camps are basically Hell Weeks. While a long tradition with many clubs, there are many problems associated with Camps / Hell Weeks, including a lack of adequate recovery afterwards. See article in SwimmingScience.Net, “Hell Week for Swimmers Revisited“, and how they might appear be effective, but really require up to 3 weeks of recovery afterwards.
  • For non-elite, or at least non-obsessed swimmers, it takes them away from family and friends during what should be family time.
  • Away camps can cost a lot of money
  • Not all athletes respond well to large volumes of work. Camps and Hell Weeks have a long history of some athletes experiencing signs of overtraining, mental fatigue, overuse injuries. etc.
  • Swimming has a long season (10-11 months). Without adequate rest, many will burn out physically and/or mentally late in the season, long after the Camp is over

Am I saying that all training camps are bad? Not at all! In order to compete at the highest levels it takes an extraordinary level of commitment. For swimmers of university age and older, and for truly elite swimmers who have shown that they thrive on volume, training camps have proven themselves over the years to be very effective.

My problem is when training camps involve younger kids (as young as 12!), or kids who are not elite or do not thrive on volume. These kids give up a significant portion of their holiday time in order to go away to train with the team. They may not mind at all, in fact, they may absolutely love it. But as coaches we would be depriving them of family time during the last few years when family time will be important to them? For most of us, once we hit university age, the more or less permanent separation from the family starts. What should our role as coaches be?

At this point, many coaches will have probably tuned out. The traditional view is that training camps are universally beneficial, and kids can’t get better if they don’t partake of them. ‘Nough said.

But I have a counter argument to that.

Every year our team has a grand total of 12 weeks between the first practice of the season and a big meet in mid-December. In this time we have to develop / remember technique, get the kids in shape, teach them how to go fast, how to start, how to race, etc. That’s 12 weeks out of what is a 40+ week season. And yet we get fantastic results. This year we had 91% PB rate (out of almost 200 races), generated first time qualifiers for Eastern Canadian Championships, Provincials, Regionals, etc.

My intent isn’t to brag. This type of performance at this time of the season isn’t unusual. And if this can be done in 12 weeks, starting essentially from scratch, why do we need to have a training camp that ups the intensity even higher, risks injury and burnout, and cuts down on family time?

Our schedule is to work them hard until right before Christmas, and then give them 10-12 days off from scheduled practices. In that time, they have a home-based dryland schedule (each dryland practice is 30 minutes or shorter), and ask them to have 3 easy 45-minute swims at a local pool.

When practices restart, we typically have rested and happy swimmers, more than ready to start working hard again.

Summary

Training camps are a long tradition that seems to work very well with older swimmers, who have shown an ability to thrive on volume.

However, age group swimmers may benefit far more from enjoying family time, and avoiding any risks of overtraining or overuse injuries.

The choice of a Camp versus a Break should be a hot topic of discussion at all age group clubs. And yet it doesn’t seem to even be on the agenda at most clubs.

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2 comments

  1. […] don’t do Christmas training camps, or hell weeks (see here and here), so we trained this year until Dec. 23 (morning and afternoon). Then 12 glorious days […]

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