Quality versus Quantity

Qual vs Quan street sign

I know this is an age-old question, but it became fresh in my mind this week when one of my swimmers asked me why we weren’t doing the high mileage that so many other clubs are doing. As I explained to him, our philosophy is to prioritize technique and race pace over lengthy but slower sets. In effect, to emphasize speed and speed endurance over endurance.

However, and here’s where discussions start, there are many incredibly good swimmers who came out of heavy mileage programs. In fact, this old school slant towards heavy mileage has never really left us. There are legendary sets out there that amaze anyone who sees them. Sets like 200 x 100 or 50 x 400 shock us and excite us as we contemplate how incredibly tough those swimmers must be. And yet it begs the question: Does heavy mileage really improve our swimming speed? Considering that most swimmers specialize in 200s or less, it’s hard to imagine that an aerobic set lasting for hours can significantly affect an events lasting 2 minutes or less.

There don’t appear to be any definitive answers for this. So as some swimmers look at massive sets with envy, I’m faced with the task of trying to explain our emphasis on speed and speed endurance, mixed with lots of technique work. In fact, even now I think back with some sense of bizarre pride to the monster sets that I did when I was a swimmer. And then I think back to how my shoulders gave out and I had to leave the sport far too early. How do I explain this to a teenage boy who feels immortal and sees stardom in his future?

All that I could say is that in very wide range of training philosophies, ours leans towards less mileage and more quality. And then point out how well he has done in our system. But I could still see in his eyes that he thinks he wants to do massive sets. I remember having that same feeling when I was his age. Right up until I had to quit.

Qual vs Quan fishbowl



12 thoughts on “Quality versus Quantity

  1. An interesting question indeed. As a veteran of the heavy mileage programs and the parent of 2 young swimmers in a quality-based program, I also wonder if it is possible to go too far on the quality over quantity end of things. Is there a minimum amount of training needed to generate a sufficient aerobic base to sustain fast racing? What about the swimmers who are inclined to race the 400s and up?

    1. Excellent questions, Julie. And ones that I ask myself constantly. Certainly 400s and up require more training than the shorter races. But I’ve also found that intense race-pace training can still take care of some of that requirement. The issue I dance with constantly is how many practices a week need to be devoted to longer pure aerobic sets. Not sure I’ll ever find a definitive answer.

    1. Hi Gary, I tried liking / commenting on your excellent post, but there’s something wrong on your page.

      Yes we seem to have hit the same topic. You being about a month ahead of me. Wonderfully detailed post here. We’ve both touched upon the problem without stating it. In fact, I think I’ll do a post on this problem soon. I’d also love to hear your take on it. The problem is that a nation’s reputation in a sport is not based on the number of happy athletes pursuing that sport, or the overall level of retention in the sport. It’s based solely on the number of medals at major competitions (which leads to greater funding in the future).. And in order to get those medals, they HAVE to burn through a lot of kids. The genetically gifted ones will thrive on punishing programs, and the others will fall by the wayside. It’s a problem that is built into the very system we partake in. You and I have taken a more humane approach, possibly at the risk of having top swimmers leave us. But that’s fine with me in the long run.

      1. I was thinking that too but more in the area of, that success by a swimmer is reflected on the coach. The coach then is only measured on their success by this paradigm

  2. I have become a fan of HIIT ( which seems to offer a good combination of speed and endurance training. I use a variation of the 10 20 30 hiit ( in one of my weekly runs. I can see improvement in the few months I have been doing this by the increase in the distance I manage to cover for the same interval sets. I guess my point is that I have improved the quality of my running training without increasing the quantity.

  3. Simply put focus should be on training 1/2 distance for the primary stroke/distance as it focuses on the energy systems used in racing. The tendency is to do less race pace than needed and there are many options in distance and interval. Example: for a 100 do 6 x 50 @ 2 (ave x 2 predicts 100 @ .89 correlation) and 5 x 100 @ 3 (ave x 2 predicts 200 @ .93 correlation), 6 x250/200 @ 5 (x 2 predicts 500/400 @ .86 correlation, closer for girls) Visit resources for FREE forms for swimmers to use and more…

    1. We use race pace extensively, especially some concepts used by Ben Titley. In these the swimmer has to repeatedly hit actually race speeds for distances of 1/4 to at most 1/2 of the race distance. Then we play with the rest between repeats, typically limiting ourselves to 6 minute sets (done 4 times with 4 minutes active recovery) for a focus on 400 or less, and 20 minute sets (done 2-3 times with 4 minutes active recovery) for 800 and up. The swimmers seem to love these sets as well. Very focussed and highly relevant.

I love comments, especially when they disagree with my view.

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