This feature appeared in the April-June 2004 issue of Swimming Technique.

The LONG and SHORT of it

Coaches Bob Gillett and Dick Shoulberg explain how they train their swimmers for long course competition by using short course pools

By Ed Odeven

America is one of the few places in the world where the metric system is not the prevailing measuring stick for most things. (Think heights, weights and distances. For instance, without the aid of a conversion chart, how many of you can instantly calculate the height in centimeters and the weight in grams of that ice cream sundae you just ate? Me neither.)

Which is why some pools are designed with yardage in mind. Many pools in the United Kingdom and United States are 25 yards in length. These, of course, are referred to as short course pools.

But, as you know, the international swimming community prefers to use the metric system; world records are only recognized if the swimmer’s feat is accomplished in a 25- or 50-meter pool. Olympic-size swimming pools, also called long course pools, measure 50 meters long.

Globally, swimmers know all about the measurements of the pools and train accordingly, many in long course pools, some in short course pools, others in both.

Domestically, two of the USA’s most prominent and successful long-time coaches, Bob Gillett of the Arizona Sports Ranch/AFOX in Phoenix, Ariz., and Dick Shoulberg of Germantown (Pa.) Academy, tailor their swimmers’ long course workouts by using short course pools.

“My athletes have to be prepared to swim in a long course pool even though 95 percent of their training during the school year is done in a short course pool,” says Shoulberg.

Adds Gillett, “I believe that the best way to train for long course competition is to train long course. But if you are faced with the use of only a short course facility for your training, you will need to be creative and willing to adapt your training sets.”

Which triggers the following question: What methods and/or theories have Shoulberg and Gillett used over the years to develop their swimmers’ long course training for a short course facility?

It all starts with the basics, according to Shoulberg. His approach relies on getting his swimmers to be versatile, all-around competitors, getting them to master the bread-and-butter event of swimming: the 400 meter individual medley.

The approach is working.

In five of the last six U.S. Olympics Trials, a Germantown Academy swimmer has competed in the 400 IM and other events. Year in and year out, Shoulberg’s pupils form a pipeline to the NCAA; Germantown swimmers routinely receive athletic scholarships to Division I institutions. Shoulberg, who has coached for 49 years—the last 35 at Germantown—estimates that number is around 10 to 15 per year.

“Each athlete from age group to senior swimmers works on all four strokes each and every practice. During certain times of the season, I overload their prime stroke but maintain the fitness-based IM training,” Shoulberg says. “By working on all four strokes each day, you outsmart fatigue to the muscle groups and you mentally challenge the athlete daily.

“Fit athletes who are mentally tough find ways to improve when they need to improve.”

A Valuable Lesson

Throughout the 1970s, Gillett’s swimmers at the Arizona Sports Ranch only trained in a 25-meter short course pool. After what Gillett characterized as a very good year in 1979, during the short course season he began pondering the options for the next year. And he changed the routine—one that worked quite successfully—that he and his swimmers had gotten acclimated to.

Big mistake.

“The hours were terrible, the travel arrangements of kids changed, meal times changed, we had to deal with uncooperative lifeguards and transients in the adjacent park and we lost some of our total yardage—but I stuck it out for the whole summer,” Gillett recalls. “It was one of our worst summers in that period of time. The next year we went back to the good old short course meters pool, and it looked a whole lot better with all of its advantages.”

Indeed, venues are not the most important aspect of a training regimen; results are. And what it essentially comes down to is this: speed.

To develop the ability to swim with speed consistently and properly, Gillett and Shoulberg, like many of their coaching counterparts, emphasize the importance of long, quality workouts.

“Big yardage is important, especially during the important developmental years,” Gillett maintains. “I am often asked by young swimmers about how much yardage is necessary. They are after a simplistic and definitive answer. I tell them that they must be willing to train from 50 to 60 kilometers per week to become a national level swimmer in the U.S. I think this yardage is a threshold level.

“If you are planning on a program with less than this, then you are going to have a very low probability of consistently developing swimmers to the national level in this country. If you are a distance swimmer, look at 80 to 110K per week. If you are going to train in short course for long course, you have to train big yardage.”

That said, it helps to remember that countless hours of hard-core training prepare elite-level swimmers to have the endurance to turn it up a notch at the end of a race.

Or as Gillett states, “After you get to this level, you have to spend 90 percent of (your) effort, focus and time for the last part of the race.”

And how should swimmers train for the always-critical final stage of a long course race? One successful formula involves the skillful alternation between aerobic and anaerobic training. “You need to develop that ability to sustain cycle length and sustain tempo during the last part of the race,”

Gillett continues. “The psychology of mental toughness also becomes an important variable at the end of a long course race.” Monitoring one’s pulse is an effective tool in testing the results of training. Misty Hyman, a Gillett pupil who is one of the USA’s most highly decorated female swimmers—including an Olympic gold medal in the 200 meter fly at Sydney in 2000—has had her pulse monitored for some time now with the results displayed on a pulse-rate curve.

The all-out effort given by Hyman, Gillett recalls, resulted in her pulse shooting up to 180 beats per minute, 20 seconds into her 36-minute workout.

And her heart would beat that fast for the remainder of a workout. It became helpful for Hyman to drop the pulse a bit, say, around the 150-beats-a minute range for the freestyle portion of her workout. How is this done? At the Arizona Sports Ranch, the following are sets used to take advantage of aerobic-anaerobic switching:

• 1 x 3,000 freestyle with every fourth length on stroke. Long stroke on free, then blast your stroke (back, breast or fly) with the power tempo.

• 10 x 100 at 1:30. Power tempo the first and fourth 25s on stroke, swim the middle two 25s with lower intensity freestyle.

• 1 x 1,000 with every fourth length on power tempo on stroke.

• 10 x 100 at 1:30. Last length sprint kick.

“The idea is to contribute to the development of maximum cardiac output,” Gillett says. “The heart developing stronger stroke volume during the more aerobic part of the swim, and then applying it with a greater heart rate, results in higher levels of cardiac output.”

A strong heart is the backbone of a strong racer. Still, it never hurts to push a little more.

“If you are training to swim 1:58 in the 200 free, it seems appropriate to train your system for the 1:58 effort, not 2:17 or 2:24,” Gillett says, speaking of time-specific training. “Actually, we always have felt you should train a little under your goal time, say 1:55 in this example. This is based on the idea that you should train the system that could get you there, then let the great athlete maximize for that last bit with great ability and/or desire.”

Cord Training

This is another key component of long course training in a short course pool. In simple terms, Gillett spells this out as a way to “develop the performance variables that were needed for long course success.”

Exhibit A: Hyman. During her developmental years, cords were used solely in a resistance mode.

“We had Misty swim until the cord created a maintainable resistance and counted cycles,” Gillett explains. “During the last 10 cycles, she would get close to the wall. We had it down, so that if she had a great effort, she would barely be able to lunge the last cycle and touch the wall before it yanked her back.

“It was very difficult.”

The following list highlights some of that training:

• 3 x 80 cycles, 3 x 60 cycles, 3 x 40 cycles, 3 x 20 cycles.

• 3 x (1 x 80 cycles, 1 x 60 cycles, 1 x 40 cycles, 1 x 20 cycles).

• 3 x (1 x 80 cycles, 3 x 20 cycles).

• 3 x (3 x 40, then 200 yards of pull).

• 5 x 25 power cords with a dive.

Also, a valuable tool for cord training is the Kick Machine, a stretch cord device concocted by Joe Phillips, a well-known coach in the Grand Canyon State. The device has a foot attachment with cords and attaches to a belt.

“It offers great leg extension resistance,” Gillett says.

Other cord training involves monofin kicking against the cords.

Examples of this training include:

• 10 x Power Cord Kicks.

• 10 x Power Cord Kicks with Kick Machine.

• 10 x Power Cord Kicks with Monofin.

• 10 x Power Cord Kicks with Mono and Kick Machine.

Certainly, there will continue to be debates over the best way to train for long course competition in a short course pool. But this much is certain: “If you have two equal athletes, the one doing the most yardage will win almost every time,” Gillett concludes.

Case closed.