Are Great Athletes Made or Born - or
Do They Have What It Takes to Survive The Lunacy of Their Coaches?
by Richard A. Winett, Ph. D.
NOTE: This article is a critique/analysis of an article titled 'Strength and Power Training of Australian Olympic Swimmers' which was published in Strength and Conditioning Journal 2002: 24:7-15. The authors are Newton RU, Jones J, Kraemer WJ, and Wardle H.I'm sure I'm not the first person to think that if I could just access the brainpower of professional coaches and the training routines of champion athletes, I could make some great strides forward. I say this with full awareness that as with any endeavor, to be really great at it, you need the very specific genetic characteristics called for by specific events in specific activities, of course, including sports. So, I realize that great athletes are born with the potential to be great athletes. Surely, they work very hard and then, I have thought, there must be something very special about their training programs that makes them even better, and more importantly, I can learn that "something very special" and adapt it to my own training.
I had never, however, fully understood that superior genetics enable athletes to tolerate extreme and unnecessary training programs and succeed despite their programs!
The article by Newton and colleagues provides great insight into the age-old "nature-nurture" debate in a startling way. Great athletes become great because genetic factors are so important they enable gifted people to overcome the sheer lunacy of their training programs designed by coaching and exercise science gurus unwittingly (or one can guess at times, wittingly) counter to any common sense and scientific exercise physiology data.
Newton et al. build upon many of the unsubstantiated premises in the American College of Sports Medicine's (ACSM) position stand 1 for advanced resistance trainers (arguably anyone training for about 6 months to a year; note William Kraemer is the third author of the present article and the lead author of the position stand). The unsubstantiated premises - statements made without clear empirical support - include the following:
As "common sense" as the five premises noted above are, empirical support for them is largely lacking. At best, they are mere opinions. At worst, they result in training protocols that can be virtually incomprehensible and can take at least 10 - 20 hours a week to complete. This is not an exaggeration since the ACSM's position stand ends (p. 374) with a virtually non-interpretable table that calls for just such a training program.
One can only then imagine what happens when this approach to resistance training is joined with another form of training that is even more ridiculous - competitive swim training. Despite every indication in exercise science that specificity of training is a most critical cardinal principle of training (sprinters sprint, they don't jog for hours), swim training has not evolved. Swimmers essentially doing short events still swim for hours each day - often twice per day - doing primarily slower free style strokes even though their events last a very short time and require a very particular set of techniques and speed that has nothing to do with slow, very long distance, free style swimming.
For example, the swimmers highlighted in Newton et al. are 200-meter butterfly swimmers. The world record (www.swimnews.com) for women in the 200-meter butterfly is 2.05.43 and for men, 1.51.21. That is, much like an 800-meter run, the 200-meter butterfly is an extended sprint. But, you only need to perform at this super pace for about 2 minutes.
Not surprisingly given the very large volume of their training, Newton et al. note that many swimmers have shoulder injuries primarily attributable to overtraining. For example: "The cause of the inflammation or tenderness around the rotator cuff is typically the large volume of training, with some days amounting to over 14 km being swum" (p. 9). For the metrically challenged, 14 km is about 8.5 miles.
According to Newton et al., the approach to swim training, however absurd, has to be accepted and a resistance training program designed around the swim training to add strength and power and reduce injuries. With that much endurance training in the pool, adding muscle mass is next to impossible and, in any case, swim coaches believe (in the absence of data) that adding appreciable muscle simply will contribute to drag and slower swim times.
What follows then is a bizarre mix of resistance training exercises performed in ways to try to mimic swim movements, the use of medicine balls and the Swiss ball for different movements and static holds, and then 200 reps for abdominals.
As for the odd mix of resistance training movements, these are done 4 days per week for four sets of each movement with likely several minutes between each set as prescribed by the ACSM's position stand. The exemplar routines for two champion 200-meter butterfly swimmers featured about 104 sets per week, therefore requiring about 7.5 hours (1 minute per set and 3.5 minutes between sets x 104 sets) plus time for 10 sets of Swiss ball and 10 sets of medicine ball exercises twice per week and then various static holds. A good guess is that the total resistance training protocol requires about 10 hours per week. Newton et al. note somewhat apologetically that the volume of resistance training has to be reduced (compared to what they perceive as optimal) because of the great volume of swim training.
Consider that the 10 hours per week of resistance training is coupled with several hours per day of training in the pool. A good guess is that our 200-meter butterfly champion spends 30 hours per week training for an event taking 2-minutes and this estimate may not include time working on technique.
Now consider that interval training designed specifically for a 200-meter butterfly swimmer could take including warm-ups and cooldowns 12 minutes three times per week and that our 200-meter swimmer may want to do one longer swim of 20 - 30 minutes once per week2, for a total swim time of perhaps an hour per week. Consider that people can resistance train for about an hour per week - or less - and become much stronger - reach whatever your genetic potential is for strength - and adapt that strength to swimming3. Consider also that when you become stronger, you also increase your power, endurance, and muscle mass3.
Conceivably, two or at most three hours per week (total of all training!) of scientifically based training can replace training what for many has become essentially a full-time, exhausting job with little time or energy for anything else.
Thus, Newton et al. unwittingly not only showed the lunacy of current training for many champion athletes and the contribution of the ACSM to that lunacy, but have illustrated beyond doubt the central factor behind many champion athletes. Many champion athletes are so genetically gifted that they are champions despite their ridiculous training programs. They are so genetically gifted that they survive seemingly any and all physical assaults.