Training Regimes and Recovery Monitoring Practices of Elite British Swimmers.

Author:Pollock, Scott
 
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Introduction

In 26 of the 32 swimming events held at the Olympic Games in Rio 2016 the difference between winning a medal or finishing 4th was less than one second. Senior international swimming competitions are conducted over several days and involve multiple events, each requiring a heat and for those who qualify a semi-final and a final. To prepare for that, elite swimmers complete large volumes of training with a high frequency and intensity of sessions bringing about a high risk of overtraining (Gleeson et al., 2000). A range of methods, such as self-administered questionnaires (e.g. profile of mood states), sport-specific performance tests (e.g. countermovement jumps) and/or blood and saliva screening (e.g. plasma testosterone to cortisol ratios) have been used as effective methods for reducing the risk of overtraining in elite athletes (Robson-Ansley et al., 2009) and are, therefore, of relevance to swimmers as well. This has particular importance for elite swimmers given the increased risk of illness/injury associated with the large training volumes in this population, especially for individual swimmers reporting symptoms of illness during periods of intensive training (Pyne et al., 2014). Thus, monitoring of fatigue and recovery levels is of critical importance for elite swimmers and their performance.

The scientific principle of specificity postulates that the training response to a given exercise is distinctive and training type specific. It is therefore important that coaches and practitioners understand the demands of the sporting events and the training methods, which are most likely to help athletes achieve the defined performance goals. Research conducted on sprint cyclists has highlighted the importance of well-developed strength, hypertrophy and anaerobic capacity for higher performance (Jeukendrup et al., 2000). Differently, successful long-distance cycling performance has been related to measures of aerobic endurance, lactate threshold and power to weight ratio (Jeukendrup et al., 2000). Such information suggests that the training programs of elite swimmers should be designed to stimulate most pertinent adaptations for performance in a given event.

Swimming events range from short- (sprint, lasting between 20s and 30s) to moderate- (middle, lasting 2-5min) and long (lasting 7min to several hours) durations. Swimming events of different durations have been shown to pose specific physiological demands. It has been suggested that swimmers who specialize in sprint events require a greater contribution of energy from anaerobic pathways in comparison with swimmers who specialize in middle and extensive event durations (Pyne et al., 2011). Therefore, training programs should be designed to develop the specific qualities required for the event via carefully balanced sport-specific, strength and endurance training modalities. However, it has been suggested that the training load, fatigue monitoring and recovery practices fluctuate considerably within the swimming coaching profession (Arroyo-Toledo et al., 2013). Information on current practices (training load, fatigue and recovery monitoring) for elite swimmers is lacking in the current body of research pointing to a potential gap between practice and scientific knowledge. Furthermore, comparison between studies is compromised by the various classifications and terminology used among the coaching professionals.

The aim of the current study was to identify and compare the training load prescription, fatigue monitoring and recovery practices of elite competitive British swimmers who specialize in events of different durations. The main objectives of the investigation were to develop (i) a consistent terminology for the description of training sessions in elite swimming, and establish whether: (ii) current training programs in an elite swimming environment follow the scientific principle of specificity for maximizing performance in sprint, middle and long-distance events, and (iii) recommendations for reducing the risk of injury and overtraining (rest/recovery principle) were followed in elite swimming environments.

In line with existing literature we hypothesized that: (i) individual coaches would be using different session descriptors and varied terminology to refer to the same type and content of training; (ii) prescription of training to elite British swimmers would specifically reflect the demands of the individual swimmer's main event and (iii) not all recommendations for reducing risk of injury and overtraining would be followed.

Methods

Participants

The individual training regimes of 18 elite British swimmers were documented by surveying four swim (3 males, 1 female) and two strength and conditioning (S&C, both males) coaches. The coaches provided written informed consent to participate in this study, which was approved by the University Research Ethics Committee (UREC No. 1552). They completed individual questionnaires for each elite swimmer they coach. 'Elite' was defined as swimmers who had reached finals of major senior international events such as Olympic Games or World Championships (Table 1). The average duration of coaching experience was 15.5 [+ or -] 7.3 years and 8.4 [+ or -] 1.6 years for swim and S&C coaches, respectively. All swim coaches were members of the British Swimming Coaches Association (BSCA) with level 3 or 4 Club Coach Qualifications from the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA). The S&C coaches held undergraduate degrees in Sport Science related subjects and were certified specialists through either the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) or United Kingdom's Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA).

Experimental approach to the problem

Questionnaires werecustomized for either Swim or Strength and Conditioning (S&C) coaches after consultations with a coach of the respective specialist area working in elite swimming. Based on these consultations the questionnaires were revised before being used for data collection. Revisions included the removal of irrelevant/repeated questions and rewording of phrases to reflect current coaching terminology. Coaches were instructed to answer the questionnaires with reference to a typical training year.

The first section of the questionnaires was used to collect personal details to establish the experience of the coach and the competitive level of the athletes they coach. The second section asked closed numerical questions about the training load, fatigue monitoring and recovery practices utilized by the coach for each individual athlete. The description of the training sessions and the recovery practices was identified via open questions and used to develop a general training classification system as the basis for further analysis of the: 1) training load distribution throughout the year, 2) weekly training content, 3) prescription of rest/recovery and fatigue monitoring practices.

Procedures

The study employed a two-phase sequential mixed method analytical approach. Swimming and S&C questionnaires were analysed individually and grouped according to each athlete's primary event distances (sprint: 50-100 m, middle: 100-400 m or long: above 400 m). In the first phase, for evaluation of the distance-specific swimming and S&C training classifications, data-driven inductive thematic analysis of the sessions' content descriptions was conducted following the steps recommended by Braun & Clarke (2006). In the second phase, the training load distribution across the year and the content during high-intensity training weeks were analysed using quantitative methods.

Training Classification. An inductive thematic approach was applied to the answers to code the data and develop general training classification systems for swimming (Table 2) and S&C (Table 3) training sessions. Then, the coded characteristics of each training session were evaluated and deliberated to identify common themes and their validity in relation to the data set. This method offers an accessible and theoretically-flexible tool for identifying patterns within qualitative data in relation to a defined research question (Braun and Clarke, 2006). The descriptions of each session were reviewed repeatedly to identify common words or phrases (themes) and generate descriptive key codes (e.g. 'aerobic', 'medium rest', 'high intensity', 'lactate', 'speed', 'heart rate' etc.) based on the total number of times each descriptor was provided in...

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