A.T. – what does it stand for?

Anaerobic Threshold? Yep – for senior athletes, elite swimmers, swimmers 13 years of age and older – absolutely.
For swimmers 12 and under what does A.T. stand for? A Total waste of time.
We’ve all heard the old swimming cliches about kids and training:
“You’ve got to get the miles into the kids.”
“Kids recover fast so you can push them harder more often.”
“Training kids is all about volume – you have do a lot of work.”
The volume of training appropriate for kids 12 years and under is not for debate here (and let’s be honest, no one really knows the answer to that one anyway) – it’s all about intensity – and by and large, we are pushing young swimmers too hard too often: we are pushing them at or around A.T. for no logical or rational reason.

Whilst the evidence for including some quantity of A.T. work in the training programs of senior swimmers is hard to question, the role of A.T. in the training and development of young swimmers is uncertain at the very least.
Here’s the case for pushing kids 12 and under at A.T. pace for extended periods during swimming training:

  1. It looks like they are training hard so everyone feels good about the workout;
  2. It keeps the noisy and disruptive kids quiet.
  3. Their parents like it because the kids are too tired to argue with them, and they sleep!

Now here’s the case against pushing kids 12 and under at A.T. pace for extended periods during swimming training:

  1. They don’t produce a lot of lactate but what they do produce (i.e. by swimming at or above A.T.) they don’t deal with very well;
  2. They don’t race over distances requiring high level A.T. adaptation abilities, i.e. most 12 and under swimmers race 50s and 100s;
  3. Most of the events they race over are approximately 50% dives, turns, underwater swimming and finishes – i.e. skills based – with only around 50% of race distance being free swimming;
  4. Pushing them hard at A.T. for long periods leaves them fatigued and impacts on their ability to swim at max or near speeds in training during speed development training;
  5. A.T. is the proverbial metabolic “no man’s land” for swimmers aged 12 and under. It has the effect of young swimmers doing their slow work too fast and their fast work too slow – developing neither endurance or speed and largely wasting their all too valuable water time.

So why do so many coaches spend so much time bashing and belting young swimmers up and down the pool in the A.T. “no man’s land”?

Because it is easy to do!

The easiest way to coach a large team of young swimmers is to push them as hard as possible as often as possible. It keeps them under control. It keeps them working hard. It makes parents think they are getting fitter and stronger. And…just occasionally, a few swimmers get a good result from the too hard / too often approach if they manage to get a lot of rest during their taper and have some underlying sprinting abilities.

This is of course the old “broken-egg” coaching approach. Throw enough eggs against a wall and maybe, just maybe one or two out of a thousand will survive the impact.
Instead of the other 998 eggs lying broken on the ground…. think!! – is this really good coaching????? And we wonder why so many kids drop out of the sport at 13, 14 and 15 years of age…. they just got sick of being made into omelettes!

So weigh it up in your own mind.

Old way – push the kids as hard as possible at or above A.T. in every workout for a few months, taper them for a few days and hope it all comes together on race day or……

New way – adopt a common sense, practical, sensible approach that helps develop the swimmers’ physical, mental, technical and tactical abilities in a way which is relevant and appropriate to their competition goals.

Hmmmmmm – difficult choice!

Summary and Practical Coaching Tips:

  1. When coaching swimmers 12 years of age and under, stick to the simplicity and practicality of the P.A.C.E. model;
  2. If in doubt, either work very slow (60-70% speed, very aerobically, great technique) or very very fast (100% speed, short distances, great technique, lots of recovery) – and always work in an integrated way – i.e. managing training speed plus mental factors plus technique plus skills;
  3. Break your old habits! The old “let’s push the kids every workout so their faces are red, their shoulders sore and they are out of breath” days are over! Effective training is about balance, adopting an integrated approach and including physical, mental, technical, tactical development activities in every session.

Wayne Goldsmith