Technique or Training. Chicken or Egg?

What is more important: endurance or technique?  To me there is no ‘chicken or egg question’ in the debate of what should be the priority between high mileage or technique.  Technique must always come first and always be the focus.  I will tell you why I feel this way.

I would take it further and say that technique can be both the chicken and the egg.

Many coaches will agree with the importance of technique but, of course, many will disagree.  It is a lively debate and success has been had in both camps.


It is easy to see when children are having fun. They laugh.

My philosophy is based on my experience.  Putting a technique-first philosophy into practice is challenging.  Many coaches will debate that you can start with technique training but as time goes by you will have to move into high mileage swimming to achieve success.

The philosophy that I have seen too much of is exceptionally high mileage swimming. So if you may indulge another domestic bird analogy, that philosophy is; throw all your eggs at the wall and the one that doesn’t break is your winner. This ubiquitous practice pains me immensely but I am comforted by the potential in the future of a class-action lawsuit against the worst proponents who have pool decks full of broken eggs.

In a wholly technique based philosophy all sets are designed to keep a young mind focused on feeling the water, making it fun to be efficient, learning how to move and balance, and playing games that are underpinned by an aerobic or speed based platform. Weird sculling, unusual uses of woggles, holding or passing balls, odd names for made-up new drills and an endless well of other fun things to do in a pool should be the way young children experience the world of swimming.  Dread, boredom, pain and endless drudgery should not be part of anyone’s childhood.

nuclear pool

Unique games can be challenging enough to cause big adaptive change. Bigger than any basic ‘hard set’.

Oddly, even some of the ‘old school’ coaches, who many of today’s coaches portend to follow, did not have the mileage like some of the endless ‘no pain no gain’ programmes of today.  The success stories from huge mileage programmes shine with gold but the piles of broken swimmers left behind does not justify the incalculable  distress caused to so many young lives.

I can recall an article in a swimming magazine that praised the bravery of a forty year old masters swimmer who had finally got back to the pool and subsequently onto the blocks to race.  She was brave because she had reached such a state of over-training and chronic fatigue that as a twenty year old, striving to make the US Olympic team, her body fell to pieces. She didn’t make that team.  She had to quit.  She was left behind and forgotten.  At her worst she could not walk across a room without fatigue.    For twenty years she battled to get herself back to ‘normal’. And after a long hard battle she made it.  Success?  Yes.  And no.  A personal success and thank goodness she did, but she shouldn’t have been doing what she was doing in the first place.  Her programme was one of the highest mileage programmes in American and likely in the world.  A programme that bragged about swimmers doing one set of a 12,000 IM and regularly over 100k per week.


Kids need to be kids. Not small adults.

Long mileage does not have to be the only way to the top.  It can work for some very unusually tolerant bodies.  However a more ethical way would be to discover all the variations of skills in a group of children and then apply the appropriate programme.  The programme doing the 12,000 IM did not find any sprinters… but did find a great 400im-er.

What happened to that Masters swimmer, in my non-medical lay-person understanding, was her immune system, which helps her to recover from training, became so tired and exhausted that it could not cope any more, so her immune system essentially broke, she no longer could recover at all.  But she kept going, and going, and going.  She was told it was the way to the top.  The way to make her goal. She became chronically fatigued.  More than likely chronically depressed too.

In a technique-based programme the focus is on efficiency and ‘style’.  A style that is smooth and controlled.  This type of swimming can be very demanding.  What happens in the daily attempt to be more efficient; adaptation occurs!  With creative coaching adaptation in both technique and fitness.  Two birds, one stone (hmm more bird analogies).  Adaptation through fun races, challenging test sets and team camaraderie.  A coach will have the perfect formula for success at every level, for everyone.  Your super-star swimmers will perform, your team leaders will learn to lead, your goof-ball kids will have fun, your geeky kids will probably design a new app to help you coach (and probably will become millionaires before they’re 25), your sprinters will be able to sprint and your distance swimmers will be unbeatable.


Snakes and Ladders warm up. No one gets in late…(look at blog post “they will ask to get in early”)

No one should be left behind like a broken egg that didn’t survive the test and no one should ever again spent their youth digging a giant hole that they spend the next twenty years of their life digging out of.

Creativity is a coaching skill that needs honed.  It will bring out the best in you and will help you to discover the personalities that evolve in front of you.  Long boring sets are not creative.  They are boring.  Who knows where creative coaching will take you, because anyways, no matter what, you can’t count your chickens before they hatch.

About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at:
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4 Responses to Technique or Training. Chicken or Egg?

  1. Theresa Marshall says:

    Referring to the original post, I could not agree more. The issue is that if we are encouraging long fast workouts, before we have technique, we are encouraging muscle memory of poor stroke technique. No, not every competetive, olympic gold-winning athlete has a perfect stroke – after all, swimming, like any sport, was invented by man, not God, and He didn’t give us the ‘perfect stroke’ guide book. We have learned over the years that doing freestyle the wrong way over long distances and swimming arduously long sets and thereby acquiring long kilometers over the training week, for example, can lead to shoulder surgery and an end to any swimmer’s career, young or old. I like the analogy of throwing all the eggs at the wall to see which ones stick. A friend of mine used to swim for a University which will remain un-named for the puruposes of this discussion and they reached 10,000km of distance per DAY, much like the above. It turned her off swimming altogether, as she was constantly tired, couldn’t eat enough, couldn’t keep up with her classes, became ill frequently, and didn’t gain much, if anything, from it. She quit the team and the university.
    As a swim coach, triathlon coach, AND a personal trainer who worked with Military Cadets in Remediation and sports, I’ve seen my share of overtraining, and I can tell you that going back to the basics (now we’re talking about overtrained adults either in the Military or adult or child athletes) produces the amazing effect of regaining interest in their sport or field of exercise, health, immunity, and ability. I won’t apologize for sticking to my guns on this one, but the truth is out there – forcing long practices, or adding speed, before technique is mastered, and in an encouraging, fun, but challenging way that engages athletes, and in particular in relation to this article, in swimming, has the effect of engaging the athletes in their own training, teaches them WHAT they are working on learning and HOW they should be performing each skill, and makes it FUN. No child enjoys having a coach AND a parent yelling at them about how to fix what’s wrong…equally, no child enjoys being at the back of the pack because they don’t understand what they’re doing wrong and therefore continue doing whatever it takes to keep up. Every competitive swimmer can relate to that drive to be right on the heels of the swimmer in front of them (I believe). A challenge is not worth the challenge if it isn’t a) fun b) attainable c) involve all swimmers without excluding someone d) consider the abilities and inabilities of the individuals and the age groups and their current expected level of development and e) leave every swimmer coming out of the pool feeling a degree of success at everything. OVERTRAINING is the buzz word of the decade, and there is no room for old-school coaching ‘just because’ it worked for one person in the 1982 or whatever Olympics. Different body types, wing spans, VO2 capacity, nutrition, drive, motivation, the list goes on, make or break Olympians. But the bigger question is this…are we, as coaches, really training the whole team hoping for one Olympian? Or are we training the whole team for wellness, health, strength speed, and, hey, success where it happens? Because if we are training a whole team in the hopes of having one or two potential Olympians – we’re doing it for the wrong reason…we’re breaking the masses for the benefit of the few. And, I agree whole heartedly with the comment above – STAY CURRENT FOLKS!!! LONG TERM ATHLETE DEVELOPMENT! Not BREAK THEM NOW in case they’re still standing later! STAY CURRENT! KNOW YOUR STUFF!
    By the way, I use dice in my workouts too 🙂 I’m glad I’m not the only kook out there that brings games like that to the pool to create the workouts! Happy training everyone!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. garyalison50 says:

    Steve thank you for your comment. Distance swimming can be interesting if it is applied creatively. But I feel too many inexperienced coaches try to emulate high mileage without regard to the fact they are coaching children. I inferred that it is best for everyone but if that isn’t true then it is equally untrue that distance based swimming is also not good for everyone. The Ledeckys, & Phelps aside, there are always the Schoeman’s and Spitzs to balance that argument, but uncompromised high mileage is debilitating without proper application of energy systems. My point is hopefully to create a debate and voice my concern over un-compromising high mileage programmes and not carefully orchestrated LTAD.


  3. You can’t in one breath say that long distance swimming is boring and not creative. Long distance swimming as part of a complete program can be very inspiring and interesting. If you are ADD or your body ca’nt handle the distance of course you might try other methods and eliminate entirely perhaps the long long sets. But Katie Ladecky is not wrong to do the incredible things she does to become the best in the world. The attention to detail is actually easier when you habitualize excellent strokes in long practices. Should you swim sloppy long practices? No. Should you swim sloppy short practices? It always amazes me that coaches think their swimmers recover when swimming shorter and faster. That like saying dong five reps of bench press with 800 pounds is better for recovery than 100 push ups. Many coaches are too lazy to do velocity based training. Ask the next one you see the best time for his swimmers in 100 dolphin kick and notice right out of ten look back at you with glazed eyes. The distance a coach asks of his swimmers is less relevant than the velocity but MOST great swimmers in history have a background of heroic swims in practice. People who put that down in favor of short fast swimmng every day don’t know physipology or psychology any better than the Urbanchecks, Troys, Sweetenhams, Schuberts, and thousands of other coaches who have had success with not just one talented swimmer such as Michael Andrew (whose strokes are not exactly perfect if you watch carefully). Of course there will be exceptions, but a great progressive carefully coached distance base is the norm for success world-wide. Anyone can say if they trained shorter or if Andrew trained like Lochte used to he’d be faster. No one knows for certain, but generations of fast distance based sprinters seems toprove the value of distance training for most. USRPT has worked for very few swimmers at the top. That’s not at all to say it isn’t best for many. But to even infer it’s best for everyone is wrong or that people can’t burn out swimming fast every day is just as wrong. The best part of your comment is that we need to progress to the next generation of training when each swimmer is assessed and trained to reach his personal best in the way that works best for him. The place to start is to measure everything — as Bill Sweetenham says, “leave no stone unturned” when it comes to measurement and evaluation.


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