The secret behind Olympic success
“Olympic dreams are built on a pile of shit”
It’s the Olympic year, the one time in the quadrennial where people pay attention to the low draw sports like athletics and speed swimming. We all turn our eyes to the television during these brief increments to see amazing displays of athleticism from household names such as Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. However, the one thing that most people don’t realize is that Olympic dreams are often built on a pile of shit. Four years of it.
When I call it shit, I am not slandering the work that goes into these kinds of performances, I am talking about the massive amount of unending and physically testing and training that goes into an Olympic dream. As an elite swimmer, my training regimen is an exhausting combination of in-water workouts, weight training, and “dryland” which revolves around mobility and core routines. One of the interesting quirks about the sport is that because the activity is “low impact,” the volume of training that swimmers can do is pretty astronomical. I am a swimmer training for events that last between two to four minutes at a distance of 200-400 meters; in order to prepare for this, my average training session comes out to two hours and six-seven kilometres.
With these kinds of volumes, swimming training becomes quite different than training for most other sports. This is something that University of Regina strength trainer and former Regina Riot football player Carmen Agar can attest to.
“You get less specific with the different strokes in swimming compared to different positions in other sports. There is a lot more volume even for the sprinters. Because of this, we focus a lot more on technique and individual muscle groups.”
We don’t just do this once a day either. I am in the pool nine times a week, so I spend about eighteen hours and fifty kilometers in the water. Alongside these nine pool sessions are three weight sessions, focused on strength, power and stability; all three of which are key when you are working in a weightless medium. Power is a tremendous advantage in swimming because you only have a few opportunities to generate speed from a solid surface per race, and each of these opportunities of peak speed can make the difference that usually amounts to tenths of a second. For Agar, the challenge is to get the same power out of swimmers, despite their unique backgrounds.
“In other sports athletes know how to shift their weight better. In swimming there’s a lot of different body types; you get some very long wingspans, or very long torsos. Because of this, you need to spend more time working on technique to make sure everything is solid.”
Stability and core strength are also crucial. In a world where every force in one direction moves the body in another direction, minimizing resistance is the key to speed. For this reason, a swimmer must be able to propel themselves forward with the maximum volume of water, without sacrificing resistance with unwanted movement throughout the body. In order to do this, core strength, particularly rotational core strength is one of the big differences between swimming and land-based sports. For Agar, this is probably the biggest difference between swimming and other sports.
“With the swimmers’ workouts, it’s about trying to incorporate as much core as humanly possible, even thinking within each exercise, ‘is it possible to add a core component?’”
Swimming is also an incredibly technical sport. Alongside the two biggest physiological aspects (lactate tolerance and aerobic capacity), technique is the foremost preoccupation in training. There is a high level of mental discipline that goes into keeping the brain engaged for two hours of vigorous exercise, but performance demands it. As a medley swimmer, I need to be technically proficient in all four strokes, so all training is a game of give and take. No swimmer can be perfect in every element at the same time, so the battle in the medley events is honing in on weaknesses and strengths in order to create the best composite result. For Agar, this competitive focus is one of the things that unite swimmers with other athletes.
“Swimmers want to lift as much as possible and be the best technically they can be. Depending on what it is, swimmers have their strengths in the pool as opposed to on land, but they still have a high level of focus and competitiveness in the gym.”
So why go through all of the trouble of spending 30 hours a week and fifty weeks of the year training? It’s simple. When you have chance to wear the maple leaf on the world’s biggest stage, what more motivation could you really need?