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Work and Recovery

(or You've been Lied To)

Revised from an article that first appeared in Schwimmvergnugen in 1994.

You have been lied to. The whole time you have been involved in organized swimming you have continuously been fed untruths and falsehoods. You have swallowed them whole. I can tell just by watching you swim your workouts.

Coaches have been constantly telling you that doing all of that swimming - long yardages and high intensities - was making you a faster, better swimmer. You have been told, and you believed, that swimming faster in workouts was making you stronger and quicker. You have been conned into the false notion that, as you swim those long yardage sets, your body is increasing its aerobic capacity. You and your teammates have been bamboozled into thinking that if you can just hang on to one more painful rep while doing that lactate tolerance set that, somehow, when it was over, you'll be a better, faster swimmer.

Bunk and hogwash.

"Wait, Coach! Are you telling me that I've been doing all that training for nothing? That I don't have to do that stuff anymore? That I can come get a refund on my last three years of dues?"

No. That's bunk and hogwash too.

OK, let me explain. I have shamelessly led you around to the back door of the Work / Recovery subject. You do need to do significant amounts of work at all different intensity levels to become a well-rounded swimmer. However, it is a common misconception that it is the work you do that makes you a faster swimmer. In fact, it is what you do and what your body does between work sessions - during your recovery periods - that actually makes you a faster swimmer.

Adaptation is the general term for the process whereby your body changes in response to physical exertion. One of the miracles of the human body is that, under normal conditions, it will automatically make positive changes in a wide variety of internal systems as a result of doing physical work. In general, your body seeks to attain a state where the physical activities you engage in on a regular basis are not a great hardship to you. If you are a furniture mover your body will add muscle mass to help you lift heavy objects. If you run 5 miles every day your body will increase the aerobic capacity of the muscles in your legs and improve your cardio-vascular system performance. If you are a carpenter your body will develop calluses on your hammering hand so you won't get blisters.

The operative phrase in the previous paragraph is "under normal conditions". This is a vital ingredient in the adaptation process. Normal conditions are considered to include proper nutrition, proper hydration, adequate amounts of high quality sleep, minimal or zero amounts of "cultural pollutants" (alcohol, nicotine, crack) in the bloodstream, freedom from disease and relatively low psychological stress levels.

Exercise is just one ingredient in the soup we call physical fitness. Exercise sends signals to your brain and body that trigger a huge number of small chemical and electrical changes. These changes can result in a wide variety of physiological adaptations that mean greater strength, more explosiveness, more endurance etc. In effect, exercise sets the stage for the adaptation process.

But, if one or more of the normal conditions I described turns abnormal there is a dramatic decrease in the body's ability to follow through with the adaptation process. If you put in a great workout this evening, but then eat poorly, party hearty and don't get enough sleep, you greatly diminish the effectiveness of the work you did in the pool. And you can't get it back. If you finally get your act together three days from now with plenty of sleep and good food you will not reap the benefits of today's workout. The adaptation window closes 24-48 hours after your workout. If you want to get full results from any given workout you want adaptation conditions to be normal for a full two days following your workout.

Lack of sleep is probably the most common and most destructive deviation from ideal adaptation conditions. If you have a period where you are getting very little sleep you'd probably be better off to take the 2 or 3 hours you now devote to the workout process (traveling, training and traveling again) and invest it in a good solid nap. Better yet, get to bed earlier. (Note that, unless it is the reason you are short on sleep, sexual activity is not contraindicated.)

Although an occasional deviation won't devastate your training, constantly infringing on the ideal adaptation conditions will mean you are spotting your competition an advantage. If you work out regularly and passionately, yet insist on living the rest of your life like John Belushi (or Dennis Rodman, or Steven Adler, or Robert Downey, Jr., or Brittany Spears, or. . . or. . . or. . .) you can expect to eat serious wake.

© H2Ouston Swims, Inc. 1994-2013

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Emmett Hines is Director and Head Coach of H2Ouston Swims. He has coached competitive Masters swimming in Houston since 1981, was a Senior Coach for Total Immersion Swim Camps for many years, holds an American Swim Coaches Association Level 5 Certification, was selected as United States Masters Swimming’s Coach of the Year in 1993 and received the Masters Aquatic Coaches Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. He recently overhauled his popular book, Fitness Swimming (Human Kinetics, publishers) and the second edition was released mid-2008. Fitness Swimming has been published in French (entitled Natation, pub. by Vigot), Spanish (entitled Natacion, pub. by Hispano Europea), Chinese (entitled Jianshenyouyong), Portuguese (Natacao Para Condicionamento Fisico, pub. by Manole)  and, soon, in Turkish and Italian. Currently Coach Hines coaches the H2Ouston Swims Masters group in Houston, TX and works privately with many clients. He can be reached for questions or comments at 713-748-SWIM or via email.

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