My reflections on S&C coaching during lockdown

Ryan Keating

12 months ago the sporting world was thrown into chaos. Our elite swimmers were in the final stages of preparing for their Olympic Trials only weeks away. Closure of pools and training facilities followed by a national lockdown led to the inevitable postponement of Trials. So then began the challenge of maintaining our athletes physically and mentally to target Olympic qualification. The following article outlines my reflections on coaching during lockdown.

Whether an athlete is a weekend warrior; seeking to improve their health; or aiming to compete at the top level of their sport, training programming should revolve around the following key principles:

  • Specificity
  • Individualisation
  • Progressive overload
  • Variation

Failure to maintain these principles can lead to detraining. Which can result in a partial or complete loss of the anatomical, physiological, and performance adaptations that have been made (Haff and Triplett, 2016). There has been extensive research into how long certain training effects will last as this can all be impacted by changing training schedules and injury let alone a global pandemic. Table 1 summarises the residual training effects of different motor abilities following cessation of training.

Motor AbilityResidual Duration, DayPhysiological Background
Aerobic Endurance30 +/- 5Increased amount of aerobic enzymes, mitochondria, muscle capillaries, haemoglobin capacity, glycogen storage and higher rate of fat metabolism
Maximum Strength30 +/- 5Improvement of neural mechanism and muscle hypertrophy due mainly to muscle fibre enlargement
Anaerobic Glycolytic Endurance18 +/- 4Increased amount of anaerobic enzymes, buffering capacity and glycogen storage and higher possibility of lactate accumulation
Strength Endurance15 +/- 5Muscle hypertrophy mainly in slow-twitch fibres, improved aerobic/anaerobic enzymes, better local blood circulation and lactic acid tolerance
Maximum Speed (Alactic)5 +/- 3Improved neuro-muscular interactions and motor control, increased phosphocreatine storage
Table 1: Adapted from Block Periodization: Breakthrough in Sports Training (Issurin, 2008)

The impact of lockdown on swimmers

While all athletes were impacted by lockdown and how they could maintain some form of training, swimmers were impacted the most by being withdrawn from their training environment and immediately losing the training specificity that they require. Around the world athletes got creative in their quest to maintain their swimming:

From swimming in paddling pools…

To using furniture…

In his previous blog post, Associate Head of Performance Services (Physical) for Swim Ireland, Paul Talty outlines the 3 main areas that an S&C programme can support a swimmer:

  • Swimming velocity
  • Starts & turns
  • Injury profile

Without access to pools or gym facilities, this became particularly challenging. The remainder of this blog summarises my reflections on how we managed to negotiate coaching during lockdown. We have been fortunate that our elite swimmers have been able to return to full training since Summer 2020. However, we’re fully aware that there are many swimmers around the country that have yet to get back in the pool.

Coaching During Lockdown Reflection #1 / The benefits of online programming

Over the last number of years there has been an upsurge in online platforms for the design and delivery of training programmes. In 2019 Swim Ireland partnered with RYPT allowing us coaches to move away from paper and embrace the future. No one could have predicted what lay ahead in 2020 and how this could prove to be so beneficial.

Online programming allowed for individual programming and monitoring in an easy, user-friendly interface. (Check out Kerry GAA’s Head of Athletic Performance, Jason McGahan’s blog post on methods of monitoring.) Athletes can record their training on their smartphone and the information is accessible to the coach who can quickly modify and adapt for subsequent sessions.

Coaching During Lockdown Reflection #2 / Our athletes got strong!

As S&C coaches, the athlete’s sports performance is the priority and our programming should strive to support that. While elite swimmers can cover 43 ± 5km to 58 ± 10km each week over 8 to 10 sessions (Pollock et al., 2019), making improvements in strength and hypertrophy can be challenging due to the sheer volume of conditioning work being completed over a training week.

Athletes continued with conditioning sessions while in lockdown, (further discussed in reflection #3) but for those that had access to sufficient equipment, they had an opportunity to progress in a number of our key lifts. These include Pull-ups, Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Press, and Olympic Weightlifting. Exercises that are commonly programmed for swimmer’s dry-land training (Crowley, Harrison and Lyons, 2018).

Coaching During Lockdown Reflection #3 / Something is better than nothing

It was always going to be impossible to replicate the pool training regime of our athletes while in lockdown but we could maintain if not improve their cardiovascular function. Biking was the preferred choice due to it being low impact although hips and lower backs would be susceptible to mild discomfort due to unfamiliarity.

Some swimmers did resort to running but the high impact nature of it aggravated some so it was important to monitor the volume and intensity. Table 2 provides a list of conditioning options.

on grass
*30-60 minutes steady-state (pace should allow you to maintain a conversation)
*30-60 mins Fartlek (vary pace & distances eg. Sprint to lamp post, slow jog next, then run)
*5km time trial (cover dist. as fast as possible & record time) Target: Male <25mins, Female <30mins.
*5-min run, 1-min walk x5
*1-min fast, 2-mins easy x 6-10
*400m every 5-mins x 4-6
*100m every 45 secs x 6-10
*30 secs fast, 30 secs walk x 10
*20 secs fast, 40 secs jog x 10
*50m run, 50m walk x 6-10
*25m out & back, 30 secs rest x 6-10
*30-60 minutes steady-state (pace should allow you to maintain a conversation)
*30-60 mins Fartlek (vary pace & distances eg. Sprint to lamp post, slow jog next, then run)
*5km time trial (cover dist. as fast as possible & record time) Target: Male <25mins, Female <30mins.
*5-mins run, 1-min walk x 5
*2-mins on, 1-min off x 6-10
*90 secs on, 30 secs off x 6-10
*5-4-3-2-1 mins on, 1-min off between each x 2-3
*30 secs on, 30 secs off x 10
*20 secs on, 40 secs off x 10
*45-30-15 secs on, 30 secs off between each x 6-10
Bike*30-60 mins steady-state (pace should allow you to maintain a conversation)
*10km time trial (cover distance as fast as possible & record time)
*5-mins fast, 3-mins easy x 4
*3-mins fast, 90 secs easy x 6
*2-mins fast, 1-min easy x 8-10
*30 secs fast, 30 secs easy x 15-30
*10 secs fast, 20 secs easy x 20-40
*20 secs fast, 10 secs easy x8
Rower*30-60 mins steady-state (pace should allow you to maintain a conversation)
*5,000m (cover distance as fast as possible & record time)
Target: Male <18mins, Female <22mins.
*500m w/ 1-min rest x 6-10
*250m w/ 1 minute rest x 8-12
*1-min on, 1-min off x 12-15
*30 secs on, 30 secs off x 15-30
*20 secs on, 40 secs off x 10
Table 2: Conditioning options for an athlete during lockdown

These sessions could be further improved by wearing a heart rate monitor to target specific physiological adaptations.

Coaching During Lockdown Reflection #4 / Plenty of bodyweight options

For some athletes, lockdown occurred so quickly that we were unable to equip them sufficiently or they were unable to source additional equipment. However, bodyweight training was and is accessible to everybody so Paul Talty and Swim Ireland provided a number of workouts requiring nothing but some space and your own bodyweight. I even got in on the action with some press up variations for you to try.

We also recognised the need for some extra mobility training to counter the extra time spent sitting or doing unfamiliar exercises while in lockdown.

Coaching During Lockdown Reflection #5 / Preparing for return to pool

The literature would suggest that up to 90% of swimmers will suffer from some type of shoulder problem during their career (Wolf et al., 2009; Sein et al., 2010; Bradley et al., 2016). Lockdown was an opportunity to prepare our swimmer’s shoulders to be as robust as possible prior to returning to training. Table 3 provides an example training session that would aim to improve shoulder function and strength.

ExerciseSets x RepsNotes
Foam Roll Lats & T-Spine1 x 30secs/areaLocate tender spots and focus on them
Thread the Needle1 x 10/side
Yoga Press Up1 x 5Aim to increase range with each repetition
No Money Drill1 x 10
Scap Press Up1 x 10
Band External Rotation3-4 x 10/sideAlter arm angle each time through circuit
Face Pull3-4 x 10/side
Pike Press Up3-4 x 30-60 secs
Inverted Row3-4 x 30-60 secs
Frog Stand3-4 x 30-60 secs
Bear Crawl3-4 x 30-60 secsMulti-directional
Side Plank Band Row3-4 x 30-60 secs
Deadbug3-4 x 30-60 secs
Table 3: Example training session targeting shoulder robustness

While a lot of dry-land training may target shoulder strength, the risk to injury is likely to be enhanced through bad swimming technique and too much too soon (Bradley et al., 2016). It’s important that when you do return to the pool that you gradually build up your training volume, frequency, and intensity.

Its important that when you do return to the pool that you gradually build up your training volume, frequency, and intensity.

Coaching During Lockdown Reflection #6 / The psychological impact

The mental impact the pandemic has had and will continue to have over the coming years will be a challenge for athletes, coaches, families, and medical professionals. While a number of our athletes were in the final stages of preparing for an attempt at qualification for Tokyo, the uncertainty of whether this would happen and what shape they would be in to perform was likely a huge source of stress and anxiety.

As lockdown continued, lack of direct social contact has no doubt deepened these issues. Swim Ireland and individual clubs have been trying to rectify this by organising online group workouts, workshops, and challenges to continue to engage with swimmers. Sometimes a message or a phone call could be enough to help lift and motivate an athlete or friend for the day ahead.

Bonus Reflection / Everything will be OK!

While we have been fortunate to have returned our athletes to full training, albeit with disruption to competitions and facility access with ongoing restrictions. Our swimmers are in as good if not better shape now than prior to lockdown.

Training and competition structures are likely to be forever changed by the impact of COVID-19 but athletes can continue to make progress in all aspects of their sport. All coaches whether physical, technical, tactical, or psychological will have to adopt their future practices as a result of lockdown, so use this as an opportunity to be better!

References /

  1. Bradley, J. et al. (2016) ‘Review of shoulder injuries and shoulder problems in competitive swimmers’, American Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 4(3), pp. 57–73. doi: 10.12691/AJSSM-4-3-1.
  2. Crowley, E., Harrison, A. J. and Lyons, M. (2018) ‘Dry-Land Resistance Training Practices of Elite Swimming S&C Coaches’, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(9), pp. 2592–2600.
  3. Haff, G. G. and Triplett, T. (eds) (2016) Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning NSCA. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
  4. Issurin, V. B. (2008) Block Periodization: Breakthrough in Sport Training. Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
  5. Pollock, S. et al. (2019) ‘Training regimes and recovery monitoring practices of Elite British swimmers’, Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 18(3), pp. 577–585.
  6. Sein, M. L. et al. (2010) ‘Shoulder pain in elite swimmers: Primarily due to swim-volume-induced supraspinatus tendinopathy’, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(2), pp. 105–113. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2008.047282.
  7. Wolf, B. R. et al. (2009) ‘Injury patterns in Division I collegiate swimming’, American Journal of Sports Medicine, 37(10), pp. 2037–2042. doi: 10.1177/0363546509339364.

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About the author

Ryan Keating

Ryan Keating is a UKSCA accredited, multi-sport Strength & Conditioning Coach with the Sport Northern Ireland Sports Institute working with able-body and para-athletes. He currently leads on the S&C support for Swim Ireland’s northern-based athletes as well as Judo, Para-Badminton, Sailing, Lawn Bowls, and Shooting. Prior to this role, Ryan has accrued significant team sport experience with youth, club, regional and national squads for both males and females in rugby union, GAA, football, and futsal.

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