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Monday, 10 June 2013

Thoughts on Distance Racing for Younger Athletes

I love watching athletes swim fast in practice and in competition. Watching athletes swim slowly up and down the pool? -- well...not so much!  Certainly there are many coaches out there who are with me on this issue. 
I believe that in many cases, a coach’s general stance on “getting the young kids into distance swimming” is well-intentioned – but at times can be a bit misguided.  What is it we are really trying to do?  Certainly much of our thought process is guided by which side of the fence we are on:  are we trying to get a National Qualifier out of our training squad, or are we trying to get a World Record Holder/Olympian? 

(We should always treat our 10-12 year olds like they are all going to be a World Record Holder.  We will realize later that the vast majority will never do it, but at least we will have done it right for the one or two that need to be treated that way! – and for the rest, we will have gotten the most out of them.)

These are just my thoughts, and I’m probably both right and wrong (there are always exceptions to the “rule”)….but we should consider training our athletes to move up in distance instead of down, as they get older.   Let’s train them for distance early, but race them for distance late!

Consider 2012 US Olympic 1500 swimmer Connor Jaeger’s story.  Connor swam with the Central Jersey Aquatic Club growing up, and developed into a strong 400IMer, and particularly in the later years of High School he developed a strong 400M and 200M Freestyle.  At the University of Michigan, when he was 20 years old, he raced his first 1500 (according to the USA Swimming database).  Seven months later, on his 5th 1500 ever, Connor made the US Olympic Team in the 1500.  Connor’s 1500 in London was his 6th 1500 ever!  Here is the breakdown:

Time                      Age                        Date                      Lifetime 1500 in Competition

15:35.10               20                           11/2011                1st

15:07.29               21                           5/2012                  2nd

15:16.84               21                           6/2012                  3rd

14:59.97               21                           6/2012                  4th (US Olympic Trials, Prelims)

14:52.51               21                           6/2012                  5th (US Olympic Trials, Finals)

Connor made the Olympic Team in an event he had only done 3 times in his life!  One advantage to this was that he never gained experience racing the distance slow.  By the time he started competing in the 1500 he was ready to hold 102s.  Maybe there is something to that.

Take a look at two-time Olympian Katie Hoff’s progression in the 1650. 

Time                      Age                        Date                      Lifetime 1650 in Competition

17:40.55               12                           2/2002                  1st

17:30.36               13                           2/2003                  2nd

15:24.35               18                           2/2008                  3rd

Katie was an Olympian in 2004 in the 200 and the 400IM, and then made the Team in 2008 again in both IMs, as well as the 200, 400, and 800 Free.  Along the way, in 2008, Katie swam the 1650 for the third time – and broke the American Record.  She didn’t need any experience in the event because she had swum many 1000s and 1650+ efforts in practice, backed by a lot of fast 150s, 200s, 300s, and 400s.

In the racing pool, Katie had no experience swimming 1:00 pace in the 1650.  She didn’t swim the event when she could have during the 2003-2007 years.  She was an already-established athlete who had set a few American Records, and for me as her coach – I didn’t need to see her swim a 16:15 1650.  It may have done her some good, but generally the 1650 and the 200 Back/200 Fly double were on the same day in competition, so we chose the double….it was more valuable to us.  But after she got her 200 and 400/500 down to an extremely fast level, we knew that if she swam the 1000 and the 1650 she would be able to hold an extremely fast pace.  We didn’t view the 1000 and 1650 as long; we looked at it as a race she could take hold of because those races are only a few minutes longer than the 500.  It’s not like she was going from a 500 to a 10K.  My opinion is: If Katie would have done the 1650 three times per year when she was 12-13-14 she probably would have considered the race to be somewhat of a struggle to actually go fast.  Having no experience going slow, and getting an opportunity to swim it in 2008 – she had the speed to race the fastest swim in US History.

The best athletes like to go FAST!  They hate going slow.  The best athletes realize that there are no points for the people who can swim the farthest.  Not in our sport.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that everyone has to hold off swimming the mile until they can set a big record in the event.  There is GREAT value in putting young kids in these events when they can either win locally, or make the top 10 list Nationally.  If we have kids who can do these things, as coaches we need to give the chance to do it – because the confidence they build at meets (winning or getting National recognition) is irreplaceable.  If you have someone who can win, or perhaps drop time in the mile when they haven’t had a time drop in anything for 3 months, then they HAVE to do it.  That is coaching.  But we have to have gone through that particular thought process with the event.  It’s not like the 100 Free, which to me is an event an athlete can and should race many times every year.

Please understand: the examples I’ve used are the extremes – but they do show that it can be done, and perhaps the examples will make us think.   I do believe that many 11-13 year old girls and 12-14 year old guys should race the mile 2 times per year SCY and 1-2 times per year LCM…but I think we have to watch it with the particular personalities and perhaps try to encourage their performance in the 200/400 with more intensity.   We should consider waiting until they can swim a good 100/200 when they are 10-11 before putting them in the 400/800 – even if the 400/800 are the only events offered on the day.   I believe that we should train them for the mile and the 400 IM at all times after age 10 (and before age 11, for the 100 Free and the 200IM)….but just because we are training them for something doesn’t mean we need to race it 6-8 times per year at the younger ages.  We are all in this for the Long Term!


  1. Great stuff in this stuff Coach Yetter and thanks for sharing those case studies. As you note, no single training program works for all athletes, requiring individualization within the swimming community and even within clubs. If everyone is taught to "build a base" then taught to swim down, a lot of great talent will fall by the waste side (in my opinion).

    Another great point about building swimming confidence in youth swimmers. When working with elite youth swimmers, confidence is key. For someone like Katie Hoff from the age of 12- 16-years-old, do you have any suggestions for the frequency of National vs. Regional meets?

  2. Thanks for the comment John. As far as National vs. Regional meets, I think that is a great issue of discussion and one that meets the same answer as many of our discussions: it depends on the athlete and the team, as well as the Region. I generally like to attend more Regional level competition than National level competition for the Up-and-coming athelte. To me, 1-2 Grand Prix type meets per year, plus Nationals or Juniors is a good way to go. If you can hit a Grand Prix (or Winter-Junior type meet) and it doesn't cost a ton of money to travel there -- and it doesn't take away too much from training, than maybe there is value to adding another. In your case, begin from Santa Clara, you have the terric option of attending a great Grand Prix AND having it in your home pool. I've tended to feel good about a December "Team" Prelim/Final meet that is somewhat local -- and I've preferred it over a "National" Junior meet/Nationals meet more often than not. I think there is some great value you get, team-wide, when your best Senior athletes swim in a Prelim/Finals meet at the same meet your best 11-12 year olds swim in a Prelim/Finals meet -- particularly if your older athletes perform at a reasonably high level. It's different every year, and probably a bit different in an Olympic Year -- depending on who you are working with -- but for the most part I like to lay a bit lower and prepare to swim fast at the final meet of the summer.

  3. Very well written. Thanks for sharing coach.

  4. Thanks again for your reply.