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The Physiology behind the Periodization of an Olympic Swimmer Term Paper

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For a long time, sport events at the Olympics such as swimming have provided an important arena for experimenting with techniques of periodization. In swimming, for example, the individual effort of each athlete is easy to measure since swimming competition focuses only on the individual athlete and the clock. Individual performance does not rely on group performance of other swimmers in the competition.

Therefore, the output of an athlete can be easily regulated with proper practice and training schedule. Understanding the nature of each sport is important in devising a periodization system that takes the needs of the event into consideration since each sport in essentially different. This paper analyzes the concepts of periodization and tapering in swimming at the Olympic level.

Needs Analysis of Swimming

To be successful in swimming as a sport demands self-discipline and adherence to a strict training plan that agrees with the physical and psychological demands of the sport. The first requirement for a successful career in swimming is nutrition. Observing a strict nutritional plan is an essential aspect of preparation for any athlete (Eberle 2007). Nutrition is an important part of a swimmer’s training for swimming consumes lots of calories.

Most Olympic bound athletes in the swimming category cover over seven miles in a single training session. Therefore, the nutritional diet of a swimmer ought to consider the strength needed and should be sufficient to build endurance due to the strict training demands. The athlete’s diet should consist mainly of proteins and carbohydrates that have high energy content. In short, the diet of a swimmer should contain more calories (over 1200) than that of an average person (Eberle 2007).

Weight training is another important area to consider. When preparing for the Olympics, the training schedule of swimmers should aim at developing strong muscles. The body of a swimming athlete needs to have the necessary muscle power to overcome water resistance. However, it must remain flexible to enable the swimmer to execute strokes and varying motions.

A swimmer’s legs must have enough strength to push the body off the wall as he makes turns. Exercises for such athletes should not only focus on strength, but must also pay attention to agility. Their daily weight workout ought to last approximately 30 minutes. These exercises should be done at least twice in a week and do not include warm-ups. The training and fitness coach must ensure that the training plan does not wear out the athlete.

Training for an Olympic swimming event requires recovery as part of the workout plan. During recovery, relaxing massages aid in the quick recovery of muscles that are strained during workouts. Recovery can also include ice immersions to relieve aching and decrease swelling of muscles. This allows the athlete to have sufficient energy for training.

Besides physical training, swimming at the Olympics requires mental strength to withstand the pressure that comes with the expectations on such a global stage. Swimming in an international stage with thousands of onlookers demands that the athlete be prepared mentally for such an audience to avoid unnecessary distractions. This can be done by setting and following certain habits or playing particular types of songs before getting into the pool.

In addition, the athlete must practice his strokes regularly and perfect his techniques. This requires skillful periodization and tapering to ensure that the athlete reaches his peak at the Olympic stage. Such planning requires an understanding of the underlying principles of periodization and tapering as outlined in the subsequent section.

Underlying Principles of Periodization and Tapering

Periodization refers to a systematic alteration in the volume and intensity of exercises to avert overtraining and encourage peak performance at the intended time. The key words in periodization are volume and intensity. Volume refers to the quantity of work completed in each exercise each day for every month while intensity is the power-productivity of the workout.

Periodization signifies the emphasis of employing different training systems at different stages (Issurin 2008). It is often achieved through careful planning for the calendar period before the event to produce a detailed training program.

The underlying theory supporting periodization is that in alternating between several stages, an athlete can cover different systems more comprehensively than if he trains in a uniform way continuously. A good periodization strategy can cover several years. In our case, the plan should bring out the peak performance of the athlete at the Olympic stage since no athlete can maintain a peak performance throughout the year.

Most athletes attribute a complete season’s success to tapering. In sports such as swimming, tapering is the tradition of decreasing the intensity of exercises in the days leading to a major competition. It is widely practiced in many energy-demanding sports like athletics and swimming. Many athletes consider tapering as an integral recipe for good performance.

The period of tapering varies from one sport to another and may last over one week. In most sports, an event that involves protracted periods of endurance is often preceded by long periods of tapering. In swimming, however, distance swimmers taper for fewer periods than those in the sprinting category.

The main gain from a taper lies in the recovery and restitution that it enables. What makes a swimmer competitive is the quality of the workout that he does before tapering and is not directly because of the taper. The purpose of the taper is not to provide a magic route to success, but rather a period for the athlete to restore his strength and relax his muscles away from the rigorous training.

Though the training does not stop, it is slowed down considerably. The taper is, therefore, characterized by fun activities and moderate exercises. The main factor to consider in the taper is intensity instead of volume.

Consequently, a good taper must permit resting periods and recovery without generating the unfounded fear of losing conditioning. It must also execute certain tasks that are intended to reproduce the targeted performance at the competitive event.

Periodization Stages of Training for Swimming at the Olympics

Olympic activities like swimming events, rowing and most field events are vital for research and validation of periodization hypotheses. In swimming and other individual sports, individual output of athletes is easy to measure since it is all about the athlete and the clock. This makes it easy to set goals and plan towards achievement of the goals. This is done by constructing and maintaining a sound periodization plan.

Periodization involves the creation of separate units where certain techniques are stressed. Every swimming cycle is split into intervals of micro-cycles, macro-cycles and meso-cycles. The traditional model focuses on a number of blocks that concentrate on endurance, maximum speed, improvement of VO2max, and anaerobic level. It also includes a period of tapering. This is an example of a linear model.

One advantage of this model is that it offers avenues for acclimatization within the structure. Outlined here are some of the categories used in periodization.

A macro-cycle denotes the whole season in a training program including the recovery and transition phases (Issurin 2010). This period is traditionally taken to infer one year in a swimming calendar, but can be modified according to the targets and needs of a specific athlete since not all athletes are the same.

The second category is the micro-cycle, which provides the swimmer with more comprehensive information concerning the nature of the workout in terms of intensity, volume and regularity of each workout session. The degree of intensity in every micro-cycle varies between low intensity and high intensity and includes recovery days.

The third category, the meso-cycle, refers to separate blocks of workout sessions directed towards an explicit target in training, for instance, preparation, endurance, speed and competition. The meso-cycles are often around three to four weeks long. The table below is an example of a periodization plan for an Olympic-bound athlete.

Date September October Nov. Dec. Jan. Feb. March April-Aug.
Meso-cycle Preparatory phase Competition Maintenance Peaking Transition
Macro-cycle General endurance Specific endurance Local meet Local meet Taper Olympics Recovery Off season
Micro-cycle Low to moderate intensity

High to moderate volume

High intensity

Moderate volume

High intensity

Low volume

Very high intensity

Full recovery between sets

Easy exercises Recovery Light exercises to keep fit

From the table above, there are four main phases that are outlined in a swimming periodization. These are the endurance or preparation phase, the competition phase and the recovery or rest phase. Paying attention to all these stages when devising a periodization plan is important since the intensity and volume of exercises recommended for each phase varies considerably.

If applied appropriately, a periodization plan that outlines all these phases should enable the athlete to reach his peak performance levels at the targeted competition. The endurance phase is subdivided into general endurance and specific endurance.

The general endurance phase marks the beginning of the season and is characterized by low intensity exercises that place prominence on dry-land conditioning. This stage includes exercises that enhance flexibility, aerobic activities and weight workouts. In this stage, volume of exercises can be high or moderate and increase gradually in the next stage. The main goal of this phase is to gradually transition the body into coordinated training and acquire training tactics for the season ahead.

At this stage, the exercises are intended to prepare the body for the next period and improve the basic skills. It focuses on revitalizing cardiorespiratory strength and acquiring complete body strength by way of practical strength training. This stage usually lasts four to five weeks depending on the swimming calendar and the schedule for the major competition. For this period, it is helpful to practice cross training and aerobic endurance to determine fitness levels (Rechichi, Dawson & Lawrence 2000).

The specific endurance phase is marked by a gradual increase in the volume of exercises and introduction of relatively high intensity exercises that meet the level of anaerobic limit. This stage is characterized by a gradual increase in the volume of exercises and intensity in aerobic work.

The drills performed are intended to develop the fitness levels that are required for swimming success in Olympic competitions. The athlete is also trained on how to maximize oxygen intake and improve speeds. This stage sees a reduction or removal of cross-training. The training is race-paced in nature and is marked by short segments and sufficient recovery. General and specific endurance preparation levels are usually referred to as base training.

In the competitive stage, a taper is implemented together with a gradual reduction in the volume of exercises. The stage also marks the finalization of racing tactics using time trials and fragmented swims. It can also include training races and events that prep the swimmer for the main event.

The recovery or rest phase is marked by a taper that emphasizes ‘low to moderate’ intensity exercises every week. This stage implements specialized programs that target the areas of weakness of each athlete. The main aim of this stage is to enable the swimmer to relax from the pressure exerted by rigorous training. All training applied in this phase should be anaerobic in nature. Rest phase lasts around four weeks in the case of an athlete training for the Olympics.

Appropriate Fitness Tests

Fitness is an integral requirement for a competitive edge in a swimming competition. There are various fitness elements that constitute a successful athlete depending on the swimming event category and the type of stroke. A good fitness test must indicate the various constituents demanded by the category.

The translation of results should also consider the importance of each of these components. This section outlines some of the attributes of an Olympic swimmer and the appropriate fitness tests for each attribute. It also outlines the equipment used as well as the procedure.


Apart from skill and technique, a good swimmer should have good endurance ability. Though this might take lots of training, aerobic capacity is integral if the athlete is to maintain a high pace in the entire race. The fact that Michael Phelps has a VO2max of ~76ml/kg/min while Ryan Lochte’s VO2max is ~70ml/kg/min gives credence to the importance of high VO2max in enhancing performance. However, most of the tests are not beyond reproach since the instruments used in most VO2max tests vary in validity.

Method: Maximal Oxygen Consumption Test (VO2max)

This is a technique that calculates the aerobic capacity of swimmers and other athletes.

Equipment: A stopwatch, carbon dioxide and oxygen analyzers, treadmill, swim bench or bicycle for modification of the capacity. Douglas bags are used to collect expired air.

Procedure: The athlete performs exercise on a bicycle or a treadmill. The workloads are chosen to increase starting from moderate to maximum intensity. The rate of oxygen intake is then computed from degrees of ventilation and the carbon dioxide and oxygen in the exhaled air. Finally, the maximal intensity is determined at test conclusion.

Scoring: Outcomes of the test are displayed in litres per minute. The swimmer is judged to have attained his VO2max if he registers a leveled oxygen uptake, or if he reaches his optimal heart rate. Attainment of a respiratory ratio above 1.5 is also an indication of reaching VO2max by an athlete.

Validity: Besides the high correlation of test results to the actual VO2max scores, the best thing about this test is that it measures body oxygen directly. Most other aerobic test techniques tend to overlook this and instead use estimates. This method also provides a way to measure maximal heart rate directly. However, the test is relatively expensive and time consuming when weighed against other aerobic tests. Strict measurement is essential for the exhaled gas and ventilation calibration procedures.


In any swimming competition, the difference between a winner and the rest of the competitors usually comes down to speed (Maglischo 2003). An athlete might have the right technique and skill, but without good speed success is not easy to attain.

Method: Critical Swim Speed Test (CSS)

The Critical Swim Speed refers to the ideal pace that ought to be sustained constantly without exhaustion. The CSS test is employed to measure aerobic capability and to regulate exercise intensities of athletes.

Equipment: All that is needed for this test is a pool for the swim, a trainer and a stopwatch.

Procedure: After a regulated warm-up, the athlete swims in two races (400m and 50m) at maximum pace. He is accorded enough time for recovery between the races. The athlete commences every swim in the water by push-starting on the wall. The trainer records each time completed in both swims and the following formula is applied in establishing the CSS in m/s.

P1= distance covered in 50m swim

P2=distance covered in 400m swim

t1=time in seconds covered in 50m swim

t2=time in seconds covered in 400m swim

CSS = (D2 – D1) ÷ (t2 – t1)

Validity: CSS is concurrent with the swimming speed subsequent to the commencement of blood lactate accumulation (OBLA) and the maximum lactate stable state.

The Underlying Physiological Principles of Training and Tapering

In swimming, brief fiery sprint races like the 50m races are anaerobic in essence. The middle-distance races (ranging between 100m and 400m) have a mixture of aerobic and anaerobic characteristics. However, the long-distance races (ranging between 800m and 1500m) and most open-water events are mostly aerobic in character.

In any of these events, it is imperative that the coach understands the physiological processes that generate optimal performance. Most swimming coaches comprehend the fact that energy expended during muscular contraction comes from three different sources. One of these sources is aerobic metabolism while the other two are from anaerobic metabolism (Kenney, Wilmore & cost 2012). The amount of aerobic energy released is determined by the quantity of oxygen distributed to the toiling muscles through the cardiovascular structure.

Nonetheless, during very intense motion the quantity of aerobic energy supplied is usually insufficient. Events such as fast swimming that require a sudden burst of energy get it from anaerobic supplies. This leads to accumulated oxygen shortage. There are different anaerobic supplies of energy in the human muscles. The alactacid source of energy functions only during the first ten to fifteen seconds during a swimming event.

This is because the system has its energy sources within the muscles. The energy spent is restored during rest within a few seconds, and there is no buildup of lactate. This interval of restoration is actually more protracted than what is commonly advocated since not all the swimming styles entail strokes or the turn at the wall that takes more than two seconds. If the episode of extreme exertion is more than fifteen seconds, the working threshold of alactacid energy supply is exceeded.

The subsequent supply of anaerobic energy is the lactacid energy scheme. Also called glycolysis, this system supplies much of the energy required for the extra interval of muscular contraction after the fifteen seconds have elapsed and if the athlete maintains the fast pace. Glycolysis generates lactic acid, which results in the buildup of lactate, intense fatigue of the muscles and the exhaustion of glycogen reserves if used for a protracted period of time.

Current forms of training for short swimming events use these two anaerobic energy sources simultaneously due to the distances covered in the training and duration of such training. This can result in elevated fatigue levels and inhibits the trial of velocity oriented neuromuscular patterns. To make good use of exercise intensity, intervals for recovery should be slotted between drills.

Younger athletes need shorter tapering intervals than their older counterparts. This is because the speed of recovery is faster in adolescents and young adults compared to older adults. However, the adolescents also seem to tire quickly. To accommodate the stage in the growth of the athlete, modifications ought to be made in lengths of tapers.


Though the impact of tapering in improving performance is significant, there are other factors in and out of training that determine the eventual performance of an athlete. Since tapering is characterized by reduced demand for energy resulting from low intensity training, swimmers also need to reduce their food intake to avoid weight gains that can have a negative impact on performance. Periodization in swimming is a blend of art and science that adds value to the performance of the athlete.

Even though the selection of a periodization plan is complex and controversial, it is important to model a specific athlete’s periodization plan according to his ability and needs. The solution to the dilemma of choosing a periodization plan lies in its effectiveness in specific situations. The coach has an important role to play if the athlete is to perform well. Confident and productive coaching that handles emerging challenges with confidence are major contributors to the overall success of an athlete.


Eberle, G. S 2007, Endurance sports nutrition, Human Kinetics, USA.

Issurin, V 2008, ‘Block periodization versus traditional training theory: a review’, J Sports Med Phys Fitness, vol. 48. no.1, pp. 65-75.

Issurin, V. B 2010, ‘New horizons for the methodology and physiology of training periodization’, Sports Med, vol. 40. no.3, pp. 189-206.

Kenney, W. L, Wilmore, J. & Costi, D 2012, Physiology of sport and exercise, 5th edn, Human Kinetics, USA.

Maglischo, W. E 2003, Swimming fastest, Human Kinetics, USA.

Rechichi, C., Dawson, B. & Lawrence, S. R 2000, ‘A multistage shuttle swim test to assess aerobic fitness in competitive water polo players’, Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, vol. 3. No. 1, pp. 55-64.

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