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TRAINING FOR WATER POLO

Dante Dettamanti BS, MS
Coached Stanford University to Eight NCAA Championships

Volume 1 Number 4 May 1, 2010
Water Polo Doesn't Come with an Instruction Book - That's Why We Have Coaches.
 

This is the first of a series of articles that will focus on training for water polo. Water polo is a unique sport that has similarities in style, skill, and energy requirements to other team sports such as soccer, basketball, team handball, lacrosse and ice hockey. However, it is the only team sport that is played in the water; making it even more unique in the world of sport. Consequently, water polo has certain energy and physical requirements that are similar in some respects; but in many ways different than other sports.

Players must be trained according to the requirements of playing a high-energy game in the water. Water polo coaches must train their players based on knowledge of training techniques that are based on reliable scientific knowledge. The field of sports science continues to grow rapidly, and new discoveries of the best methods to train and treat athletes are found daily. Coach’s abilities to educate themselves with this research is critical to success in training athletes to play water polo. After the science, coaching experience is vital in making the minute technique adjustments needed during practice and games.

A coach has two choices, educate himself with the scientific knowledge, and then make an accurate training decision based on that knowledge; or simply follow a checklist of drills and techniques that another coach has performed in the past, ignore the science, and just keep guessing and following their instincts. The key is to apply your instincts based on scientific knowledge, rather than just “fly by the seat of your pants”. You are doing your athletes a disservice if you do the latter, instead of the former.

In writing the second edition of my coaching manual, I have researched over 300 published studies that have been done in the past decade on sports training and conditioning; and have discovered some vital information that can be applied to training for water polo. Some of the conclusions that I have come to, and some of the research that has been done, may go against conventional wisdom as in “this is the way that it has always been done”.

It may also spark some debate among people involved in training and conditioning athletes, especially swimming and water polo coaches, and strength and conditioning coaches, who have always done things a certain way. All I am asking is that coaches, as well as athletes, listen to the arguments and the data presented with an open mind; and then make their own decision based on the facts, rather than on what they think might be right or what has been done in the past.  

This series of articles will focus on training the body to adapt to the requirements of the sport of water polo, and will cover topics such as:

  1. Swim training for speed and endurance
  2. Training the legs for water polo
  3. Is strength training necessary for water polo players?
  4. Integrated training-combining skill training and conditioning
  5. What lactic acid means to the swimmer and water polo player
  6. Is being on a swim team necessary to be a successful water polo player?
  7. Do you need to stretch before you exercise?
  8. What is the best way to warm-up before a practice or a game?

The first article in the series will focus on a form of swim conditioning that I feel applies more to water polo than to any other sport, and that is the technique of “ultra-short swim training”.
 
                                           ULTRA-SHORT SWIM TRAINING

It is has repeatedly been shown both by coaches and scientists, that high-intensity swim training is the best way to train swimmers to swim faster in sprint events like the 50 meter freestyle; or to train water polo players who do a lot of fast sprint-like swimming during games. Research has also shown that the physiological adaptation of the athlete who must swim fast for short distances, occurs in response to the “intensity of effort” rather than the total amount of effort.

Even though there are still some coaches who cling to the concept of lots of yardage and long swims of 200 to 1000 meters to train sprinters and water polo players, the preponderance of evidence supports the concept of matching the training, both in terms of speed and distance, to the speed and distance in a sprint race or water polo game. This is called “event specific quality” training. Training that will have the most benefit in the event that the athlete actually competes in. All the long distance swimming does nothing to affect the performance of the sprinter or water polo player; because it does not resemble the speed and distances performed during sprint competition or a water polo game.

ANALYSIS OF WATER POLO

Video analyses have shown that activities in games of water polo last for less than 20 seconds, with intense movements and sprints averaging only 7 to 14 seconds. The high intensity activities are interspersed with intervening, lower intensity intervals averaging less than 20 seconds duration, and by occasional longer periods of recovery, such as the intervals between game quarters. Occasionally several intervals may be strung together, with little rest in-between, resulting in back to back intense swims that may total 25-30 seconds.

The total of the moderate and high intensity intervals in a horizontal position may constitute about half of the actual playing time. The remainder of the time is spent performing activities in predominantly vertical body positions, with and without contact with an opponent, and at a moderate to high intensity as indicated by heart rate recordings.

Swimming for the central purpose of getting up and down the pool comprises 20% of the total game time (11 to 13 minutes) and about 33% of the time a player is active in the water. About one-half of this time (only 6-7 minutes) is spent sprinting, i.e. near maximal velocity.

From the game analysis we can determine the requirements for training a water polo player. The player needs to be trained to swim at all out speed for about 20-30 times during a game, for periods of 7-14 seconds per high intensity swim; and with periods in-between the intense swims where players are not going all out, or are in a vertical position in the water. If we are to follow the principal of “event specific quality” that says that you should train with the same movements, skills, velocity, and effort that is required  during a game, then it makes sense that training distances of ten to thirty meters at all out game speed would exactly duplicate game requirements.

For the same reasons that sprint competitive swimmers who swim a 50 or 100 meter race don’t need to train at long slow distances, water polo players who swim short all-out effort swims do not need to swim long mileage training of 4000-5000 meters of the same long and slow swimming. Since the total distance swum in a water polo game is not more than 1000 meters, of which only about 30-40% is of all out intensity, it is only necessary to train the players to swim fast for a distance of only 500 meters, broken up into short 5 to 30 meter swims. 

WHAT HAVE WE DONE IN THE PAST?

In the past, both swimming and water polo coaches have resorted to “race specific” or “game specific” sprint training in order to train swimmers to swim faster. This type of interval training is defined as “speed work” and consists of repeating all-out 25, 50, 75 and 100-meter swims with long rest intervals interspersed between the work intervals. Because of the high quality of the swims over these distances, and the fatigue that they produce, coaches have used these kinds of intervals sparingly during training sessions.

Any all-out swim distances performed longer than 10-15 seconds and up to 60 seconds requires the use of carbohydrates (glycogen) and results in the production of lactic acid (the anaerobic-glycolytic system); while a sprint that is less than 12-15 seconds relies on the use of creatine phosphate stored in the muscle for energy, and does not produce lactic acid. Both of these energy systems are anaerobic (without oxygen) in nature; but only the longer swims that produce lactic acid are fatiguing to the swimmers, and require a long rest to recover. The shorter swims require only a short period of time for recovery and replenishment of the creatine phosphate in the muscles.

Rest intervals in the lactic acid (lactate) producing system require at least 4-5 times more time to recover than the actual time spent swimming the distance. An all-out sprint that takes 30 seconds to swim would require five times more rest, or 2 1/2 minutes, before the swimmer can repeat that same intensity swim again. Even with that much rest, the fatigue from lactic acid is accumulative, and results in only a limited number of repeat swims before the swimmer has to terminate the set. The effects of these kinds of sets are also felt during the rest of the practice, and even the next day; making it difficult for the athletes to learn any game related skills. Such game related skill patterns that are important in water polo cannot be learned/developed when executed under stress caused by lactic acid induced fatigue and reduction of glycogen energy stores.

THE COACHES DILEMMA

Coaches are faced with a dilemma, in that our athletes need to perform “game specific quality” swims in practice in order to swim those speeds during games; but the fatiguing affects of these kinds of swims in practice detract from learning and performance during the rest of the practice, and in subsequent practices. What can we do to train our athletes to avoid the debilitating effects of all-out sprint training as we have done in the past?

THE ANSWER

The answer lies in what sports scientists who specialize in “speed” training have known for many years; but has not been adopted by coaches. Researchers like Astrand found that during speed intervals, if the work duration is short enough, even though intensity is very high, and if recovery periods are short, energy sustains mechanically efficient "fast" work while no buildup of lactate occurs. As well, glycogen levels are not depleted and remain high throughout the short intervals; whereas with longer intervals they depreciate significantly.

The results of a study where in a 30-minute period of cycling, subjects performed the same total workload with the same work/ rest ratio in three different ways: 60 sec / 120 sec, 30 sec / 60 sec, and 10 sec / 20 sec. In the shortest work/rest interval (10/20), blood lactate did not accumulate and glycogen stores were only slightly reduced by the end of the session. At the other extreme, the longest interval (60/120) produced excessive lactate accumulation and glycogen depletion. The middle condition produced an elevated but consistent lactate accumulation.

This type of training where work intervals were only 10-15 seconds long became known as “ultra-short training”, and was soon expanded upon by other researchers including Dr. Brent Rushall, famed sports scientist who is one of the worlds foremost authorities on  training for competitive swimming. Critics of this kind of ultra-short training postulated that it would only develop the anaerobic creatine-phosphate energy producing system (less than 15 sec), and was not long enough to develop the glycolytic lactic acid energy system (15-90 sec) or the longer lasting aerobic/endurance system (greater than 2 minutes).   

This criticism was soon dispelled when Tabata et al (1997) and other researchers demonstrated that shorter (less than 15-second ) work intervals with a short rest interval (one/one work/rest) would tax both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems maximally. These outcomes facilitate better sprint performances than those fostered by typical, and mostly inappropriate, sprint training that has been utilized by coaches in the past.

THE BENEFITS OF ULTRA-SHORT REPEAT SWIMS

The utilization of "ultra-short repeats" produces all the benefits (without the drawbacks) of desirable sprint training, and adds some exciting new advantages for water polo training that include:

  1. Duplicates the intense swimming during a typical game (as described above) that lasts for short periods of 7-14 seconds.
  2. A greater amount of work is performed in a short period of time. An “ultra-short swim” set of 30 reps x 20 meters @ 30 second intervals results in swimming at game speed for 600 meters in only 15 minutes. Compare this to a “typical sprint swim” set that has been done in the past of 8 reps x 50 meters @ 2 minute intervals. This results in swimming only 400 meters at high speed in 16 minutes.
  3. The advantage of tolerable fatigue levels. The ultra short swim set described in (2) above results in lower lactic acid (lactate) levels and higher glycogen energy levels than in the typical sprint swim set.
  4. Improvement of both anaerobic and aerobic energy systems with the same training stimulus.
  5. More “bang for the buck”. Excellent game speed training in a short period of time without the fatiguing effects of lactate build-up.
  6. More time and energy for water polo related activities. The benefits of getting quality training in a relatively short period of time leaves more time and energy to learn and perform game related activities like shooting, passing, front court offense and defense, extra-man, counterattack and full game scrimmages.
  7. It is probable that ultra-short repeats can be used each training day irrespective of the seasonal training period.
  8. Recovery is rapid and significantly shorter than that required for accumulated-lactate work bouts. This allows an increased number of executions of skill related activities.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Ultra-short swim set recommendations for water polo coaches:

  1. All sets should be performed with 1/1 work to rest ratios.
  2. The work interval should be somewhere between 5 and 15 seconds.
  3. The sprints should start from a vertical position in the water and performed with the head out of the water.
  4. Sets of this sort can be performed daily during the competitive season, including the day prior to a game, without the debilitating effects of lactate accumulation and glycogen depletion.
  5. Typical sets include 20-30 reps of distances of 15, 20, 25 and 30 meters utilizing a 1/1 work to rest interval. 50-meter repeats can also be utilized once a week to simulate the game situation that requires a player to counterattack in both directions with little or no stoppage of the action.
  6. No additional swim training is required during a practice as long as the coach utilizes water polo related conditioning drills, counterattack training, and game related scrimmages. Daily training that utilizes the egg-beater kick should also be performed every day in practice.
  7. An all-out 100% effort is required of all swims. 

COACHES: Experiment with this method of water polo training during the summer season and see how it works for you and your team. 

[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences and
Click one of the water polo balls to learn where to buy Dante's books.]


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