The Future of Water Polo Conditioning - USWPT

Ryan Upper
Water Polo Planet

Ultra-short Race-pace Training (USRPT) is a set of swim training principles researched, developed and articulated by Dr. Brent Rushall during his decades-long career coaching swimming and performing scientific studies. The results of dozens of tests are posted in his database "Swimming Science Bulletin" and I would refer you to this short article as a primer, "The Mechanisms of Ultra-Short Training". These methods have been proposed for water polo before (Water Polo Training Based on Game Metrics) but had previously failed to incorporate the optimal development of the players' energy systems and the reduction in performance-degrading fatigue. Now, a true scientific conditioning system is ready to be unleashed on your players. (Just in time for the season!)

Energy Systems

The science behind ultra-short training comes from the study of elite swimmers' energy systems. Many current techniques and training methods are failing in their mission because they neglect the energy system. During high-intensity activity portions of your energy system are both depleting and replenishing themselves simultaneously. Here are the basic energy system components that all coaches need to understand:

  1. ATP-CP system, around 10 seconds of energy, up to 30 seconds to replenish
  2. Anaerobic glycolytic system, 30-40 seconds of energy, several minutes to replenish
  3. Aerobic oxidative system, fully activated in ~2 minutes, can take many hours to recover

We also need to understand the muscle fiber groups we are training:

  1. Type I, slow-twitch, oxidative, helps replenish energy even during intense activity
  2. Type IIa, fast-twitch, oxidative, the key fiber for sprint swimming
  3. Type IIb, fast-twitch, glycolytic, some can be converted to Type IIa fibers through training

What does this mean for a training session?

Short-distance high-intensity training will improve physiological responses in your players. They will train at game speed for longer periods of time and increase their recovery capacity. Secondly, their ATP-CP and glycolytic systems' maximum store of energy will be expanded by a few seconds each. Finally, some Type IIb fibers will be converted to Type IIa fibers. IIa fibers are the best of both worlds; they are used for explosive movements and they use inhaled and stored oxygen to convert sugar to ATP for quicker energy replenishment.

This all adds up to two things. Higher performing players with less fatigue.

Ultra-Short Water Polo Training (USWPT) Basics

Here are the training principles derived from USRPT and modified for water polo:

  1. All reps are full-bore sprints
  2. No walls should be used (or no streamline starts and flip-turns)
  3. All reps are head-up
  4. Distance per rep should be no more than 21 yards/meters (depending on your competition pool)
  5. A target time for each rep should be assigned and maintained (based on player ability)
  6. Rest 10-20 seconds per rep, players must maintain target time. A 1:1 ratio is optimal
  7. Sets are at least 14 reps (one 7-minute quarter), 24-30 is needed to expand work capacity
  8. If a player misses a target time, they must rest one rep; missing two reps results in the end of the set.
  9. Create sets where most players will need to rest at least one rep due to missing the target time

Point #8 is the most important change from previous conditioning mentalities. The player should never enter a fatigued state that results in deteriorated performance. This does not help replicate game speeds and also degrades productivity the rest of practice. If the player can only accomplish twelve 15-meter sprints below 13 seconds that is their current threshold. They will continually adapt and complete more reps and/or meet a faster target time next practice. As a coach you are now very aware of their game threshold and can better plan your substitution scheme.

Here is a USWPT conditioning session to get you started:

  1. 100 swim, 100 eggbeater
  2. 24x15 meter head-up sprints with over-the-hip starts and hands-up finish. Target time sub-13 seconds. 30 second rep interval. 2 minute wall rest afterwards
  3. 14x16 meter head-up sprints, forward lunge start, with a water polo turn at 8 meters (down and back, suicide). Target time sub-16 seconds. 35 second interval. 2 minute rest afterwards
  4. 20x10 meter head-up sprints, over-the-hip starts, with hands straight up eggbeater finish for 10 seconds. Target sprint time sub-9 seconds. 30 second interval

I will answer the first comment you have "That's too much rest!". No, it's the optimal amount of rest for humans to activate their entire energy system while maintaining maximum performance. The key term is maximum performance versus maximum effort. Effort is the term coaches use to motivate players who are extremely fatigued and exhibit deteriorating performance. You can stop wondering why passing and shooting drills are poorly executed after 12x100's on a 1:30. You have just wasted a practice with slow, non-game speed swimming and muscle fatigue that limits performance in water polo drills. Performed as outlined USWPT will get your players in shape AND allow correct repetition of critical drills.

USWPT is the way forward from traditional swim sets that were not appropriate for water polo conditioning anyway. Your players hate 12x100s on a 1:30 because they fail to replicate game speeds or distances, feel fatigued the whole set, and their only goal is to make the interval time. This is not the way to train water polo athletes.

As with any technique I write about I have already worked through USWPT sets on my own and have tested this out on a group of 14u boys. I plan on logging my results in this spreadsheet the next few months and feel free to email me at [email protected] with any comments