Michael Reid
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Applying the Research: Specific Swim Sets for Water Polo

In this monthly series of articles, Mike will discuss the science and practice of physical training for Water Polo.  Strength, flexibility, Water Polo science, rehab and other areas of interest with respect to the physical development of the Water Polo athlete will be covered.

Last month I reviewed the research with respect to swim conditioning for Water Polo. The research might have left you with more questions then answers but don’t worry, it is all going to make sense by the end of this article.

This article will discuss how to apply the research to create Water Polo specific swim conditioning drills and even conditioning swim tests. I am writing this article with the College or higher level athlete in mind but you can certainly begin to apply bits and pieces of this information to your youth team practices.

Before I even get to the application of the research, below are two quotes and one physiological principle which are critical to appreciate and understand when designing conditioning programs for Water Polo athletes.

“Water polo consists of high intensity bursts of sprinting, interspersed with short periods of low to moderate intensity swimming.” (Hohmann A & Frase R, 1992)

Note: high intensity bursts usually last up to 15s with the low intensity swimming lasting up to 20s which translates into Water Polo being a very speed-endurance orientated sport.

This is what the highest winning percentage (.800) coach in NCAA Water Polo history had to say about swimming and training for Water Polo.

“It would be a mistake to train a water polo player like a middle distance or long distance swimmer. Training as a sprinter and then adding the nuances of playing water polo, such as head-up swimming, eggbeater kick, bursts of speed, changing direction, ect, would be much more effective for training the water polo player”(Dettamanti, 2008)

Note: 400m is considered middle-distance swimming by most swim coaches although some will include 200m in the middle-distance category. Long distance is anything over 400m; in competitive swimming that is the 800m and 1500m.

Probably the most important physiological principle to understand when designing any kind of training program is the SAID Principle.

SAID Principle  –  “The body adapts to what ever it does, but really the body always adapts to exactly what it does.” (Cobb, 2009)

“Specific exercise elicits specific adaptations, creating specific training effects” (McArdle, 2006)

Just a short word on “specific” or “specificity”. I see specific training for sport on a scale where on one end the most specific training is actually playing the sport while at the other end could be exercises that are at the polar opposite of the sport you are trying to train for. To get better at your sport you better be playing your sport and doing exercises that complement the sport. Do too many exercises that are distant from the demands and skills required in your sport and you begin wasting useful resources (e.g. time, physical & mental energy, recovery, financial). Although these resources are somewhat easily replaced; you do only have a finite amount, so use them wisely.

A lot of training can be specific to Water Polo but it is really the relative specificity of the training mode that needs to be considered. That being said, many different training modes can be useful at certain times, it just becomes a question of when do you do them, at what expense, volume, frequency, intensity, ect … Basketball or Soccer can be very good off-season games to play as well as running but to do it during the season could be very questionable for the high level athlete who is already training 20 hours/week with Water Polo.

The chart below shows the summary of the Water Polo research that I wrote about in my last article, you can read the article here:  Swim Workouts Are like Brushing Your Teeth: Do They Make Sense?

Water Polo Research Key Points

– refers to international men match play with 7 minute quarters

Total Work Time

34 minutes

Total Rest Time

20 minutes

Work to Rest Ratio

5:3 – 1:1

   Duration of High Intensity Work Demands

up to 15s

Duration of Low Intensity Work Demands

up to 20s

Distanced Swam in a Match

500m – 1800m

Horizontal Body Position (as a %)

30 – 50%

Vertical Body Position (as a %)

50 – 70%

Two caveats:

  • All the research cited was completed when there were 7 minute quarters and no 5m rule. The style of the game has changed at the top level but the basics of conditioning are still there.

  • Coaching is a combination of art and science. Everything we do in the pool does not have to make physiological sense all the time and conform to the research to a tee. Keep this mind, you can still do what ever you do but just remember the farther you sway from the physiological aspects of Water Polo the farther you will be from bringing your athletes up to their full potential as a Water Polo player.

When writing a swim program consider these points, even though they are quite common sense, I believe many of us forget about them.

  • The longer you swim before resting the slower your speed.
  • Shorter distances can be covered in higher speeds.
  • Longer rest intervals equals higher speeds; short rest equals slower speeds.

Al Vermeil, Strength Coach of many championship pro sports teams in the USA has been quoted probably 1000’s of times as saying “train slow, be slow” (SAID Principle at work!). The converse is true too, if you want to become faster then you must train going faster which means you will need to do shorter distances with longer rest intervals. Multiple repeats of 400m or more are not going to make you faster but could even make you slower (remember that longer swims will require the athlete to swim slower in order to complete the swim).

Looking at the research, some of the most obvious swim sets I see would be something like these four swim sets:

10-20 x 25m Free on 30s interval

comments: in this swim set a high level athlete should be going under 15s on every swim. If they do this you have around a 1:1 ratio, also the work duration matches the typical upper limit of a match. For slower swimmers, adjust the interval time and volume of work. Make the swim even more specific by starting off the wall, no resting on the wall and periods of swimming head up.

10-20 x 25m Free (to centre & back) on 30s interval

comments: really the same as the first swim but you are now starting off the wall and must turn 180° at centre for the return trip.

10-20 x 50m Free on 60s Interval

comments: if this is the same athlete that is swimming multiple 25m’s under 15s then they should be able to swim these 50m between 30-35s. The work to rest ratio still fits the research but the duration of each bout of high intensity is longer. You could vary the swim set by having the athlete sprint on the 1st 25m with a medium speed recovery swim on the way back or mix the style of how the 50m are completed throughout the set. Now if the athlete is finishing each 50m on 45-50s then they will be training for more endurance and not speed-endurance, because rest will be too short to swim at a higher percentage of their maximum speed. In this case either the athlete is dogging it or the interval time may need to be lengthened depending on the goals of the program.

10-20 x 50m Free (start in middle) on 60s Interval

comments: take this fairly traditional swim set and tweak it to really juice up a Water Polo athlete’s specific conditioning. The tweak is to start in the middle of the pool and turn with out touching the walls. The energy demands go way up when you cannot push off the wall and with that the swim times will be slower and the interval time may need to be adjusted.

These four examples are incredibly simple but do not confuse simple with easy. As far as traditional swim sets go, these four and there variations would be very specific to the horizontal swimming demands of a Water Polo match with the exception of total distance swam. If that is important for your practice you could do these sets 2-4 times or fill up the rest of your practice with some other kind of conditioning drills (e.g. scrimmaging or counter attack drills).

Progressive Overload – With strength training, you need to gradually increase load and volume over time to improve your strength and muscles gains. Swim conditioning is the same, if you perform the exact same sets with the same swim times you will stagnate. You need to progressively add “load” of some kind to the athlete to continue there physical development.

A common way to increase load is to perform swim sets with slightly longer distances, shorter rest intervals, higher volumes or increased frequency (times/week). But what about the reverse of doing shorter distances, longer rests, lower volume and higher intensity (intensity being a percentage of your max speed)? This starts to become more of a true sprint training program. Since Water Polo is characterized as a speed-endurance sport working on your speed is one half of the equation!

Sprint Training Session (sample)

  • Warm Up (10-15 minutes)
  • 6-8 x “Swim-Off” Sprints (12.5-15m) with complete rest, 2+ minutes.
  • 4 x Full Court Sprints (25-30m) with complete rest, 2+ minutes.
  • 2-4 x 50m Free Sprint with complete rest, 3-5 minutes.

Comments: To train for speed you need long rests otherwise waste products will accumulate in your body and you will quickly tire. Remember we want to train fast to be fast. I know many Water Polo coaches who will look at this and say “the rest is to long … it’s not hard enough … not enough volume”. The athlete must understand that they must swim all of these at maximum effort and with that maximum effort comes longer rests. If the athlete is ready to go again on the 50m free after 30s then they did not swim hard enough. This kind of training session is relatively easy on your physiological resources because the total volume is low and the rests are long.

What about swimming longer distances?

Swimming sets of 100m, 200m, 400m can be beneficial but the longer the distance the slower the speed but of course this also depends on the interval you use. If you are doing 100M repeats with only 5-10s then you might as well do a straight 400m’s because they are essentially the same thing. Remember that Water Polo is characterized by short fast movements done repeatably through out the game.

Dettamanti (2008) outlines in his book many different swim sets and conditioning drills using game situations. I recommend you seek out that resource for more information. He says in his book “Training a basketball player to play basketball by requiring him to run a marathon, is just as ridiculous as requiring a water polo athlete to train long distance swimming, like 500, 1000, 1500-meter repeat swims.”

How do I know if my players are in shape?

Conditioning tests or in other words monitoring your athletes progress is extremely important. Not only is it important for the coach to have feedback on their programing, it also can be very motivating for the athlete to see their progress through the training year. You can do formal testing and/or just keep track of swim times on some key swim sets you routinely do.

Just one thing, if you are going to spend the time to evaluate and record data on you athletes then you might as well do it with something that is relevant to the sport. Don’t spend your time timing your athlete’s 1500m free or 4x400m. It’s just not relevant to the sport and for them to get better at those tests they will likely become poorer Water Polo athletes.

Tsekouras et al. studied the Greek national mens team in the 1990’s. In this study they did a bunch of different test like height, weight and some different swim tests. What they are trying to look for are common threads or correlations between any of the variables they were measuring. With regards to swimming they found a strong correlation between maximum 400m swim time and an all out 4x50m swim with 10s rest after each 50m. In plain English this means that the athletes that were fast on the 400m swim also were fast on the 4x50m swim. Now the 4x50m swim can be categorized as a speed-endurance test while the 400m swim is more of an endurance test. For your information, the Greek team swam an average of 4 min 38s for the 400m and were able to average 29.9s on the 4x50m swim.

These two swim tests would be suitable for Water Polo players but you can really almost, with in reason, use any swim set. Just record the times of all the swims and repeat the testing so you can gauge the progress of your athletes. There is one problem with the 4x50m with 10s rest. In a team setting you will have to use one coach for every athlete so it becomes very time consuming to administer. These two tests are also measuring very similar qualities and there is no measure of maximum sprint speed.

My recommendation for swim testing would include three tests:

  1. 25-30m free (maximum speed test) – do 3 trials with complete rest between swims and take the fastest time.

  2. 4 x 50m on 45-60s interval (speed-endurance test) – these need to be all out, no pacing allowed. To make sure they go all out you can also use the 1st 50m as a second maximum speed test, just make sure you tell your athletes this so they swim like mad on that first one. The interval time will depend on your athletes speed, I would recommend anywhere from approximately a 1:1 to a 2:1 work to rest ratio. Just keep the test the same throughout the year and watch your athletes progress.

  3. 400m Free (endurance test) – the least important test in my mind but it still can be useful. If you have an athlete who is out of shape you may miss them on the first test but the second test or the 400m will definitely catch them. There is a skill of being able to pace yourself correctly for the 400m, start to fast and you crash and have a slow time. For this reason, it would be wise to give your players 2-3 trials throughout a week to give them the best chance possible to perform their best.

In conclusion, swim conditioning is obviously an important aspect of training for Water Polo. With this article I have reviewed the research and shown some simple but effective means of applying it to swim conditioning sets and how to tweak them to be more specific to Water Polo.

Please remember the first quote of this article when you are designing your swim conditioning programs and if you do yo will easily be developing better athletes who are suited to the demands of the sport of Water Polo.

“Water polo consists of high intensity bursts of sprinting, interspersed with short periods of low to moderate intensity swimming.” (Hohmann A & Frase R, 1992)

Next month I will do the same as I did for field players but now for the Goal Keeper, possibly the best athlete in the water.

Do you have any questions?  You can contact me at www.waterpolotraining.net


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