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The Effect of a Summer Break on Young Swimmers’ Performance

Training cessation versus Short-term detraining

It is common for young swimmers to have several weeks without competition during the summer break. This phenomenon is called training cessation; which is characterised by a temporary break from the systematic training programmes (Mujika & Padilla, 2000). This usually occurs between the finish of one competitive season and the beginning of the following one. This training cessation should not be confused with short-term detraining, i.e., when swimmers are submitted to insufficient training stimulus (per example: immediately after a peak-performance period). In this case, coaches commonly decrease the in-water training volume or intensity, and/or replace this by dry-land strength and conditioning (this should be considered another topic). However, little is known about the effect of training cessation (including repercussions or impacts this can have) on young swimmers’ performance.


Effect of training cessation on young swimmers’ stroke mechanics

Training cessation in young swimmers can go from few weeks to two months (more or less) depending on each nation competition schedule. As any other children, swimmers grow even during short periods of time (a few weeks). Body dimensions (namely height, arm span, and hand’s area) are highly related to better performances in youth swimming. At younger ages, such physical development may also lead to changes in the swimmers’ stroke mechanics; which are the best predictors of young swimmer’s performance (swim speed, stroke frequency, stroke length, etc). In this sense, understanding the interaction between growth and technical ability is a major concern at younger ages. Especially, because during the detraining period swimmers are still growing but deprived of training. This could lead to the coach’s question: in which condition will I find the swimmers after the training cessation period? Indeed, a large number of coaches are trying to reduce as much as possible the summer vacation period to avoid substantial losses in the ability of their swimmers.

So, what really happens during a training cessation? A study by Morais et al. (2020) aimed to analyse the variations in performance (100 m freestyle race – expressed in seconds), anthropometrics, and biomechanics after a season break to gather insights on the detraining process of pre-pubertal young swimmers (boys and girls aged 12.79±0.71 years and 11.78±0.85 years, respectively) enrolled in a talent identification and development programme at local clubs and national teams.


Results

Between the last peak performance moment of a competitive season, and first week of training of the following competitive season (an 11-week break), the performance (100 m freestyle) impaired in average 1.52 s (2.17%) for the boys and 1.46 s (1.91%) for the girls.

All body dimensions assessed increased significantly for both boys and girls. Curiously (mainly due to the performance impairment), the variables related to stroke mechanics and efficiency increased (per example: swim speed and stroke length). The modelling used to understand the performance predictors during the training cessation retained only the height. Each unit of increase in the height (in cm) led to a 0.41 s impairment in the performance. That is, an increase of height minimised the performance impairment during the training cessation.

The increase in the body dimensions is seen as quite normal, since children grow. However, the increase in most of the stroke mechanics variables (namely swim speed) is a major outcome. It should be point out that swim speed (and remaining stroke mechanics variables) was not measured based on the 100 m freestyle performance time (which includes the start, clean swim, turns, and finish). This was measured independently (and not at the same time) during a 25 m trial at maximal speed. Authors acknowledge that the main reason for the improvement in variables related to stroke mechanics was the increase in height verified during the training cessation period. Growing over the break period can be deemed as a way to trade-off the performance impairment. Indeed, it was shown that body dimensions like the ones in this study are highly associated to young swimmers’ performance. Altogether, if young swimmers undergo a growth spurt over a break period, the performance impairment will be attenuated. Swimmers may undergo growth and maturation spurts that will lead to an increase in body dimensions and decelerate the rate of performance impairment (in this study case: 11-weeks).


Why young swimmers still impair performance and the difference with older swimmers

The 100 m freestyle race includes four times the kinematic data retrieved from a 25 m trial (4 × 25 m). Thus, the authors speculated that young swimmers enhance their stroke mechanics during a 25 m trial but were not able to keep the “momentum” for a whole 100 m race. This indicates that the energetic response also plays a determinant role in young swimmers’ performances. However, this only means that energetics is important to maintain the swimmers’ stroke mechanics over time. It was suggested that programmes based on large mileage would promote sharp improvements in aerobic fitness, but will not make the swimmers faster. On the other hand, body dimensions and stroke mechanics are the best determinants of young swimmers’ performance.

By contrast, in older swimmers (adolescent or adult/ elite counterparts) stroke biomechanics are already consolidated. Hence, the decrease in stroke mechanics verified in older counterparts during training cessation is mainly and highly associated with a decrease of the physiological response. For instance, Zacca et al. (2019) analysed the effect of training cessation on post-pubertal young swimmers. Here, the authors verified a decrease in the stroke mechanics and efficiency variables (i.e., decrease in swim speed, stroke length, and stroke frequency). This happened mainly because of a decrease in the swimmers’ oxygen uptake (i.e., energetics). Thus, it seems that as swimmers get older the training cessation has a higher effect (negative) on their energetics.


Conclusion and practical applications

This study highlighted the importance of monitoring young swimmers, not only during training, but also during training cessation. It should be highlighted that this impairment was traded off by an increase in body dimensions (namely the height) and improvements in stroke mechanics. This indicates that swimmers may not decrease their performance as much as expected. Coaches should be concerned if swimmers decrease their biomechanics during a training cessation when a significant increase in their anthropometrics is verified. It can be suggested that an increase in height may function as a performance retainer (i.e., the performance decreases less). Thus, coaches of age group athletes are advised to monitor their swimmers’ heights (and other body dimensions) during a training cessation period in order to understand the swimmers’ stroke mechanics variation. Additionally, they should put the focus on technical training so that swimmers ‘re-learn’ their stroke mechanics after a body dimensions increase.


This blog was written by;

Jorge E Morais (PhD)

Polytechnic Institute of Bragança, Portugal

Research Center in Sports, Health and Human Development (CIDESD), Portugal



References

Morais, J. E., Lopes, V. P., Barbosa, T. M., Moriyama, S. I., & Marinho, D. A. (2020). How does 11-week detraining affect 11-12 years old swimmers’ biomechanical determinants and its relationship with 100 m freestyle performance? Sports Biomechanics [Epub ahead of print].

Mujika, I., & Padilla, S. (2000). Detraining: loss of training-induced physiological and performance adaptations. Part I. Sports Medicine, 30(2), 79-87.

Zacca, R., Toubekis, A., Freitas, L., Silva, A. F., Azevedo, R., Vilas-Boas, J. P., Pyne, D. B., Castro, F. A. S., & Fernandes, R. J. (2019). Effects of detraining in age-group swimmers performance, energetics and kinematics. Journal of Sports Sciences, 37(13), 1490-1498

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