Monday, June 6, 2011

Training and Racing for the Individual Medley

A Formula for Faster Medley Times

As an intro to this blog I feel it’s important to convey: The most valuable experience I’ve had as a coach has been to mentor with two Olympic Coaches – Murray Stephens (1996 Olympic Team) and Bob Bowman (2004 and 2008 Olympic Teams). To hear the conversation between these coaches and their swimmers – and to work with athletes alongside them --allowed me daily illumination of our sport as I learned what it took to coach high-level athletes.

Additionally, over the last 10 years I have been fortunate to get to know Coach Jon Urbanchek . Coach Urbanchek has spent decades coaching Olympic Medalists and World Record Holders, and luckily (for me) he has visited his Baltimore-based Daughter and Grand-daughter frequently – a few miles down the road from where I have spent the better part of my coaching career.

I remember listening to Coach Urbanchek on deck one day as he spoke about Tom Dolan (a swimmer Jon coached to a 400 IM World Record in 1996). Coach Urbanchek spoke of Dolan’s success in the 400 IM as being attributed to his becoming a great 200 Meter swimmer in each stroke discipline. Specifically, Coach Urbanchek felt that if Dolan could be within 5 seconds of each 200 Meter World Record (in the 200s of Fly, Back, Breaststroke, and Free) – then he would have a great shot at the World Record in the LCM 400 IM.

The increasing versatility of Dolan’s “overall game” – coupled with the specific speed and endurance capabilities he needed to be great at all four 200’s -- combined to make Dolan the most devastating IMer of the 90s, and one of the greatest of all time. Certainly, Michael Phelps followed the same sort of track, led by Coach Bowman. When I look at Phelps’ career, I see an amazing progression with each of his strokes – in technical ability, sheer speed, and specific “stroke-based” endurance. Phelps’ ability to swim breaststroke well – at a National level – has been fused with his world class fly, back, and free to create the fastest 400 IM the world has ever seen.

The knowledge of Dolan, Phelps – and their coach’s plans was an immeasurable help to me as I moved forward in my coaching career. In 2003, I had the opportunity to coach Katie Hoff, who at age 14 had finished 4th in the USA Summer Nationals in the 200 IM with then-Typhoons Aquatics coach Jack Bierie. I made a personal goal in the fall of 2003 that Katie would someday be in a position to break Yana Klochkova’s existing 400 IM World Record – which she finally did in 2007.

During the 2003-2004 year, Katie spent much of her time getting better at her three least dominant strokes. Katie had been a top-ranked Breaststroker at age 13/14, so I felt she had the most room to improve in her Fly, Back, and Freestyle. We went to work on those least-dominant strokes, much like Dolan and Phelps did –and focused on the 100 and 200 Meter Fly, Back, and Free.

I found through this process a way of predicting Katie’s Medley performances, based upon the results (times) of her 100 and 200 Fly, Back, Breast, and Free. This method of prediction seems to work with many athletes around the world. The formula is this:

Take the athlete’s 200 Fly Time + 200 Back Time + 200 Breast Time + 200 Free Time to get an “800 time” …..divide the 800 time, and add 5-10 seconds.

The same formula can be applied to the 200 IM. Take the athlete’s 100 Fly Time + 100Back Time + 100 Breast Time + 100 Free Time to get a “400 Time”….divide the 400 time, and add 5-10 seconds.

Here’s a practical example of how this works. Katie Hoff’s 200 “Stroke Times” in 2004 were as follows:

2:12.1 Fly + 2:16.0 Back + 2:30.4 Breast + 202.1 Free (9:00 total)….divide 9:00 and get a 4:30, add 5-10 seconds and you get a range of 4:35-4:40. Katie swam a 4:37 that year to qualify for her first Olympic Team.

By 2008, Katie had made some big improvements. Here’s how 2008 went:

2:11.0 Fly + 2:09.9 Back + 2:29.7 Breast + 1:55.7 Free (8:46 total)….divide 8:46 and get a 4:23, add 5-10 seconds and you get a range of 4:28-4:33. Katie swam a 4:31 that year to set her 2nd 400 IM World Record.

Taking a look at Michael Phelps’ 200 IM from Beijing shows similar results. In 2008 his 200 times were:

50.5 Fly + 53.7 Back + 1:02.5 Breast + 47.5 Free (3:33 total)…divide 3:33 and get a 1:46, add 5-10 seconds and you get a range of 1:51-1:56. Michael’s best 200 IM that year was an Olympic Gold Medal time of 1:54.2

Ryan Lochte’s 100 Meter swims showed the same sort of predictability in 2008:
52.8 Fly + 53.3 Back + 1:04.8 Breast + 48.6 Free (3:39 total)…divide 3:39 and get a 1:49, add 5-10 seconds and you get a range of 1:54-1:59. Ryan has since been quite a bit faster, but in 2008 was 1:55.2 off of these swims.

I believe that an athlete has to actually compete in the “stroke” events to ultimately reach their potential in the Individual Medley. Simply having the “potential capability” to perform in the “stroke” events is not enough. There is something about the experience of competing the 200 Breast, for instance, that teaches an athlete the type of stroke needed to swim a great breaststroke leg in an IM. It’s widely known that Tracy Caulkins -- one of swimming’s all-time greats – held an American record in each discipline at different points in her career. Surely this experience was a factor in her lowering the 400 IM World Record to 4:40.8in 1978.

The use of a formula like this one will help coaches motivate a potential IMer to improve his/her weaknesses – an extremely valuable concept when it comes to not only minimizing performance plateaus, but when choosing which events to swim at meets. Particularly at the age group level, coaches and swimmers miss the chance to develop these specific IM-related skills, and instead persistently enter their “top events” over and over. By entering the same events meet after meet, the swimmer does not get a chance to race the 100s and 200s of the strokes, thus limiting their potential for their best Medley performances. In addition, the swimmer often finds that it is difficult to improve their times from meet to meet when the events competed are continually the same events! Aside from the psychological and neurological issues associated with repetitive racing, as you get older and faster it takes more training time to improve an event – and so more time needs to be devoted to training the event, and less time to actually racing it. The athlete tends to do best when prepared with repetition in practice, but variety in meets – leading to that final meet of the season when their best performances in their best events are meant to emerge.

I’d like to see emerging IMers compete in the 100s and 200s of each stroke, as well as the 400 free (for 200 IMers), and the 800 free (for 400 IMers). I believe that the skills and physiology needed to improve these complimentary events has a direct correlation to improving an IM – and mixing the races will keep racing fresh, exciting, and achievement-based for our next generation of Medley greats.


  1. You've cracked the code! Wish you were my coach. Not sure I would have liked those 400/500 free events, but it probably would have done me some good.

  2. How come Katie Hoff doesn't swim for you anymore?