Lessons from Other Sports

Dr James Counsilman was not an athletics coach but he has influenced many of the innovations to athletics training. His 1968 best-selling book "The Science of Swimming" should still be required reading for any athletics coach. I first read this book while at University in 1978. Many of today’s top coaches still use the principals that Counsilman believed in and acknowledge the importance of his work. In the book he applies: principles of training, training techniques, biomechanics, power development, seasonal programme management, sports psychology and skill acquisition to athletics training.

Counsilman’s most celebrated pupil was Mark Spitz. In the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Spitz managed only two gold medals in relays with no individual event success. He then started to train under the guidance of Counsilman. At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Spitz won seven Olympic gold swimming medals, with new world-records in each of the seven events.

For Counsilman, conditioning represented the sum total of all the physiological, anatomical and psychological adaptations made by an organism to the stress of the training program. Using techniques popularized by 1950s and 1960s athletics training, Counsilman was responsible for the introduction of interval training to swimming. This was probably one of the most important single factors responsible for the continued improvement of competitive swimming times during his era.

Counsilman believed in three key factors necessary to maximize performance. They were maximum adaptation to stress, progression, and rest. Maximum adaptation to stress refers to the level of adaptation achieved through optimal levels of training stress over each distance. If an athlete trained too little or merely did the same session as the week before, they would fail to continue to adapt. Counsilman employed a number of physiological markers such as pulse, electrocardiogram, haemoglobin levels, urine analysis and blood pressure to monitor responses to training and to ascertain when and by how much the load could be increased. After monitoring the training responses of thousands of athletes, Counsilman came to a conclusion that swimmers did not need to be fully recovered prior to training. This was contrary to the belief at the time. Instead, he believed athletes could experience a feeling of general fatigue for several days and could therefore follow a pattern of training which included up to three hard days of back-to-back workouts. The rest of the week contained two days, adjusted dependant on how the swimmers performed in the previous workouts and two days of easier, decreased level of intensity workouts but still with a high volume. To avoid overtraining, Counsilman reduced workload whenever the team showed signs of underperformance.

Counsilman’s training system was based on a steady progression of workload which was manipulated by increasing the total distance swum in each workout, increasing the intensity of the distance swum, or increasing the total number of workouts. Although Counsilman was a strong advocate of a scientific approach he still concluded that there was no specific or easy predictor of when the point of optimal stress had been reached. Each athlete was individual and therefore reacted individually to the training load.

What is interesting is that Counsilman was a swimming coach who used original methods of training from athletics, improved and adapted it for swimming. Athletics coaches have since used the same methods of swim coaching, improved and adapted it back to athletics. It shows we can still use approaches from other sports to improve our own standards. While there have since been modifications to the system of training that Counsilman used, the basic general principles are unchanged and are something that modern athletics coaches utilise - intensity, extension and recovery.