Training for the Individual Medley

I’ve trained three athletes that have won seven NCAA individual medley titles. Kristine Quance won the 200 and 400 IM in 1994 and 1996 and the 400 in 1997. Erik Vendt and Ous Mellouli were champs in the 400 IM in 2002 and 2005. And while I didn’t train Brian Goodell at UCLA I suspect his endurance training at Mission Viejo was a factor in his success in winning three 400 IM NCAA titles.

“The recipe for a successful IM is the synergy found in endurance training, transitions, energy management, pacing, underwater excellence, a bolstering of strengths, leveraging of weaknesses and intelligent strategy. ”

— Mark Schubert

The recipe for a successful IM is the synergy found in endurance training, transitions, energy management, pacing, underwater excellence, a bolstering of strengths, leveraging of weaknesses and intelligent strategy. It doesn’t matter if it is the 200 or 400, short or long course, failure to master these critical elements will likely spell a less than satisfactory outcome.

Endurance training. Most 400 IM swimmers are good 500 and 1650 swimmers so having your IMers training with the distance swimmers three or four times per week is key. Early season aerobic work can be done backstroke or using IM switching but freestyle work is paramount. It is imperative that a 400 IMer be really good in the 200’s of each stroke. When I recruited Erik Vendt, he won Junior Nationals in all 200 strokes. A swimmer that can succeed in all 200 strokes has a great advantage.

Transition mastery is huge. It needs to be a point of emphasis in warmup, kicking, pulling, and main sets with a coach demanding great switching and underwaters. In many ways transition practice, because of its taxing nature, takes precedence over concentration on training a weak stroke.

Pacing and energy management go hand in hand. All strokes are build ups and must be practiced. I want to see second 50s always faster than the first. A steady practice diet of negative splitting and descending sets will help. The only exception is fly which is still built so that in the last 15 yards or meters a swimmer can make up any deficit by the end of the stroke if at all possible. A great fly is a big bonus. Practicing “easy speed" so a swimmer can get the lead or stay close sets up correct energy distribution. If a swimmer tries to push the fly too much to stay up this will affect the other three strokes.

A good way to practice pacing is by splitting the race into segments of 100s or 50s. I like broken swims such as 50 fly/100 fly-back/100 back-breast/100 breast- free/50 free and especially practicing negative splitting and attempting to swim at race pace.

Underwaters. They call it the Fifth stroke for a reason. No swimmer can give up the advantage of good underwaters. I stress working them at all times, not just by themselves, but when swimming all sets.

Leveraging weak strokes. Most swimmers have a “best stroke.” The key is improvement of the "less dominate stroke." For particular races it is important that coach and swimmer do research on the competition so they know exactly where the swimmer must be at any particular point in the race. A great example of leveraging a weak stroke is Michigan NCAA 400 IM and Olympic champion Tom Dolan. Already the 1994 world champion in the 400 IM Dolan wanted to make a run at the NCAA record. To do that he needed to improve his backstroke. In March 1995 he reached his goal after a winter of specific training with teammate and American recorder in the 200 back Royce Sharp.

Improving a least dominant stroke gives a swimmer a big advantage. An added benefit is that the pace of the other three strokes helps the weaker stroke to succeed. On my teams our IMers train the least dominate stroke about 25 percent of the time. We do that to improve efficiency and require that drills be done precisely. In addition to specific stroke work done in practice it is not unusual for swimmers to devote time after practice time to perfecting technique.

At Golden West bolstering a strength or leveraging a weakness is developed by training with the team stroke groups. On Tuesday and Thursday nights I ask IMers to train main sets with the breaststrokers or the backstrokers. While this does not necessarily train switching, it gives the swimmers competition and can develop great confidence.

Some thoughts on the 200 IM.

Let’s be honest. The 200 IM is a sprint and training speed is essential. I believe in swimming the 200 IM like racing the 200 freestyle. Underwaters and tempo are key. Practicing with a tempo trainer is quite helpful. Some coaches maintain that the 200 IM is just a sprint and all about transition turns. The truth is the event is both. The 200 IM is a sprint with good transition turns. However, you cannot ignore the importance of underwaters, particularly in the short course race, but long course as well.

Peter Daland, my predecessor at USC, was a great believer in progressive sets – as am I. I like them done descending as it teaches negative splitting and works on proper energy use. I also prefer a balanced approach to the 200 IM.  Working all four stokes equally, both swimming and pulling, is essential. Spending some time training in the lanes of the best stroke swimmers on the team, a la Royce Sharp, can reap terrific rewards.

You may be a great flyer and freestyler but without swimming a solid middle your chances of success diminish. Any coach will tell you the middle two strokes are essential to a winning IM because they set up the freestyle sprint.

I’ve heard it said it is possible to fake a 200 IM with great underwaters and fantastic turns? To me when a swimmer “fakes” a stroke it means he has not been successful in practice. Doing great turns and underwaters will help all strokes to be more successful.

Swimming fast in practice on specific sets is crucial to a fast 200 IM. I have always believed it is easy to predict success by quality of practices. Good 50s, 25s as well as 100s and 200s are important as are race pace short distances.

The 400 IM

Just like the 200 IM I believe in negative split racing parts of the 400 IM. This ensures the good use of energy and a strong racing finish, not survival effort. Tempo, rhythm and technique remain critical. I recommend practicing tempo and rhythm with good pace work. Technique should never be ignored even through the fatigue of practice.

The 400 IM is about showing your competitors what you’ve got, i.e. displaying your strengths and improving your weaknesses. As a coach I never want to accept a weakness. A great example was former Trojan Ous Mellouli. He dropped his back/breast splits in the 400 IM (2003 vs. 2005) by almost 3.5 seconds. He did this by expanding his aerobic capacity, (distance training), improving his technique, practicing switching sets (fly to back/ back to breast) and swimming with the breaststrokers twice per week. Later in 2005 he earned a bronze medal in the 400 IM at the World Championship in Montreal.

About the Author

Mark Schubert is currently the head coach at Golden West College, the Golden West Swim Club and director of technical development at Dolfin. His coaching career spans 46 years. While in Austin for four years he led the University of Texas to NCAA titles in 1990 and 1991 (also named NCAA Coach of the Year in 1990). In his 14 years at the University of Southern California he directed the Trojans to the 1997 crown. At those two stops his swimmers won 49 individual NCAA titles and amassed 130 All-American recognitions. His Golden West College team has also won four California JC Championships. As a club coach his Mission Viejo Nadadores garnered 44 national titles in 13 years and his Mission Bay Mako squads earned nine national championships. He has placed 38 athletes, who have secured 23 gold and 11 silver medals, on Olympic teams. An eight-time U.S. Olympic coach, he also served as USA Swimming National Team director. He currently resides in the International Swimming and American Swim Coaches Halls of Fame.

Mark Schubert

Mark Schubert is currently the head coach at Golden West College, the Golden West Swim Club and director of technical development at Dolfin. His coaching career spans 46 years. While in Austin for four years he led the University of Texas to NCAA titles in 1990 and 1991 (also named NCAA Coach of the Year in 1990). In his 14 years at the University of Southern California he directed the Trojans to the 1997 crown. At those two stops his swimmers won 49 individual NCAA titles and amassed 130 All-American recognitions. His Golden West College team has also won four California JC Championships. As a club coach his Mission Viejo Nadadores garnered 44 national titles in 13 years and his Mission Bay Mako squads earned nine national championships. He has placed 38 athletes, who have secured 23 gold and 11 silver medals, on Olympic teams. An eight-time U.S. Olympic coach, he also served as USA Swimming National Team director. He currently resides in the International Swimming and American Swim Coaches Halls of Fame.