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European Preview: Britain and the Elite Group from Bath

Aug 17, 2014  - James Parrack

The British team arrived in Berlin yesterday and among their number, now totalling 21, are the elite group from team Bath, who, like the Dutch, were on a preparation camp at the BEST Centre, Mallorca before coming from there to Berlin.

Dave McNulty is the head coach of a group that took 15 medals from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Like the Dutch, McNulty’s group is highly professional when they are away on camp, relaxed, hard working, and, despite the loss of Siobhan Marie O’Connor through illness, are in Berlin to win medals. The challenge for the British is to peak again at the Europeans so soon after peaking for Commies.

“It’s a tricky situation,” McNulty said yesterday. “You look at how much time you have between meets, and this summer we will re-load for half the time we have, then rest for half the time. You have to stop the cycle of tapering and de-training, step back up a bit and then hold on.

“We have done it 3 or 4 times now, but psychologically it is hard. After the main meet you want to relax and getting back into it is hard. It is something the USA does really well, track and field athletes do it, other sports do it and we have to get away from the mindset that we train all year, rest, race, then stop.

“In the past I have upped the workload by doing intense anaerobic workouts, but with experience now, we re-load with lower endurance, threshold, short rest sets. In Berlin we are only half a team, which makes it harder again. And for the swimmers, they are swimming for their end of year world rankings and funding, so the Europeans is as important as the Commonwealths in that regard, even though the funding for the national programme was focused on Glasgow.”

The Commonwealths were very successful for the home nations with 10 gold, 10 silver and 8 bronze and 10 swims that would rank in the top 5 in the world. Transitioning from one meet to the next requires a fine balance, and with the group now familiar with the facilities in Mallorca, it was a natural place to go.

McNulty swam at the same time as the co-founders of the Centre, Matthew O’Connor and myself, which makes life on camp a little easier for the team. Says McNulty, “When you know the people in charge, nothing’s ever a problem. Anything we need, they will do it because they understand us and what we are doing. The facilities are great and at the same time there is a really relaxed vibe. At the pool it is all business, and then the minute you leave the pool you can relax. And it is something we noticed with the Dutch team here. They are a full national team and they are all happy, relaxed and enjoying being together. That is also something we can learn from when we travel as a national team. And with four medals from the open water already, they have got the perfect start. That really takes the pressure off the team.”

Like many programmes around the world, McNulty uses sports science to help performance wherever he can. Two important areas are the race warm up and the race plan. It is common to see swimmers swim faster in a swim off than they do in the race itself and strength and conditioning coach John Watson isn’t surprised. “Effectively,” he says, “the athlete has just done a high intensity, low volume warm up, which is ideal. Too often we do a good warm up by accident, and too often we don’t warm up with enough intensity, we don’t ‘acid up’ to change the muscle pH so that the system is ready for anaerobic exercise.”

The idea of ‘keeping warm’ is not new; in years gone by, many swimmers would walk to the blocks in parkas, hat, gloves and leggings, to make sure they are lightly sweating. The difference now is that there is a greater scientific input into all the phases before the race: in the warm up, after the warm up, before the race, in the race and after the race and all these periods need managing. The muscles need to be primed for the race. This means doing some jumps, some slams, whatever it is, in order to effect a more excited state both hormonally and muscularly. Then the muscles need to be kept warm, and many sports have used head pads and heat suits and this will presumably become the norm in swimming in the coming years, as will an extensive land work area close to the call room.

Then there is the race plan and how the swimmer is trained in its execution. All swimmers have an idea of the splits they want to hit, the stroke rates that will suit them best in the race and so on. The best example of this at the Commonwealth Games was Siobhan Marie O’Connor’s 200IM final. The actual performance, below, differed from her race plan.

Overall she was just -0.03 s (or -0.1%) off the race model splits, and just 0.4 strokes/min (or 0.8%) off the race model stroke rates which is a very impressive race execution. The trick to the race model and the execution lies both with those on the pool deck understanding the abilities of the athlete, and on the athlete’s ability to execute under pressure.

                                           Splits               SR's
50 m BF                        27.37              56.0
50 m BK                       32.65              42.6
50 m BR                       37.39              41.4
50 m FS                       30.80              46.6
200 m time               02:08.21           -

With O’Connor absent this week through illness, Jazmin Carlin will be one of a large number of British looking for medals in Berlin. Based in Swansea, Carlin joined the Bath group on the camp after becoming the first Welsh woman to win Commonwealth gold in 40 years. “It was very emotional,” she said, “and felt amazing to be on top of podium after all hard work over many years. After the Europeans I am looking forward to seeing family and friends who have been through the tough times with you and who can now share the good times.

“I missed London through illness, so winning in Glasgow in front of a home crowd made up for that. But it means also that Rio is on my mind. I need a strong 2 years now to build off this. With my coach having moved to Australia after training together for 7 years and growing up with him, I need to find a new programme closer to home when I get back, which will be difficult, but Rio is the goal and I will give 100 percent wherever I go.”

All the seniors on the team will be there to win medals at a championships offering more depth than the Commies and in a more hostile environment. All know this is a stepping stone to Kazan and Rio but few can expect success in the next two years unless it is built on success in Europe first.

James Parrack is the co-founder of the BEST Centre, Mallorca, and is Eurosport’s swimming commentator.