By bmw canada, CC BY-SA 4.0,

During the broadcast of the XXXI Olympiad, CBC created a series titled “The Olympians” showcasing the athletes representing Canada in Rio. One of these segments focused on Canadian distance freestyle swimmer Ryan Cochrane. You may remember it: the segment had Ryan writing numbers all over a whiteboard, detailing his love-hate relationship with them. At one point in the segment, Ryan reviews his weekly training schedule: on average two workouts a day, approximately 14,000m or 14km per day of swimming, averaging ten workouts a week, for fifty weeks of the year. Weekly, Ryan has a test set.

A test set is a specific workout coach and athlete use to assess progress.  Test sets can be anything: a short distance set (e.g.) 50 x 50m on a set time interval (e.g. 45 seconds), or it can be a time trial of a longer distance (e.g. 5,000m), or anything in between. A test set can also be a timed swim of the event the athlete is preparing for in their training. No matter what the set is, the point is to compare the data to prior test sets and evaluate progress.

When I stopped to reflect that Ryan has a test set once a week, it made me laugh to think how often swimmers, triathletes and how many coaches have their athletes do test sets.

Wait a second… Ryan Cochrane does a test set once a week? What’s funny if amateurs are also doing test sets weekly?

What’s funny is that Ryan Cochrane puts in 70+ km of swimming between test sets.  Plus, Cochrane shares in the CBC segment that not all test sets result in desired outcomes. Which means that sometimes another week and another 70k in the pool is needed, or perhaps a couple of weeks and another 140+km is needed to see progress.

Compare that to what the typical amateur puts in between test sets. One whole workout? Perhaps a week with no more than 10-20km of swimming, while capturing every data point believing that all the splits, all the data is relevant. If you are not putting in enough training between test sets there is nothing to measure, because there isn’t enough training for there to be change, let alone improvement.  The data that you are collecting, splits, average 100m times, whatever is nothing more than noise; it is not quality data.

Want to know how to become frustrated, disappointed, and angry with training, here’s how: obsessively collect data, perform test set after test set, in workout after workout trying to improve upon the data, and then interpret all of this as training, and a measure of your progress as an athlete.

Wonder why amateur athletes burn out, blow up or get injured?

Wonder why amateur coaches burn out, blow up or injure athletes?

Instead of focusing on training, on developing the technique, the skill, the capacity to deliver consistent effort, training is replaced with test set after test set. That’s how.

Testing is not training, its testing.

Ryan Cochrane trains and competes at a different level than any Canadian triathlete, but think about it… what if 70-80 km of training in the pool is the minimum needed to measure a valid and reliable change in stroke efficiency, speed, and in endurance? If that was the case, then how often should you be doing a test set?  For some triathletes, once or twice a year may be more than enough. For some masters swimmers, quarterly or maybe monthly may be appropriate. Whatever it is I can guarantee you that it isn’t weekly (unless you too are swimming 70+km).

Stuck? Frustrated? Failing to improve despite giving all out effort in training?

Inexperienced coaching will lead you to repeating test sets, collecting loads and loads of meaningless noise, believing that its quality data, useful to planning training and racing.

Experienced coaching will show you how to develop skills using drills, will teach you how to move, how to balance, to coordinate sport specific technique into complete and ever increasing complex patterns. After sufficient repetition, after successful learning there will be a test set where the captured data will be meaningful and will direct next steps in training and racing.

Want to ensure consistent improvement as an athlete?

Then ensure your coaching is on par with your goals.