Periodisation for Swimmers

Jill Sterkel’s Periodisation for Swimmers

This weeks instalment in my series of articles about periodisation looks at how swim coaches apply methodologies around periodisation principles. Jill Sterkel was the Woman’s Head Swimming and Diving Coach for the Texas Longhorn’s at the University of Texas at Austin for 16 years in the 90’s and 2000’s. She was also a gold medal winning Olympian in 1976 in Montreal and also achieved two bronze medals in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

Jill Sterkel wrote the chapter on Long- and Short- Range Planning in The Swim Coaching Bible that is endorsed by the World Swimming Coaches Association.

This is the sixth article about Periodisation (English spelling with an ‘s’, American spelling is traditionally with a ‘z’) and the methodologies from coaches that guided my early philosophies around periodisation of training seasons and event build ups. Have a read of last weeks article about Peter Coe and Dr David Martin:

As with any aspect of periodisation Jill Sterkel emphasises planning. Planning the season…..even to the extent of recommending to plan four season’s. Key to being a collegiate or high school coach is planning the development of your swimmers for their time under your tutelage. Other examples of four year plans are suitable for Olympic athletes.

Any plan needs to be flexible and adaptable to account for unexpected issues such as injuries or that the athlete develops at a faster rate than expected. Sterkel uses an example of a swimmer who she was trying to develop with the goal of getting to the Olympic Trials, but after her swimming fitness and capability improved they adapted the goal to qualifying for the Olympic team.

Intensity of Training

Training intensity is planned around six different intensities: three for endurance and three sprint intensities.

EN12-4sec slower per 100m than threshold pace
EN2Anaerobic threshold or max effort over distance
EN31-2sec faster per 100m than threshold pace
SP1As fast as possible
SP2As fast as possible
SP3Maximum Speed

Season Planning

Start with an empty calendar and look at the key dates for major competitions and work backwards from there. Although USA Swimming don’t recommend build ups of 30 weeks or more, this works nicely with the school terms.

The Longhorns have a December invitational meet that would be the initial focus of Sterkel’s plans. This would effectively split the season into two seperate build ups. This would give the athletes something to focus on at the start of the season before taking their winter break, and then in the New Year commence a longer build up.

Sterkle would start by dividing the season into phases. She used five different phases:

  • Preseason,
  • Aerobic Development,
  • Anaerobic Development,
  • Race-specific, and
  • Competition.

General Endurance

The initial period was set aside for general endurance and was further divided into both a Preseason and an Aerobic Development phase. The focus in this phase is to build good cardiovascular and muscular fitness.

During the preseason phase 50% of training is focused on EN1. 35% of training at EN2 with the remaining 15% done at SP3.

For the Aerobic Development phase the primary focus is split between EN1 & EN2 totalling 50% of training, with 35% of training at EN3 and the final 15% remaining still accounting for SP3.

During this block of training a large focus is devoted to drills, general aerobic conditioning and dryland training. The workouts progress in length and intensity throughout this block. If bad technique isn’t addressed at this early stage it will continue throughout the season.

Sterkel refers to this phase lasting for 8 weeks, with 4 weeks in each of Preseason and Aerobic Development.

Anaerobic Development

This phase covers the next three to five weeks.

During this phase the primary focus is on training at EN3 and SP1, accounting for 50% of the training. The secondary focus with 35% at SP2/SP3. The remaining 15% is at EN1/EN2.

Race speeds are conducted in this phase to expose the athlete to that level of intensity. Ensure there is optimal rest within workouts and also between workouts. Sterkel recommends 24 to 48 hours between lactate tolerance or overload endurance sets, so that the athletes can get the optimal benefit from them.


The two to four weeks prior to competition can be used to fine tune athletes. Speed work reaches a peak accounting for 85% of the training. The pace should directly relate to the athletes overall goal time through race-pace efforts.

This is the time to fine-tune race strategy and race skills (starts, turns etc..)

The remaining 15% of training should be based on aerobic endurance to maintain their base.

Competition Phase

Often called the Taper, the athlete prepares to swim fast!

There will be plenty of rest within this phase and the total volume of training drops down. Continue fine-tuning performance and race-pace preparation.

The Swim Coaching Bible offers you an all-star, international cast of swimming experts sharing their knowledge on producing the most successful individual athletes and teams in the sport. This book is sure to be a classic—one that swimming coaches reach for again and again.

Specifically, The Swim Coaching Bible covers the key principles of coaching and program administration, conducting effective practice sessions, teaching techniques for every stroke, and training programs for every event.

Endorsed by the World Swimming Coaches Association, the book shares the wisdom of the world’s best coaches, who address the topics they know best. Contributors include:

Richard Quick: Believing in Belief
Jean Freeman: Putting Fun Into the Swimming Experience
Peter Daland: Coaching With Integrity
John Leonard: Tailoring Your Approach to Specific Competition Levels
Jack Bauerle: Administering and Marketing a Winning Program
Skip Kenney: Developing a Successful Team
Bill Sweetenham: Maximizing a Swimmer’s Talent Development
Jill Sterkel: Long- and Short-Range Planning
Bruce R. Mason: Putting Science Into Practice
Deryk Snelling: Applying the Art of Coaching
Rick DeMont: Freestyle Technique
Dick Hannula: Backstroke Technique
Pablo Morales: Butterfly Technique
David Salo: BreaststrokeTechnique
John Trembley and Gary Fielder: Starts, Turns, and Finishes
Michael Bottom: Freestyle Sprint Training
Doug Frost: Freestyle Middle-Distance Training
Dick Jochums: Freestyle Distance Training
Eddie Reese: Backstroke and Butterfly Sprint Training
Bill Rose: Backstroke and Butterfly 200-Meter Training
Jon Urbanchek: Breaststroke Training
Dick Shoulberg: Individual Medley Training
David Marsh: Relay Training
Randy Reese: Power Training
Don Gambril: Preparing to Excel in Competition

This is, without question, the most prolific and authoritative group ever assembled in a single swimming book. The Swim Coaching Bible is a book that will be treasured for many years to come.

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