When I openly declared Dara Torres, the forty year old American swimming phenom, a cheat there was a strong and angry reaction. Much of it was directed at what was perceived to be my obvious ignorance of all things swimming. Apparently there are many who hold there is nothing more natural than an ex-Olympian who never medaled in an individual event until her second comeback at thirty three to return from retirement yet again, this time after recent motherhood and several more years away from the pool, to go even faster than before and rank as one of the world’s top female sprinters while nearly twice the age of the rest of the competition in less than two years. And yes I agree, that last statement’s a mouthful. One justification I gave for thinking she’s doping is the fact she trains less than thirty kilometers a week, half that usually seen by a swimmer at the Olympian level. This was jumped upon by several as proof I didn’t understand the training of a sprinter where the saying, “less is more” is often used to describe their regime. Well they have a point, not that I don’t understand the training of a sprinter, just that I should have made my reference to the time Torres spends in the pool instead of her kilometrage. Because the more time we spend in water the more we become used to moving about in it, and a better feel for the water translates into faster times. For most Olympians this means lots and lots of meters, thousands of kilometers of the stuff, where not only their strength, endurance and technical skills are honed to perfection, but stroke technique is imprinted to the point where little or no degradation occurs with fatigue. All this applies to sprinters too, though obviously with significant differences in emphasis: endurance needs are minimal and imprinting is not to counter the effects of fatigue but rather to mitigate the adverse affects of their high stroke rates. So their training rightfully incorporates a higher tempo to enable speeds which will bring their stroke rate closer to the actual turnover they’ll see in a race. Shorter distances, harder swims (which also better trains their fast twitch muscles) requires longer rest periods in between reps and consequently less overall kilometers swum, but certainly no less effort or time expended in training. And the expression ‘less is more’ is born. This knowledge isn’t some recent innovation; it was well appreciated by track sprinters back in the early part of the twentieth century. Since then we’ve continually refined and improved upon that knowledge and so can now better tailor a scientifically based program for swimming around a specific individual, but the basic understanding to race fast you must train fast is still unchanged. For example Bill Sweetenham, one of the most highly regarded swimming coaches in the world, incorporates this into his own programs by having his sprinters train up to a quarter less kilometrage than the rest of his charges. He's Australian, however, hailing from a country which has traditionally placed a huge premium on high kilometrage so he may well have a bias towards distance training. There are other internationally respected coaches who believe going even higher tempo with still less meters is the way to go. It will take some years to sort all the empirical data out to find out who’s closer to the mark and why. The really interesting thing about Dara Torres’ training is her approach doesn’t fit into either philosophy. It’s well documented she trains only five times a week, swimming between five and six thousand meters in the two hour long sessions which constitute her workouts. With less than half the number of practices normally seen by our elites everyone can see she’s got the less part down pat; I’m just having problems finding the more part. I say this because a workout between five to six thousand meters is standard training for non-sprint events, not the sort of minimal distance practice reflecting the speed the ‘less is more’ crowd considers appropriate. Once you rule out any possible advantage from her training, factor in her less than dominating performances at her first three Olympics, consider her age and the remarkable short time she's taken to make her comeback ... and I think there's only one rational explanation. Is there another?
Update: On November 18, 2007, three weeks after the above article was posted, the New York Times published an article interviewing Dara Torres and her coach Michael Lohberg among others which goes into some detail about her current training practices. There are some differences from what had been previously disclosed about her training as described above. She's training only ninety minutes a practice, not the normal two hour workouts I had assumed based on her statements about averaging between five to six thousand meters a workout. In addition the article makes it clear in the opening paragraph Torres is working a different program than the rest of the elite sprinters of the Coral Springs Swim Club, something much more in keeping with the needs of a pure sprinter and therefore considerably less kilometrage than would be the case for just shorter practices. So it appears Torres may be swimming only a third or less of the mileage of a typical Olympian, but at least she's training as a sprinter. The article, not surprisingly, does not go into detail about the changes her training regime has seen in the past few months. Consequently this new information may reflect a recently new program rather than provide a better description of her training from the beginning of 2006.