We have all seen it happen (or worse, FELT it happen). The race is going beautifully and there is, surely, a best time waiting at the finish. The swimmer completes his or her final turn and then, BOOM! The legs turn off. In an instant, it is like the swimmer forgot how to use them. The last 25 is just downright painful to watch.
Why does this happen? Can we prevent late race leg failure?
Lactic Acid: The Leg Killer?
Let's set a little background on the cause of the late race meltdown. Most of you have probably heard of lactic acid. When I was growing up, coaches would explain who lactic acid was what caused the burning sensation you would in your legs (and the rest of your body) during intense exercise. They would explain that lactic acid was harmful to performance and we wanted to get it out of our bodies as quickly as possible. We would even do specific "drills" to get lactic acid out of the legs faster.
These coaches weren't far off, but they were pointing fingers at the wrong component.
Lactate is actually there to help us! It is the hydrogen ions that cause our grief.
As exercise intensity increases, the amount of hydrogen ions in our system increases. The increased intensity pushes our bodies to a point where it can't control the hydrogen build up effectively. Then we get the burning sensation, our body turns more acidic, and we start to experience the crippling shutdown. For swimmers, this shutdown seems to always hit the legs. A simple way to think about this is that as intensity increases your circulatory system can't keep up with the muscle demand for oxygen.
Lactic acid is actually lactate working to control the hydrogen ion buildup. Early research would just always see the two together and tagged the product as "lactic acid." Lactate is a substance that tries to buffer our system and is something that is regularly present in the human body.
Why does this happen?
Early in a race, you're still within at least a percentage of your aerobic capacity. The body is managing the exercise fairly well. Then towards the end of the race, your body hits the end range of aerobic only intensity and anaerobic systems kick in.
As you might know, anaerobic energy doesn't last long. Once we hit anaerobic and keep pushing, this is where the shutdown occurs. There's no chance for the body to recover and replenish so a lesser intensity and performance output is needed to continue. This makes us look like a fish out of water for that last 25. This is the source that zaps your legs.
Training: Late Race Legs
Now with a little understanding of what causes the issue, we can move on to the action steps! You can become a more efficient athlete and better manage hydrogen ion build up.
From a swimming standpoint, you can train slightly below, at, or slightly above your lactate threshold for specific bouts. This will help improve your body's efficiency when it comes to hydrogen ion management. Much of the research is done in cyclists (easier to study versus swimming), but it is definitely applicable to swim training.
Also, increases in VO2Max allow swimmers to work at a higher output without it feeling as intense when compared to an untrained person.
Training: Dryland Assistance
Dryland is a great tool to help you improve lactate threshold and leg strength. If set up properly, dryland strategies can help you achieve this style of training with lesser volume and time. With dryland, you're also focusing on increasing your power and strength which is a valuable component of race performance in the water. Here are a few of my go-to strategies for developing late race legs and maintaining form to perform at your best.
Start by picking two exercises. My favorite variation involves pull-ups and goblet squats. You'll pick one exercises to be intense and then one exercise that allows you to take your foot off of the gas a bit.
I would pick the squats to be my intense exercise and my pull-up variation to be my accessory work in this case.
The next piece is to set your reps. For the goblet squat, I'll aim for 12-20 reps and the pull-ups will be in the range of 1-8 reps. The amount of reps will vary based off of your fitness level.
The final step is to set a tempo. For the goblet squat, I would aim for one squat a second. For the pull-ups, one every two seconds. For the squats, think of this as your leg tempo in the water..
The example below will take you through 10:00 of challenging work. At different points during the circuit, you'll be flirting all around lactate threshold. The great new is that it only takes 10 minutes to complete and then you're on with your day.
You have 1:00 to complete one set of one exercise. For example, if it takes you 40 seconds to complete the goblet squats, you get 20 seconds of rest before starting the pull-ups. Complete the pull-ups with the same format.
Complete five rounds (10:00 running clock):
- Goblet Squat x 18 (1 second tempo)
- Pull-Ups x 5 (2 second tempo)
The next thing I like to do is take athletes through one movement pattern at increased intensities. You can complete this variation with external load or just with your bodyweight. While completing the pattern, you should challenge yourself to move as quickly as possible and at a HIGH level. Training poor form on land will transfer to the water just like training proper form on land does. For this variation, I'll reference the squat again.
Start with a hold, progress to dynamic, then finish with explosive. Think of the explosive as that last little bit of kick as fatigue really sets in.
I can't stress this enough. As fatigue sets in, focus on your FORM!
Tempo still plays a role in this format. Obviously the hold is completely still, but aim for one squat a second, and one squat jump every 1.5 seconds.
Complete five rounds (30 seconds of rest between rounds):
- Squat Hold x 10 seconds
- Bodyweight Squats x 8
- Squat Jumps x 8
- Squat Hold x 30 seconds
- Bodyweight Squats x 12
- Squat Jumps x 12
Where Is My Lactate Threshold?
While a heart rate monitor is a helpful tool and there are calculations to figure out your aerobic range, you can ballpark your lactate threshold with a talk test.
Immediately after an exercise(or even during for the dryland exercises), see if you can hold a conversation without gasping for air.
If you can form sentences fairly easily, you're probably still in your aerobic range.
If you can blurt out a fast sentence (or a few words) and then need to catch your breath really quickly before blurting out more, you're probably right around lactate threshold.
If you can only say a word or two or can't at all, you're probably above lactate threshold.
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