SwimMAC Carolina head coach David Marsh follows an unconventional training path that could help change the sport of swimming.
A half-century of tradition has had swimmers in the pool by 5 a.m. to swim hundreds of laps daily.
But Marsh doesn’t think it’s important to spend hours in the pool each day, amassing laps.
He’s among a coaching vanguard who believe athletes benefit by swimming fewer laps at a faster pace. Intensity matters.
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The training method has produced results that have made Marsh one of the nation’s most highly regarded coaches. He had won 12 NCAA titles coaching at Auburn before taking over SwimMAC Carolina in 2007. Since then, the club has become one of the country’s premier programs.
Now, Marsh’s approach will be tested on an international stage at the 2016 Olympics when he’ll be judged by the success or failure of the high-profile Ryan Lochte.
“This,” acknowledges Marsh, “is the big experiment.”
He cites athletic history as precedent. British miler Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute barrier more than a half-century ago with hard, short quarter-mile repeats coupled with rest. That method, unusual at the time, helped Bannister outperform other athletes who were running up to 100 miles a week.
Serious swimmers train in a monotonous cycle. They live a grinding routine of swimming, eating, studying and sleeping.
It’s what Marsh wants to disrupt. Not only can athletes perform better, but training variety could make the sport more attractive and help with retention.
“Let’s make swimming less boring, instead of kids going to school, hair still wet and exhausted,” he says. “We’re trying to turn these guys into fish.”
About half of the nation’s coaches still use traditional high-yardage programs, Marsh estimates.
Chuck Batchelor, head coach of the nationally recognized Bluefish Swim Club in Raynham, Mass., has included pieces of Marsh’s theories into his practice, but doesn’t believe solely in Marsh’s low-lap approach. Besides the physical gains from long workouts, he says that athletes gain an edge mentally.
“It’s pretty magical to be able to stand behind the blocks against anybody and truly believe that what you have done is better or harder than the other guy,” Batchelor says.
Rowdy Gaines, former Olympian and swimming’s best-known commentator, is less cautious. He thinks Marsh’s approach will bring international attention and even more converts.
“You’re going to see a lot of SwimMAC caps in Rio,” Gaines says, referring to the logos emblazoned on racing caps.
Gaines quit swimming after the 1984 Olympics. But in 1988 at 29 he returned to the pool to compete in a national amateur meet. He had been out of the pool for more than three years and had six months to train.
He found a coach who promised he could practice less and regain his speed and form. Gaines qualified for Olympic trials in the 100-meter freestyle, an accomplishment he never expected. He missed qualifying for the Olympics by three-hundredths of a second.
That coach who helped him was a former college teammate – David Marsh.