Dr. J. Olbrecht
The Science of Winning
Planning, Periodizing and Optimizing Swim Training










Many great people, too many to name them all, have helped me along the road to this handbook. In thanking a few, I extend my thanks equally to everyone.

Special thanks to Prof. Dr. med. Dr. h. c. W. Hollmann, former head of the German Sports University of Cologne and Prof. Dr. A. Mader, my mentor, who inspired and helped me find the link between pure and applied science, between theory and practice.

I am grateful to all the coaches, throughout the world, who generously shared their information, experience, training concepts and ideas. A close collaboration and a good teamwork made this project possible. My gratitude extends to all the athletes I have had the great pleasure to work with throughout my career. I wish them all the best of success.

This English edition would not have been possible without the efforts and support of several key people, and I thank them; especially Ernest W. and Cheryl Maglischo, dear friends and colleagues, for their precious advice and mentoring. Without their help this handbook would never have sounded like English. Thanks to you, Jonathan Wiggins, ASA coach and dear friend, who kindly accepted to review my manuscript and to critically evaluate it.

I give sincere thanks to Jerry and Stephanie Cosgrove for their stimulation, encouragement, and support but above all for their friendship. Much gratitude also goes to Clive Rushton, Charlie Wilson and several corporations, among them the ISTC (Institute of Swimming Teachers and Coaches of Great-Britain), Swim Shop, Speedo, the Olympic Health Foundation (an initiative of the Belgian Olympic and Interfederal Committee), the VVS (Flemish Society of Sports Medicine) and Arena Insurances, for their interest, appreciation and endorsement. Their contribution and support allowed me to pursue my passion.

Finally many thanks go to my family who have showered me with love and support and especially to my wife, Pascale, for her inspiration, drive and above all her endless patience in trying to unravel my manuscript.

This work really is the product of all of them.

I hope you will take great pleasure in reading this handbook and I wish you a successful career as a coach.


The training of competitive swimmers has not changed very much since the late 1970’s. The last significant advance occurred in the Western world when information about blood testing and the anaerobic threshold came from the laboratory of the esteemed sports scientist, Alois Mader, from the Institute of Sport in Cologne, in what was then West Germany. Many of us embraced the anaerobic threshold concept of training and used blood testing to monitor the progress of our swimmers. In the process we encountered many difficulties in areas involving selection of testing protocols, interpreting the results of blood tests, and applying those results to the planning of training. One of the most confusing contradictions was that, in many cases, athletes who improved their anaerobic thresholds did not necessarily perform better while, at the same time, some athletes who appeared to lose aerobic endurance actually had lifetime best swims. We knew we lacked important information about this concept of training and the monitoring procedures we were using but we did not know what that information was.

Jan Olbrecht has written a most important book that fills many of the gaps in our knowledge. I am proud to endorse this book because it details the results of more than two decades of research on planning and monitoring the training of competitive swimmers that addresses many of the questions we had about the anaerobic threshold concept of training. This information will change the way coaches and athletes approach the planning of their training.

Let me talk a little about Jan Olbrecht the person and scientist before discussing his excellent text.

Jan Olbrecht was student of Dr. Mader’s when I first met him in the early 1980’s. Although he has served as a consultant to coaches and athletes from a variety of sports, Jan’s first love is competitive swimming. Having been a national champion and record holding swimmer in his native Belgium, he is particularly interested in applying his research to the training of swimmers. When I met him, I was seeking information about training competitive swimmers in general and blood testing in particular and Jan was kind enough to share his knowledge with me. We have remained friends since that time.

Jan is a respected scientific professional whose research has been reported in many prestigious journals throughout the world. He is also much sought after as a speaker at scientific meetings. Despite his impressive scientific achievements, Jan remains a practical person who is interested, first and foremost, in communicating his research findings to coaches and athletes in order to help them perform better. For this reason, his research has always been specific to the training situation and his results have always been immediately useful to coaches like myself and others throughout the world.

Jan has spent his adult years developing procedures not only to investigate important aspects of training in the laboratory but also to developing monitoring procedures that can be used in the field to help athletes structure their training more effectively. Because of his athletic background, Jan has the ability to communicate the results of his studies to coaches and athletes in understandable and practical terms. For this reason, several coaches urged him to put his information into print, which led to the writing of this book.

Within these pages, Jan describes the complex relationship between aerobic and anaerobic training and makes it clear why interpreting the results of blood testing on aerobic endurance without also considering the effect that training had on anaerobic capacity will result in errors of interpretation that may cause coaches to make the wrong judgements about the training needs of their athletes.

He advances some new important concepts. Most notably that training at anaerobic threshold speeds is not the most effective way to improve aerobic endurance and that aerobic and anaerobic metabolism must be developed to optimum, not maximum, levels in order to perform well in competition. Also included are his ideas on the planning and periodization of training. These ideas have contributed considerably to the recent success of competitive swimmers and athletes from other sports throughout Europe but particularly in the Netherlands and Belgium. Jan presents this information with understandable writing that is replete with practical examples.

There is an excellent section on why training must be individualized even for athletes who compete in the same event. It also includes information on how to “spot” athletes with different physiological makeups and how to adapt training for them. In another important portion of this text he discusses the important aerobic and anaerobic adaptations to training and ways to achieve them including the role played by altitude training. Once again, there are many excellent and practical examples of training sets that will achieve the various results athletes seek. Finally, Jan provides several insightful suggestions concerning the training of age-group competitive swimmers.

I believe coaches and athletes at all stages of development can profit from the information in this book. Further, I believe the information presented will raise the standard of swimming performance throughout the world.

Dr. Ernest W. Maglischo

Successful coach and expert in physiology and biomechanics of competitive swimming The ‘96 Olympic Games of Atlanta heralded a new era in the Dutch swimming. Kirsten Vlieghuis won 2 bronze medals (400 m and 800 m freestyle), Pieter van den Hoogenband (4th place) and Marcel Wouda (4th place) managed to join with the world’s top athletes and even our young relay teams unexpectedly reached the Olympic finals, something they had not succeeded in for many years.

There seemed thus to be a successful future in store for the Dutch swimming team. < We in the Netherlands, of course, knew about lactate but until then we had seldom monitored training by means of lactate measurements, or to put it another way, the lactate tests results and their interpretation missed any direct link or “translation” to the training practice.

What about the shift of the lactate curve? What is good? What is not?

What is the real message of the lactate readings for the coach?

What does a lactate value really tell us about the conditioning profile of the swimmer?

The sciences did not seem to be able to provide an adequate, effective and conclusive answer to all the questions I, as a coach, was confronted with in the swimming pool! I felt my own experience, my own perception and my own views on training matched better with the results in competition than the dry sometimes even implausible scientific measurements.

It was shortly after the Olympic Games that I got the opportunity to meet Jan Olbrecht, whom I, so far, only knew from his many (to me often unreadable) scientific contributions on lactate. Our first talk hit the mark; he provided the answers I had sought for so many years. Indeed, although I felt I was working in the right direction I could not always explain the swimmer’s adaptations and evolution. Now, Jan unraveled in a scientific but still simple and quite comprehensible way - which was very much in contrast with what I expected from a dry professor - these inexplicable “evolvements”. He corroborated my feelings as a coach and gave me the tools to understand what actually happened to my swimmers physiologically. Seen in this light, the lactate readings took on a completely new meaning. For the first time in my coaching career I had learned something new which was immediately workable and practicable in training.

I really must say that our collaboration for the past 3 years has been very productive and has played an important part in the success of our team. Indeed, in view of the lactate test results Jan determines the workload each swimmer can sustain and assesses for each swimmer individually the appropriate training load and the most adequate strategies and implementations in training. This new scientific training approach does not imply I have to throw away my own specific training methods but it enables me to individualize and structure the training planning and periodization in a systematic, purposive and scientific way. The discussion we have each time on the test results is always very useful and instructive and teaches me a lot about the metabolic impact of the different workouts.

I personally think this book should be considered as a manual for the modern coach who wants to know before planning and periodizing what kind of conditioning adaptations he may expect. It provides knowledge and shares experience but it is above all understandable and applicable to every training situation. It remains furthermore an enormous challenge to plan and apply the new training methods in the right way and at the right time. But do not think it will spare you work. Quite the contrary. It provides tools to systematically build up the appropriate training for each swimmer individually.

The title of the book is clear but is in no way exaggerated - the performances of the Dutch National Swimming Team in general and the Eindhoven team in particular speak for themselves. The part Jan, together with his wife and right-hand Pascale played in that success goes without saying for which I really want to express my gratitude.

Jacco Verhaeren - Coach PSV Eindhoven

I have known Jan Olbrecht for almost 20 years starting when we were both swimmers on the Belgian National Team. However, the story of our close collaboration as coach and scientist started in 1987.

I was at that time a young coach and the training methods I was familiar with and with which I apparently had success as a swimmer (endurance training until 5-6 weeks before the important competition, followed by 3 weeks specific anaerobic training and 2 weeks of tapering-off), were not always effective for me as a coach. I was thus on the look-out for a new approach, a more purposive way of coaching, “something” that would enable me to evaluate the planned as well as the completed training and to adapt or adjust it, where and when necessary.

My first introduction to lactate testing and Jan’s new training concepts indicated that this might be that new approach I had been seeking. Nevertheless, it took me a few months to master the test results and to put the subsequent training advice into practice. Every 5 to 6 weeks the swimmers were evaluated and so also was my planning. The lactate testings not only confronted me with the results of the completed training period but also indicated the changes or adjustments that needed to be made in the next mesocycle so the swimmer’s conditioning could evolve and their specific needs could be met.

Since 1988, I have had the great pleasure and the tremendous challenge of coaching some top level swimmers, finalists at the Olympic Games, World and European Championships (among others Stefaan Maene, Brigitte Becue, the Dutch National Swimming team).
Jan Olbrecht’s innovating scientific approach helps me structure the training individually and systematically. His way of combining science and practice surely helps me bring my swimmers to their top form at the right moment.

Stefaan Obreno - Head Coach National Dutch Swimming Team


The swim coach is an artist molding intuition, feeling, creativity, scientific knowledge and experience into an efficient and well thought up training plan meant to help the swimmer bring top performances.

But, an athlete cannot win an Olympic gold medal nor set a World record just like that. The way to a top performance is long, complex and tricky and will undoubtedly raise thousands of questions such as, for example, how to design the endurance training of a sprinter? How to improve the anaerobic capacity? Which training exercises can or cannot be put together in one training unit? What is the most appropriate time for technique training? What is the super-compensation effect? What will determine the time needed to reach super-compensation? How to train the anaerobic power? How to ensure the most efficient way of training? Can heart rate or lactate tests be used to maximize training efficiency? How to plan and periodize age group training? How to avoid stagnation of the competitive performance? What is training planning? What is training periodization? How to prepare a long distance swimmer for 2 consecutive competition weekends?

This book is not only the result of more than 2 decades of research on planning and monitoring the training of competitive swimmers but it is above all the product of a very close collaboration with many national and international top coaches such as E. Maglischo, J. Verhaeren, St. Obreno, M. Lohberg, M. Pedroletti, M. Guizien, A. Paeck, H. Verbauwen, R. Gaastra, etc. They not only generously shared their information, experience, training concept and ideas but also confronted me with the sometimes huge gaps between theory and practice and challenged me to search for answers. This book does not claim to know it all or to provide all the answers. It is meant to stimulate or incite the coach to keep an open mind to any information he gets, to challenge him to create his own training philosophy, using his experience and vision in concert with the new scientific findings, to help him gain an understanding of the physiological effects the different types of training may induce and finally to assist him in maximizing training efficiency to achieve the results he is after.

There is of course not one single way of training, but there are a very few important principles that need to be respected; only a solid and well-conceived training plan with clear directions and based on systematic and superintended progressions can guarantee maximal benefit. The key of success does not lie in training hard but in training purposively and carefully. Failing to plan and follow a training and competition program will surely undermine your athlete’s potential and inevitably result in frustration or, what is even worse, in overtraining or injuries.

How to use this book

This book has been written so the coach can use the information of each chapter independently as a foundation to create his own training system and philosophy.

It should be considered as a puzzle. The first two chapters of part I reveal the pieces:

* the most important definitions and principles of training
* the different types of training and exercises
* the training effects one can expect

Through chapter 3, which is a little bit more theoretical and complex, the coach will gain an understanding of the metabolic activity during swimming. This chapter could be skipped but many of the new training methods rest on metabolic research. Basic knowledge on metabolics in swimming will therefore surely help to take up the development of the new training methods to come. Chapter 4 provides tools and methods to define the swimmer’s type and to determine individual training objectives and correct intensity zones. We chose to include the latter chapters in this part, as for an appropriate, well-balanced and thought-out planning and periodization (part II) it is of great benefit to first understand some important physiological processes induced by training. A better comprehension and a clear insight into the metabolic impact of training will enable the coach to give full vent to his fantasy and to create his own winning training plan. Part II will guide and help the coach put all the puzzle pieces in place. After a short theoretical introduction (chapter 5, Definitions and Descriptions), you will find the basics of planning and periodizing (chapter 6 and 7): a detailed description of the successive stages the athlete has to go through to ensure a continuous performance improvement over several years. Finally in chapter 8 and 9 (templates) you will learn to frame and draw up step by step and methodically the training plan that will help you achieve your objectives.

In the end, when all the pieces of the puzzle are put in the right place, you will have a specific training plan which is just made out for your particular athlete and which will surely help him win the gold medal.

For more information on the book, click here. For the first chapter click here.

Reprinted with permission of publisher and Jan Olbrecht