© 1997 SWIMNEWS Magazine

SWIMNEWS ONLINE: February 1997 Magazine Articles


Dr. Ralph Richards discusses the physiology of double Olympic 1500 champion

Kieren Perkins, and the importance of having a long-term consistent training plan


Cecil M. Colwin

Dr Ralph Richards, Co-ordinator of Australian Coaching Development, says thatKieren Perkins is a superbly talented and well conditioned athlete, with a great fighting spirit. That talent and fighting spirit helped the young Queenslander fight his way into the 1996 Australian Olympic Team in the 1500, the last event of the last day of the Olympic Trials in Sydney.

At the Olympics, Kieren once more cut it finevery finewhen he qualified last into the final of the 1500. But against all expectations, Kieren, in a display of courage and tenacity, swam from the outside lane to a spectacular and historic Olympic victory, which, sad to relate, was completely overlooked or ignored by the American media.

Says Richards, "John Carew has done a marvellous job with Kieren over many yearsnot just one year, but many years. I think Kieren has been with John for about ten years, which is good because there's been a lot of continuity in the program.

"Now, having paid tribute to Kieren's great fighting spirit, the reasons that I think Kieren Perkins is the great athlete that he is, are several.

"First, there's a very fine aerobic component in his ability to produce energy. This means that he uses his aerobic component to support his anaerobic capabilities. If you look at Perkins' world record splits for his 1500, the first 200 metres he was out in 1:52+. Great early speed.

"Now an ordinary athlete going out that fast would have a huge accumulation of lactic acid, but because Kieren has a well-developed aerobic system, he's able to remove lactate as well as produce it concurrently, which means he's able to generate a lot more early speed without the detrimental effects of lactic acid build-up. His removal rate is tremendous."

Richards says that Perkins has a larger-than-normal heart with very good stroke volume, and a very well-developed circulatory system. "He probably has very good buffering capacity. But the ability to remove lactate has to be associated with his long-term aerobic conditioning that has gone hand in hand with the integrated approach of also doing anaerobic speed work."

Richards believes that a young swimmer should also do speed work, and that it is a misconception that children do not accumulate lactate. He says that children accumulate lactate, but they accumulate it at a different level, and their removal rate is different.

Richards added that swimmers rely more heavily on aerobic energy supply to sustain the demands of competition, no matter what the time frame is. A 10-year-old or 11-year-old swimming a 100-metre race, still uses more aerobic energy to complete that 100-metre race than a 19- or 20-year-old. The younger swimmer gets rid of lactate more quickly than an older swimmer.

"As that swimmer matures, the problem that inhibits this ability is that they develop more muscle mass. Now you notice that Kieren is very lean and very streamlined. Not having excessive muscle mass is really a benefit to him.

"People will say: `Muscle mass is related to strength.' It is, but only to a certain degree. Also, strength is a qualitative thing as well as a quantitative thing, and Kieren does a lot of good work that John gives him to develop the kind of muscle strength and power that he needs over the period of time it takes him to swim the 1500.

"It's always a matter of balance and determining the characteristics that need to be emphasized in a particular individual. Some individuals will need more muscle mass, because of their explosive capabilities. But, generally speaking, the rule of thumb is that you want the highest power package in the most streamlined `design' possible."

Would Richards say that Kieren is a "freak of nature" or an athlete trained to be somewhat ahead of his time?

"He's not a freak of nature. He's normal in every respect; his personality and most of his physiology. No, I don't think that Kieren is unique. I think there may be a lot more Kieren Perkins out there, but they've never had the unique set of opportunities that Kieren has had.

Long term program key to Perkins success.
For larger 64k photo click on image. Photo © Darren Braybrook / SPORT The Library

"Sometimes it's one coach that provides that opportunity. Sometimes it's one continuum of philosophy, and if we train enough of our coaches to understand these processes, it doesn't matter whether it's a single person who does it, or many people who influence a swimmer during a career. But the philosophy must be consistent.

"I will say that Kieren has had the tremendous advantage of having a coach who has a very good model of what he wants to achieve in terms of technique, range of motion, energy supply qualities in his athlete, and he has worked very hard in taking a long-term approach to achieve those results."

Long-Term Program

Dr Ralph Richards says, "If we think back when Kieren emerged on the scene (which was at the Auckland Commonwealth Games in 1990, where he finished second and broke 15 minutes for the first time), he was essentially a junior. I think he was only fifteen or sixteen years old. That effort was already the result of several years of developmental work that John had put into him.

"This is the kind of developmental work that we are trying to show all our coaches, and say `Hey, this is the process that you should be going through, and, then if you happen to find someone who has the higher degree of talent that Kieren has, you can pull all those elements together, and you will have a champion athlete. But, if you have someone who has very average characteristics, you can still improve their performance level dramatically.'"

There are quite a few great distance swimmers who started off as backstrokers. Is this a coincidence, or is there some connection with developing a strong shoulder girdle?

"I worked with Daniel Kowalski when he was an age grouper, and, at that time, we thought he would become a 200 backstroker. I have some really good underwater photographs of Daniel as a 12-year-old backstroker!

"My theory on this might be a little bit radical. Talking from a personal perspective, back in the late 80s I was the first national event coach for Australia, and many top backstrokers were under my tutelage. I think that one of the things we overlook when we're developing swimmers to swim a particular stroke is that different muscle groups are used, and they're used in different sequences."

Richards says that freestyle, being the fastest performance stroke, tends to put an emphasis on the anterior muscles, and this, in turn, may develop a muscle imbalance.

"For this reason, backstroke is a very good complementary exercise to freestyle. You can develop muscle balance by doing other things. We encourage our coaches to do diagnostic work, and work with physiotherapists so that we have well-conditioned, well-rounded muscle balance, in both the anterior and posterior `compartments.' It doesn't necessarily have to be done by swimming backstroke. You can do it in the gym. You can do it a lot of different ways."

Editor's note: As SWIMNEWS goes to print, word reaches us from Australia that John Carew, Kieren Perkins' coach, has decided to postpone Kieren's return to competition. "He's put on more than 15 kilograms and was too overweight to compete this year," Carew said.
Perkins has resumed training in Brisbane and is aiming at next January's World Championships in Perth.

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