The Pros, Cons and Misconceptions of Ultra Short Race Pace Training (USRPT)

This swimming opinion is from Eric McGinnis. Eric is the Rollins College Strength & Conditioning Coach and Sports Performance Specialist, a former Kentucky All-American and World University Games gold medalist, and the brother of former Virginia Tech All-American Zach McGinnis. He also is a trainer at Spectrum Sports Performance. Follow him on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

Ultra Short Race Pace Training (USRPT) is one of the most widely debated topics in swimming at the moment. It’s also one of the worst names ever created for a training program. Much like everyone else, I have my own opinion on USRPT. Also like everyone else, I feel like my opinion is better than yours. Jokes aside, I have both researched and experimented with USRPT in my own training. Most of the arguments I see about the training methodology are a bit misguided. It’s taken me awhile, but I finally decided to get off the sidelines and give you what I believe are the Pros, the Cons, and the misconceptions about the longest name of any training program in sports.

The Pros

Extremely Race Specific

I’m a huge believer in the law of specificity. USRPT provides plenty of dress rehearsals to practice not only the pace of your event, but also the tempo, breathing patterns, breakout times, etc. This is extremely valuable. It also helps settle the ancient dilemma of why excellent practice swimmers often suffer the wrath of racers at their big meet.

Effective at developing “endurance” for a specific event

I don’t always like the word endurance, because the ability to maintain pace for a 50 freestyle and a 400 IM are completely different. Endurance to me is simply having the ability to maintain race pace for your given event. That’s what I like about USRPT. You get to train your body to sustain the output necessary for YOUR event, which is the only event that matters.

Swimming well under a high workload

USRPT really won’t break you down in the same way that a lot of other training methods will. You never hit lactate threshold, so recovery between training sessions is faster. Since you’re always training at race pace you’ll be ready for meets more often. The ability to swim fast often is a great thing, despite what you may have been told. Make no mistake; you’ll still get plenty of work in (more on that later).

The Cons

Not as much proven science as you think

I know what you’re thinking. “But USRPT is science based training!” Well, kind of. It’s a theory based on science, much like a lot of other training programs. Unless I missed something when I was researching, USRPT was an idea mostly adopted from what was observed with non-swimmers. Then the training parameters were developed through a sort of guess and check. I’m sure if you did a study on it you could prove that it can make swimmers better. I’m sure you could also do the exact same thing with a completely different training program.

Dr. Rushall is making money off of this

Honestly I don’t blame the Doc. Wish I thought of this first, in fact. But when someone is profiting from something, and they’re telling me I should be using their product and ONLY their product all year every year, I’m skeptical. Is this for my benefit or theirs?

Doesn’t focus on front-end speed

I think USRPT users will eventually have a hard time actually getting faster. The program really only focuses on maintaining speed, not building it. Without the use of training equipment, strength training, or front-end speed work on maximal rest, it’s going to eventually become challenging to get FASTER. Modern-day resistance training is far more advanced than the research articles backing USRPT that argue resistance training has a minimal effect on the sprinter. Even several of the studies cited in USRPT suggest that some power was gained from resistance training for top-end speed.

No land based strength training

This is the most refutable part of the program. I know I’m biased on this because I’m a strength coach, but I don’t need someone who never competed in swimming to explain the practical implications of lifting for swimmers. There is a damn good reason why all the best college programs lift weights. Just look at the body types of the top 50 freestylers compared to average 50 freestylers. Try telling Florent Manaudou that strength training doesn’t matter. Here is a simplified argument for you: Assuming all other qualities are equal, which swimmer will have the potential for a faster start and stronger pull? A swimmer with a 15-inch vertical and can’t do a pull-up, or a swimmer with a 30-inch vertical that can do 30 pull-ups? Now try to explain to me how you are going to improve the first swimmer’s vertical jump and pull-ups without doing any strength training. I’m really interested to find out.

Difficult to implement in a team setting

Not much to elaborate on here. I actually really like the individualization of USRPT, but it’s difficult to do it right if you coach a big group, which most of you do. Organizing groups by event specialty takes time (and if you have a group of more than 40, which many of you do, it takes considerable planning). Then, distinguishing lanes further by rest interval (the speed likely varies widely) adds more complexity. Arranging a practice to end at a set time with all of this going on adds even more. If you have three to four lanes available for your session, good luck.

Burnout potential

I still don’t get how USRPT tries to argue that their program won’t burn out kids mentally. Sure, swimmers who were previously doing 10k workouts would LOVE to switch to 12.5’s and 25’s. However, you’re telling me that after four years of the SAME THING OVER AND OVER, these kids won’t be bored!? Let me know how that goes, I’ll opt to mix things up a bit. Furthermore, how many coaches can honestly say they wouldn’t get bored administering these workouts with little variation, every day, for the rest of their careers?

Misconceptions

USRPT is a sprint program

I really don’t think this is true. In fact I would say it’s probably going to be more effective for longer distance swimmers who typically don’t get much race-paced training in. For true sprinters to use USRPT effectively, the rest intervals need to be slowed down quite a bit.

USRPT is easy

If you think that people are switching to USRPT because they’re lazy then you clearly haven’t tried it. USRPT was impossibly difficult for me. It’s nice doing things in short increments, but definitely not easy.

There are 2 types of training: USRPT and everything else

Any time I hear people arguing about USRPT, it seems to be under the assumption that you’re either cranking out miles of aerobic work or you’re doing USRPT. There are a million ways to train. Just because you’re not doing USRPT doesn’t mean you’re doing “old school” training. Also, everyone always insists that you’re either doing quality work or you’re doing a high volume program. Not sure when we decided that high volume had to mean poor quality. Volume is a very necessary variable that needs to be manipulated in order to drive adaptations. Even USRPT works by gradually building the volume you can handle at race pace. If you never try to bring volume up then you’ll have a hard time continuing to make progress.

USRPT doesn’t emphasize technique

Not sure where this came from but I’ve heard a lot of people say it. The first USRPT article I ever read talked a lot about technique so I’m going to say this is not true.

USRPT is the reason for Michael Andrew’s success

You can’t deny that USRPT has worked well for Michael Andrew. You also can’t deny that Michael Andrew is a big, talented kid that trains professionally and could probably swim well on other programs. At the end of the day, talented and motivated athletes find ways to achieve their goals.

Closing Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far you’re probably asking yourself, “so is Eric saying that USRPT is good or bad?” Any topic under the umbrella of fitness always swings like a pendulum from one side to the other. People want to know whether lifting weights is good or bad, whether running is good or bad, and whether static stretching good or bad? Those same people need a big dose of what they don’t want to hear- it’s not that SIMPLE! A good coach understands that there is a season long plan with multiple mesocycles and microcycles within it. He or she also understands that there are different methods to create different adaptations and the variables need to be manipulated to drive progress. There is no wrong way of training in itself, except for the way that renders the athlete unable or unwilling to compete. Anything can be effective in the right dose, at the right time, and for the right person. If you haven’t tried USRPT then give it a shot because you won’t know until you try. Just don’t abandon everything you’ve ever learned because of something someone said on the internet.

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Craig
4 years ago

Glad I took time to read this article. You covered many questions I had on this subject. One aspect of preparing for a major meet is the taper. Does USRPT address this?

Paco
4 years ago

You start saying “I’m a huge believer in the law of specificity.”. Then you make a case for the opposite.

Thomas Topolski
4 years ago

Let’s stop training our swimmers like marathon runners and stop the insanity
Coaches and swimmers know that improving technique and strength is vital for swimming success but let’s talk about the need to understand and apply two other integral swimming concepts. These two principals are the effective application of specificity of training and the adaptation of and to stress through progressive exercise or progressive resistance.
Specificity of training simply means that; the swimmer should train in a relevant or appropriate way that is specific to what they’re trying to accomplish. So if you want to become a fast swimmer you need to train in a manner that develops speed. The adaptation of stress, through progressive resistance simply means… Read more »

Glenn Gruber
Reply to  Thomas Topolski
4 years ago

Many people misunderstand the idea of specificity. The concept of specificity says that “transfer of training is specific”. In other words you want everything you do in practice to transfer to what you want to do on race day. The closer the practice is to what that actual race is what you are aiming for. Traditional training with pull sets and kick sets and drills etc hopes and expects that those sets will transfer to race day. Yes, SOME of it will transfer. But by doing race pace sets everyday with good technique and go to failure of your goal pace time each and every time, there is a much greater liklihood of your practice sets transferring to race day.… Read more »

Bernard Fitzmorris
5 years ago

Teams in the US and around the world are successfully implementing USRPT with big groups of swimmers, using SportCount stopwatches (on the index finger) and dive slates. Each swimmer times him or her self. It takes the burden off of the coaches and provides immediate feedback for each swimmer.

Dave
5 years ago

Don’t agree with most of your Cons …this from somebody who is running a USRPT program with a group of twenty-four 12-17 year olds. The USRPT program was developed over many years based on evidence from sports science, and whilst there is some extrapolation absolutely, at no time does his extrapolations go to the lengths that traditional training coaches extrapolate myth and legend! , Yes he make money out of it, but a fraction of the money that sports companies make out of flogging useless “toys” like hand paddles, snorkles or “Special” kick boards for swimmers. You are incorrect when you state it doesn’t not focus on building speed only maintaining it. I’ve had one 14+ swimmer improve his times… Read more »

Michael
Reply to  Dave
5 years ago

I agree with you completely. USRPT coaches have a much different perspective than people who made up their mind before looking at the material.

I have found the same issues with the need to keep detailed records, too.

Out of curiosity, how specialized is ur program for the 12-17 year olds? Do they repeat the same set frequently throughout the week? This has been something I have been struggling to figure out.

Bob Johnson
5 years ago

It would take a while to comment in depth to all points made, but I will take on the con of no land based strength training to show the lack of intellectual vigor to your arguments against USRPT. That being said I’m sure you are a great guy.

First sentence you state your position- fine but now you need to back it up.
Second sentence you acknowledge your bias but then you use a character attack which is not an argument.
Third sentence is an appeal to authority logical fallacy- you must explain why lifting is beneficial not just say it is popular.
Fourth sentence is an non-sequitor- especially considering that most average 50 freestylers do lift… Read more »

Slevin kelevra
5 years ago

How many Olympic gold medals or world records does Michael Andrew have?

Swimmer
Reply to  Slevin kelevra
9 months ago

one olympic gold, one world record, one olympic record, three american records, two U.S Open records, five short course world championship golds, three short course world championships silvers, one short course world championships bronze, one long course world championships silver, one pan pacs gold, one pan pacs bronze, four world junior championships golds, three world junior championships silvers, three world junior championships bronzes

Paul
5 years ago

I was on and off to swimming since my youthful years. Just seriously got back over three years ago. USRPT, in my opinion, is a fierce yet great practice more appropriate for those teen swimmers whose hormone surge giving a big plus in muscle and cardio recovery. For those who passed the golden age yet still into swimming, alternating is a best fit for them. Once forms are getting down meticulously right, that’s the time to routinely alternate different paces. My two cents…