Dec. 1, 2014
The University of Notre Dame men’s swim team spent a week where the air was rare, and the benefits of training in high altitude may be already paying off for the Irish.
Since their week of high intensity training at the U.S. Olympic facilities in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the Irish have upped their record to 3-2, beating ACC rival Pittsburgh (286-84) and Big Ten foe Michigan State (171-127).
“That was the toughest week of the year,” senior distance swimmer James McEldrew says. “By the end of the week, everybody’s shoulders, elbows, knees and back hurt.”
While most Notre Dame students headed home to enjoy their relaxing fall break at the end of October, the swimmers faced nine days of team bonding and double workouts in the Rocky Mountains – the same trip they experienced last year.
“I guess it was my idea this year, since I’m the only returning member from last year’s staff,” head coach Matt Tallman says. “[The trip] was something Coach [Tim] Welsh and I talked about. It’s a great room and board rate, roughly the same as it would be here [at Notre Dame]. So with the extra price of a flight per guy, in the big picture, we get a lot more out of it than if we just stayed here. It was definitely worth it.”
While the team may have felt like it was a constant rotation of eat, swim, dry-land workout, eat, nap, eat, swim, eat and sleep, the stress of being a Notre Dame student was non-existent, giving the swimmers a chance to focus solely on their sport.
“When you’re on campus, you have lots of distractions as a student,” McEldrew comments. “Just walking around campus, you’re constantly reminded of a lot of things on top of swimming. It’s good for the team to get away. It’s good to have a change of scenery like that.”
The team did two, two-hour water workouts and one dry land (weight room or core body stretches) workout every day with a six-hour gap in between. The dorms offer the same type of campus living scenario the student-athletes are used to, and the dining hall is located on-site – serving three meals a day and unlimited snacks so the guys can get whatever they need.
The most significant difference between training in South Bend and Colorado Springs is the pool; in Colorado Springs, the pool is 10-lanes at 50-meters, giving the team almost double the space without having to share it with the women’s team.
NCAA regulations keep team practice to about 20 hours a week, but on breaks, that rule is lifted. In total, the men practiced about five hours a day in Colorado all while adapting their lungs to the high altitude.
“The reason we go there is for the atmosphere, both being away from campus but still as a team unit and the altitude,” Tallman says. “You can’t go as fast as easily. It adds to your lung capacity when you get back to sea level.”
It’s a well-known fact among athletes that it is harder to breathe in higher altitude, and breathing is a rather big deal in the sport of swimming. Coach Tallman has his swimmers breathe through straws or closed duct tape snorkels as ways to expand their lung capacity.
None of that is needed in Colorado Springs.
“The altitude definitely played a part in making training more difficult, but it was more noticeable in the little things,” senior swimmer Patrick Olson says. “For example, the stairs out in Colorado Springs were something I avoided. I really noticed how valuable air was being there and definitely enjoyed the feeling of having more of it when we got back.
“Physically the first week back hurt, but having the lungs of a beast thanks to the altitude training was a saving grace.”
Last season, the Irish swam against Air Force at the Air Force Academy – another 1,000 feet up – and Coach Tallman noticed how significantly different the times were.
“Not being able to adjust to it hit us hard,” Tallman said. “Ultimately [the altitude training] assists us when we get back [to Notre Dame].”
“I can’t speak for the physicality of high altitude training, but I can definitely speak for the mental part of it,” McEldrew says. “When you first get into the water, you feel slow, with a high heart rate, but after two to three days, something clicks. And then you get back [to South Bend] and you notice that you’re not getting as tired. When you start to feel like you can’t breathe, you know you’ve experienced a lot worse, so it’s not that bad anymore.”
McEldrew also commented that having extra hours in the altitude is more beneficial for him as a long-distance swimmer, saying, “You have to put in a lot of yardage to be successful.”
For the Irish, it wasn’t all hard work that week. The team also focused on team bonding while exploring the surrounding area.
On the first night they arrived, the team was able to have a nice dinner downtown with the Notre Dame Club of Colorado Springs while watching the Notre Dame-Florida State football game. They also traveled out to the Garden of the Gods and Helen Hunt Falls National Parks.
“Going to the Garden of the Gods was a very thrilling experience,” Olson states. “It was absolutely amazing to see the beauty of Colorado. It’s certainly not a common thing to witness back at school.”
It was also the perfect opportunity for the freshmen to bond with their teammates and coaches.
“I believe that was the best thing to come out of the whole trip – our team now has become a really tight clique,” Olson says. “I definitely need to say that the only reason I was able to last the week out there is thanks to my teammates.”
From a coach’s perspective, the benefits aren’t quite so clear just yet.
“Time will tell,” Tallman states simply. “People always ask how did it go in all facets of this sport, but you can never really answer until the end of the year. I just think some of the guys tested themselves, and hopefully learned how to push the envelope a little differently in races. We’ll know by the end of the year if this trip paid off.”