Young swimmers hoping to emulate the double Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington's Beijing exploits at the London 2012 Games are being subjected to an unacceptably heavy training regime and excessive "surveillance", a study has concluded.
Research into the training of 17 competitive swimming squads found young atheletes have to spend excessive amounts of time in the pool and face being dropped from their teams if they cannot take the pressure. Eleven and 12-year-olds are expected to swim up to 32 miles a week, according to Melanie Lang of Leeds Metropolitan University.
By 14, many swim 40 miles a week – the aerobic equivalent of running 160 miles. They are also required to work out in a gym and still find time for schoolwork.
"I am concerned about this because excessive training by young athletes can reverse the benefits of sports participation," Ms Lang will tell the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association in Edinburgh today.
"It removes the element of fun that first attracts so many youngsters to sport. It can inhibit bone growth, cause physical and mental burnout and increase the potential for injury and dropout. Indeed, swimmers cite the emphasis on frequent, intense training as a major reason for leaving the sport.
"Elite swimmers begin competitive training earlier than in any other sport. By 11 or 12 they are spending up to 27 hours a week in the pool. By comparison, the England netball development plan recommends no more than four-and-a-half hours of training at the same age."
Britain's gruelling swimming training, introduced by the former national performance director Bill Sweetenham, is credited with transforming Britain's fortunes at the Olympics this year. He made Team GB swimmers sleep on floors to simulate the uncomfortable conditions of Olympic villages, and imposed mandatory training of at least 37 miles a week – anyone who did not comply was dropped. Three-quarters of the 139 swimmers vying for places in the 2012 British team are 16 or under, and the youngest are 12. Ms Lang is worried not only about the amount of training but the surveillance to which the children are subjected.
"Swimmers in some top squads were required to keep records of their attendance in log books that were submitted to the coach monthly," she said. "Those who transgressed training regimes were punished. One swimmer was banned from the squad for failure to adhere to the rigorous regime.
"Swimmers in the top squads knew never to ask for a toilet break until the end of training. Anyone who stopped swimming several metres out from the wall or took rests to fix 'broken' goggles was considered to be cheating."
Brian McGuiness, national organiser of the British Swimming Coaches and Teachers Association, acknowledged that potential Olympians had to practise intensively but insisted that modern training was tailored to the needs of the individual so they did not become injured or burnt out.
Michael Phelps, the American who won eight golds in Beijing last month, has swum almost 50 miles a week during peak training times since he was in his mid-teens, Mr McGuiness said. "That is the commitment required if somebody is to become an international athlete. It is a demand which is only placed on swimmers who have the ability, the talent, a wish to train that often and parents who want them to do it."
A spokeswoman for British Swimming said that Ms Lang's mileage figures were "excessive".
Eleanor Hudson, 21: 'If you weren't in pain you had to work harder and do better'
Eleanor, a maths undergraduate from Wick, Worcestershire, gave up swimming at the age of 16 because she could no longer bear the gruelling training regime which required her to spend four to five hours in the pool every day.
At her peak she was ranked third in England for her age, and won a swimming scholarship to a public school famous for its sporting achievements. But she has not been in a pool for three years. She said: "I was having to do four to five hours in the pool every day. I would have to get up at 5.45am to be in the pool at 6am, swim until 8.30am, then have 20 minutes to get breakfast before the first bell for school went at 8.50am. Then, after lessons finished, I'd have to do another two hours in the pool.
"I was expected to swim 70km a week. You had to wear a heart monitor and, if it didn't show you working hard enough, you had to do more. Basically, if you weren't in pain and red in the face you were not performing at your best and had to do better. In the end I just couldn't do it any more. I was falling asleep in lessons – twice I fell asleep with my head on a book.
"I do feel sad that I don't swim any more. I really likedit to begin with but there was just too much pressure. Now I can't believe I stuck it out for as long as I did."