How Training Less Helped Cam McEvoy Reach His Peak At 30

How training less helped Cam McEvoy get in career-best form at 30

In the space of three years, Olympic swimmer Cam McEvoy has gone from considering retirement to becoming a world champion thanks to a pared back approach to training

JUST THREE YEARS AGO, Cam McEvoy crashed out of the Tokyo Olympics in the heat stages, finishing 29th overall in the 50-metre freestyle, and 24th in the 100-metre freestyle. Then 27 years old, McEvoy was already on the older side for a sprint swimmer, and it looked a near certainty that he would finish his Olympic career without a gold medal.

Short-distance swimmers have perhaps the shortest career-span of any athletes. Since McEvoy’s pet event, the 50m freestyle, was introduced to the Olympic program in 1988, the average age of gold medallists has been 23.9, while only one person aged over 30 has won the event. Swimmers’ athletic careers begin to taper around their mid-20s – prime years in any other sport – while another Australian swimming hero, Kyle Chalmers, previously hinted at retirement at just 25 years of age. Even McEvoy himself admitted to the ABC that “You’re 24 in swimming and they’re handing you your pension.”

McEvoy didn’t just lay down and accept his fate though. On the brink of retirement, he went back to the drawing board and returned in the best form of his life, winning his first and only world championship gold medal in 2023 with a career-best, national record-breaking time of 21.06 seconds in the 50m freestyle, making him the oldest Australian swimmer to ever win a world title. Earlier this year, McEvoy finished 0.01 seconds short of defending his crown at the 2024 world championships, but he’s qualified for the Paris Olympics as the red-hot favourite to win his first Olympic gold medal.

So, how can we account for McEvoy’s inexplicable late-career renaissance? We can’t. By all metrics, McEvoy should be declining, not reaching his peak after entering his fourth decade. Although, according to the man himself, the answer is actually quite simple: he’s slashed his training workload.

Having swam up to 70km a week growing up and maintaining a 30km per week rate throughout his career, McEvoy has drastically changed his routine. The 30-year-old now swims just 3km per week, and he credits the shift for his sudden resurgence. “It’s significantly extended the longevity of my career,” he said earlier this year.

“My whole career was 11-and-a-half months of 30km a week, massive volume, tapering, and it’s the first time you hit intensity all year,” McEvoy continued. “For a very long time I always had questions about how we train. I didn’t agree with a large majority of it, but I hadn’t spent the time to really dive in.”

Clearly, McEvoy’s choice has paid off. But it goes against everything dictated by the most basic principles of strength and athletic training. Even outside of athletic performance, McEvoy argues that changing up his training routine has had unforeseen benefits. “It takes the pressure off a lot,” he said. “I can do the Olympics, [world championships], then have 12 months exploring other stuff and come back. And I’ve got tonnes of side quests I want to do… train for 100m track sprinting and see how low I can go, the world street lifting competition.”

Cam McEvoy

INSTAGRAM @cam_mcevoy

So, could a less is more approach actually catch on? Well, as the recent body of evidence suggests, there are rewards to be reaped from a less intensive training routine. In running, training programs like the Norwegian method, which argue for running just below the lactate threshold (in layman’s terms: the point where it gets too hard to maintain), have become accepted practice. A 2023 Spanish study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health provided the necessary scientific backing for the method and it’s since become a cornerstone of many athletes’ training routines.

In strength training, the debate is more complicated, but some studies do point to training less being just as effective. A 2020 study published in the European Journal of Translational Myology found that training for muscular hypertrophy, which involves lifting heavier weights for fewer reps, alongside high protein intake to increase muscle mass, doesn’t necessarily increase strength. Instead, if gaining strength is your aim, the focus should be on higher rep ranges, according to the study.

McEvoy’s approach to training is actively rewriting the book on Olympic swimming. A line of work that was once reserved almost exclusively for athletes in their late teens and early 20s is now looking dramatically more open. We don’t have enough scientific evidence to outright declare that everyone should immediately start training less, but if McEvoy’s journey is any indication, it could at least be worth a try.

Related:

Kyle Chalmers on silencing internal pressure, overcoming obstacles and creating a life outside the pool

This Is How The ‘Norwegian Method’ Can Elevate Your Endurance

 

By Cayle Reid

Cayle Reid is a fan of everything sports and fitness. He spends his free time at the gym, on his surfboard or staying up late watching sports in incompatible time zones.

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