Effective Swimming

Means get in the water

So you can bike and run, but you dread jumping in the ocean. As soon as you step out onto the sand you start to get nervous. Does the thought of a riptide give you the heebie-jeebies? Just looking at the waves makes you want to run back to your car and hide?

If thatís the case, then donít worry: Youíre not alone. Swimming in the ocean is not something that everybody grew up doing. Itís not really the most natural thing in the world, either. There are sharks, jellyfish, and stingrays. Thereís seaweed, kelp beds, turtles, bluefish, snappers, tarpon, stinging coral, red tides, and who knows what else. All those things live there Ė itís their home, not ours. And of course, you always have to watch out for the Undertoad as well, that mystical creature that can grab your foot and pull you out to sea before you know whatís happening. And then there are waves, and crests and troughs, whitewater and backwash, and gullies and sandbars. And whatís it all mean? How is anyone supposed to figure out how to get through all that slop?

Simple: Practice. If you ever want to get good at anything, you need to practice.

But you donít live near the ocean, do you? And it takes too long to get there? Or youíre too busy at work, and you donít have the time, and the kids are screaming that they want to go to Disney World, so how the heck are you supposed to get down to the beach and practice swimming in the ocean?

Ok, so itís not that easy. But you can get to the pool. And you will make it to the beach at some point. You better. But letís talk about the pool first.

For many triathletes, the swim is the toughest part. And good swimming can be summed up in one word Ė technique. My first suggestion to anyone who really wants to improve their swim is to go down to the pool and find an age-group coach, masterís coach, co-worker, buddy, or anyone else who used to swim competitively and has the time to help you with your Ė say it again Ė technique.

Thatís step one, and thatís up to you. There are some books around that can help you, but Iíve always felt that one-on-one instruction is the way to go.

Step two, and hereís the hard part, means actually getting in the water. You didnít think you were going to get off that easy, did you?

Now, unless you swam in high school or college, you are probably not the fastest swimmer in your category. That means you need to work harder to get faster. That means you need to swim laps. Lots of Ďem. The minimum number of times per week that I think you can swim and get faster is three. Something like Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. If you can do more, great. But letís just talk about these three days.

These days donít need to be in a particular order for them to be effective. You can mix them up in accordance with your other workouts so that you are not going hard 3 or 4 days in a row, because you already know thatís not good, right? I thought so.

One of the days is a sprint workout. Without talking about VO2 max and max heart rate and threshhold and base work or getting to scientific, it comes down to this: To get faster, you need to swim faster than your normal pace for shorter amounts of time. This will get your body used to the speed, and slowly, it will become easier to go faster, and then it will be easier to go faster for longer amounts of time, and then one day, youíll be the first person out of the water from your heat. Cool.

How do you do a sprint workout? Remember this: Always, always, always! warm-up, stretch, and warm-down. This is very crucial to loosening up the muscles beforehand and getting the lactic acid out of them afterwards. I like to warm up at least 800 yards easy swimming, then kick 400 yards, then do a build-up set. A build-up set is something along the lines of 9 x 50 freestyles on 20 seconds rest, descend (80% effort, 85% effort, 90% effort) 1-3, 4-6, 7-9. Then you get to the main set. The main set in a sprint workout should focus on 25 to 100 yard bursts of speed. Here are a few samples:

  • 24 x 25 freestyle on 1:00, one fast, one easy.
  • 12 x 50 freestyle on 2:00, all fast
  • 40 x 25 freestyle on :45, descend 1-3 (same as above, except #3 is 100% effort), hold 4 at 100%
  • 10 x 50, one stroke, one free, all fast, on 2:00
  • 8 x 100 on 4:00, all of them as fast as you can go.

After a set like this, if you are already pretty fit, you can do another easy set, like 12 x 50 or 6 x 100, just at your cruising speed. Then make sure you do a very easy 100 or 200 at the end as a warm down. If you are not in the greatest shape, donít worry about it, just make sure you warm down. Try and stretch out as well.

The next day consists of what I call general maintenance. It may focus on drills, kick, or some single aspect of your stroke. You wonít do anything very hard on this day. You may go faster for part of a set, but the point of this workout is to keep your body used to the water and to work on your feel for the mechanics of the stroke. Besides warming up and warming down, sets you can include on this day are:

  • 8 x 100 kick with fins on 30 seconds rest
  • 8 x 100 IM stroke drill
  • 6 x 200 free, 50 drill (catch-up, fingertip drag, one-arm, bilateral breathing, and so on) 50 swim, on 45 seconds rest
  • 20 x 50 freestyle on 20 seconds rest
  • 15 x 100 freestyle on 30 seconds rest
  • 16 x 50 of a stroke other than freestyle on 30 seconds rest
  • 10 x 100, 50 stroke, 50 free, on 30 seconds rest

Depending on the shape you are in, you can make these sets longer, shorter, or do as many of them as you want to on this day. Just donít go too hard. To give you some idea, a day like this for most college swimmers would be between 6,000 to 9,000 yards. Yikes. Luckily, I am out of college - I only swim around 4,000.

The third day is the day I like the most. But I am a sick distance swimmer, and Iíll understand if you donít like it. Because itís not easy. Itís distance. Distance, distance, distance. Say it with me. Distance, distance, distance. Since the shortest a swim will get in a sprint triathlon is a quarter-mile, you will need to do some distance work. And itís not going to be enough just to swim a long set. You need to swim a long set at a pace that leaves you just on the brink of exhaustion.

A day like this will include a longer warm up. I do at least 800 yards and sometimes 1200. You can kick if you want, but itís not essential to the workout. What is essential is a set that makes you push at about 90% effort the whole way. I like to use paddles on my distance sets because they increase the resistance and make me work harder. Paddles are tricky, though, because they put more pressure on your shoulders, so be careful about using them. If your shoulders start twinging, take them off.

Below are some of my favorites:

  • 20 x 100 free on 5-10 seconds rest
  • 8 x 200 free on 10-15 seconds rest
  • 5 x 400 free on 30 seconds rest
  • 9 x 300 free, descend 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 on 15-20 seconds rest
  • 3 x 800 on 1 to 1:30 minute rest
  • 40 x 50 on 5 seconds rest (harder than it sounds)
  • The big one: 4 x 1000 or 4 x 1200, descend 1-3, hold 4, on 2 minute rest
  • Pyramids: 8 x 50, 4 x 100, 2 x 200, 4 x 100, 8 x 50, on 5 second rest per 50 yards
  • Ladders: 10 x 50, 5 x 100, 2 x 250, 1 x 500, on 5 seconds rest per 50 yards

Now, you should notice that most of these workouts are just around a mile or more. Thatís because thatís usually the longest distance Iíll swim in a race. If you only race in sprints, that doesnít let you off the hook! Sometimes you need to train longer than the distance you will race at to break through certain mental and physical barriers. This, I believe, is called over-distance training, not to be confused with over-training, which means too much, or too much too soon. You also need to warm down after a set like this, even though you may want to just crawl out of the pool and lie on the concrete. Your muscles will thank you afterwards.

Thatís a basic breakdown on the kind of swimming you need to do if you want to get faster. If you have the time, itís a great idea to join a masterís or age-group team and swim 5 times a week with a coach and other people. But in the real world, I know, thatís not always possible, so I hope the sets above can give you some type of structure.

Thatís all for now. When we get closer to the summer and the water starts warming up, Iíll fill you in on some of the tricks Iíve learned to get through the surf just a little bit faster than the other guy. Happy training!

Marty Gaal - November 2000