It’s a common belief (and of course I’d support it…) that swimmers make the best triathletes. In my experience it is much easier to teach a swimmer how to run, than a runner how to swim. . Now I know plenty of amazing runners who became awesome swimmers, and I know plenty of good swimmers who struggle on the run (ME!). The common thread in these runners turned swimmers is …. hard work.
It is true that swimming is 90% technique. Make no mistake about that. With that however comes the component of pace, just like in running and in cycling.
Through out my swimming career I have seen it all. The advent of Total Immersion, the positioning of the head, and the progression of turns. Namely the backstroke turn. When I began swimming we did the bucket turn. In high school it evolved to the flip but touch the wall turn, in college it evolved even further.
I left competitive swimming just before the introduction of the speed suit. In college we wore paper suits. Since I swam the 500, 1,000 and the mile, I had to get a new suit every meet. At the end of the mile it was disintegrating.
So how much does it take to improve swimming? It takes longer than cycling and running. Apply the same frequency and dedication as you do to bike and run, and you will see results within a few months.
I like to cycle my swimmers through a swim camp at least once a year. In swim camp they swim 4-7 days a week for 45-60 minutes at a time. This will last from 4-6 weeks and depends on pool availability. Within their workout there is a warm up, a drill set a main set and a cool down. I take a look at their strokes to give them the proper drills and we repeat those drills over and over and over.
Broken down, my swim workouts tend to follow this style:
1. Warm up. Ideally my athletes will warm up 600-1,000 yards depending on ability, experience and time constraints.
2. Drills; I use a variety of drills and we repeat that drill for weeks. Drills are meant to over emphasize a portion of a stroke.
For example the 6 kick switch drill; this drill is done wearing fins or zoomers and the athlete kicks on their side for 6 kicks, and then switches sides. The head is looking down yet slightly forward. The front hand is pressing down, not just hanging out in front there! This drill emphasizes the catch phase, getting on the side, balancing and rotating. And it’s very simple.
We repeat this drill for weeks to allow it to absorb. When the swimmer swims their regular stroke the above points are emphasized but the swimmer does not swim identically as the drill.
3. Main set; I like to use the T Time method with my athletes. To establish your T Time swim a timed 1,000 yards (40 lengths). From that final time you can determine your 100 yard repeat time, by calculating the average pace per 100 yards. From that T Time you can then establish your 100 yd repeat time, and from there you can establish appropriate repetition for all distances.
A favorite set of mine is this and it progressed through the season. Let’s use a T Time of 1:20.
The set begins as 30 X 100 on 2:00 holding a ceiling of 1:20
It then progresses to:
30 X 100 with a ceiling of 1:20.
#1-10 on 1:45
#11-20 on 1:30
# 21-30 on 1:25
And the final set whittles its way down to; 10 X 100 on 1:20 holding a 1:18.
This set teaches pace, teaches pain tolerance, and improves your speed. How I create this set is determined by the distance you are training for.
4. Cool down; my cool down sets are from 200-600 yards. I like to swim slow, but swim the most perfect stroke that I can.
Mixing the drill and main set portion of a workout can always be fun.
5 X 100 on T Time + 5 seconds
4 X 75 50 drill / 25 swim on T time + 10 seconds
repeat X 4
If you have a coach have them or someone who is a “swim expert” watch you swim. The key to having someone critique your stroke is to have that same person be the one who always critique your stroke. My swim coach will get upset if we give each other swim tips. She has a great point as to why; she is the one who sees us swim in practice. We give each other tips and then don’t watch each other swim.
Swimming styles have as much individuality as running and cycling styles. Watching a video of Michael Phelps swim is a great idea, he has a gorgeous stroke, but trying to look exactly like him is impossible…. unless you have a wing span longer than your height too!!!!
Michael Phelps has a Popeye style breathing technique. So do I. My husband does not. Why? Mr. Phelps and I have been swimming forever. Curt has not. So while Curt swims the same speed as me we will look different when we breathe. So Curt trying to look like Michael Phelps when he has never breathed in the same style…. pointless.
Therefore….. Having the same person analyze and critique your stroke is vital, because they would know your background. They know your style of swimming, they see the progression and if the swim tip they give is being executed correctly.
How often should you swim? Again this is individual to you, and what you are training for. If you are a 20 minute 1k swimmer competing in Intermediate Distance or ITU races, it is worth the extra time and frequency in the pool to aim for 18 minutes. In an Ironman you can have a swim over an hour and still win.
Based on those two factors, and see what you can realistically fit in. Think about scheduling a swim camp, perhaps during the fall or the winter when you might be laying low on the running or cycling miles.
The bottom line…. don’t be afraid to take on your swim. If you don’t have access to a Masters swim team, find a reputable coach who has experience in stroke analysis. A good coach will give you one thing to work on for a few months. One who aims to change it all…. turn and run.
Addressing your weakness in the water will add speed to your stroke, if you give it time. It will also ensure you exit the water a little fresher than you would if you could swim the same time on no swim training at all.
It’s all a matter of perspective and having the guts to take the plunge!