Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Benchmarking Your Swimming

Because our competitive event is so long (even a sprint tri is over an hour for most of us), triathlon swimming is different than fitness swimming.

First up, I think a common misconception about the swim leg is pacing. What’s optimal pacing? My recommendation would be a pace that you can build from for the bike, and then build again for the run.

So consider what your best-case heart rate average is for the run… then knock off 20 bpm for a reasonable swim benchmark.

You will be amazed at the performance benefit from being able to lift effort across an entire triathlon.

To get the best bang for your swimming buck, I recommend that you focus on the following milestones:

#1 – the ability to swim your race distance in a single workout
#2 – the ability to swim your race distance in a single workout using three-stroke breathing
#3 – the ability to swim your race distance continuously using three-stroke breathing

Why three-stroke breathing?
When we learn to swim, we have two speeds “on” and “off”. The quickest way to learn relaxation, a proper breathing pattern and a balanced stroke is to use three-stroke breathing. I would also recommend that you get yourself videotaped – even if you don’t review with an expert, you can learn quite a bit from watching yourself and comparing to your goal technique.

Once you have mastered the ability to swim your race distance comfortably, and continuously, it is time to develop the ability to change speed while swimming. While the bike and the run are mostly individual time trials, an open water swim is the aqua equivalent of a road race – drafting, pace changes, group tactics.

The first step of being able to tolerate pace changes is learning how different paces feel. A lack of pace perception is a common limiter for triathlon swimmers – most masters swimmers go-til-they-blow, daily.

There is a smarter way to train!

Here’s your first test set:
• take your race distance;
• divide by 5;
• swim each interval on 10s rest; and
• swim each interval faster.

Specifically, in meters:
• Sprint Distance – 5x150 on 10s rest
• Olympic Distance – 5x300 on 10s rest
• Half IM Distance – 5x400 on 10s rest
• IM Distance – 5x800 on 10s rest

You will learn a tremendous amount from being able to swim these sessions well. Aim to swim your final interval at least 10s per 100 faster than the first interval. If you can develop a comfortable range of 15s per 100 then that would be even better.

If you have access to a heart rate monitor then track your average/max heart rate for each interval as well as the entire session. After you complete the main set, analyze how much faster you had to work for the gain in speed you achieved.

An even more enlightening main set is to use open water and swim five continuous loops – tracking the average/max heart rate data can be incredibly enlightening. If you struggle to believe the benefits of moderate swim pacing then the open water test set is a great way to check if your hard effort is buying you any race speed. You’ll likely be surprised at how many heartbeats you save from backing off 1-2s per 100. Those heartbeats can buy a lot of run speed!

Why long intervals?
I am a big fan of longer intervals for endurance swimming as well as aerobic benchmarking. If you think about triathlon swimming, it is one component of a 1- to 17-hour time trial. As a result, you will not get a clear indication of triathlon-specific swim fitness from sets that involve short intervals, or long rest.

Time Trials
Once you have learned to change speed during a set, and finish your sets strongly… it is time to learn how to do that across your entire race distance.

Long swim TTs strike terror into the hearts of triathletes. I have seen elite ironman athletes leave the pool crying rather than swim a 3K TT. Imagine how these athletes must feel on race day.

The benefits of long TTs are as much mental, as physical. If you can conquer the long swim TT then it will help all aspects of your racing. My two favorites follow:

1,500 use this pacing strategy:
• 100 Easy, 100 Steady, 100 Mod-hard, 150 Fast, 50 Steady

• 100 Mod-hard, 250 Fast, 50 Steady
• 250 Fast, 50 Steady

• 150 Fast, 50 Steady

• 100 Fast

Note your average pace per 100.
3s per 100 slower than your average pace is a reasonable estimate of your Mod-Hard pace.

2,000 use this pacing strategy:
• 100 Easy, 100 Steady, 100 Mod-hard, 200 Fast, 100 Steady

• 100 Mod-hard, 300 Fast, 100 Steady

• 300 Fast, 100 Steady

• 200 Fast, 100 Steady

• 200 Fast

Note your average pace per 100.
2s per 100 slower than your average pace is a reasonable estimate of your Mod-hard pace – swims like this help you benchmark true effort early in a workout (or race).

While it is tempting to think that you’ll be faster if you take-it-out early in the swim, remember that part of what we want to train is your ability to change speed during a long swim (specific to the demands of your race). So the pacing strategies are designed to train a specific, and important, aspect of your swim physiology.

What about the start?
The final component for your swim benchmarking is to learn how to tolerate a quick start and finish strong.

For all distances, my preferred test set is 5x400 (meters) or 5x500 (yards)

• #1 and #5 are Fast on 30s rest

• #2 and #4 are Mod-hard on 20s rest

• #3 is Steady on 10s rest

See if you can adjust your effort and pace so all the swims are on the same total send-off (swim time plus rest time). Aim to have #5 faster than #1 as well as #4 faster than #2.

The overall idea is to go fast at the start, but not so fast that you blow to bits and can’t lift your pace at the end. This will help you navigate between a smart, and a suicidal, start in your triathlon.

Happy Laps,

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