Tips & Advice

Improve your performance: 7 swims in 7 days

Through my job as triathlon swim coach I get to spend a lot of time overseas at training camps with triathletes who, away from the distractions of everyday life, are able to train every day. This allows me to observe the massive swim improvements quickly made by spending time in the water each day – sometimes twice a day, sometimes three times, if you count two pool swims and the early morning wake-up sea swim that often takes place. I also make use of dry land and other techniques to accelerate learning.

This article is more about the frequency of training, rather than the volume. Greater frequency of getting in the water should not necessarily equal more volume.

Breaking through your swim plateau

Reached a plateau with your swimming? Daily swim training could provide the momentum you need to break out. And even good swimmers can benefit from a little more time in the water. Christine Lutsch, a 2011 World Aquathlon Champion, dropped her 400m PB from 5:49-minutes to 5:30 at the end of last year’s training camp in Italy, after seven straight days in the water. And more gains are available if you’re starting from a less advanced position.

Dr Chris George dropped from 9:15-minutes to 7:34. For a 65-year-old ex-international oarsman-turned-triathlete this was a remarkable achievement given that biking and running were taking place as well, so the fatigue factor was building throughout our week.

Making it work at home

Clearly commitment and habit are a lot easier to create and maintain at a training camp, when all you need to do is walk downstairs to the pool from your hotel room (knowing breakfast will be served once you’re finished). However, even if your schedule only allows four sessions a week, this improved familiarity with the water will allow improvements to take shape.

Improving your feel for the water

A swimmer’s feel for the water is an unnatural phenomenon that develops as frequency in the pool increases. Feeling and holding water is essential to improving the distance swum with every stroke. Making the water feel more solid is your ultimate aim here, and it will not happen swimming once a week.

Improving your training efficiency

The frequency we’re looking for generates less time between swim sessions, preventing bad habits from creeping back. You waste less time getting back up to speed in the first 30-minutes of training, as the skills and swim technique that you acquired in the previous session will be present when you get back in the pool. Plus, hit the water with the familiar sensations of feeling good in the water from just 24-48 hours previously and you’ll start the next session more positively (a psychological ‘win’).

Putting a schedule together

There’s no point just turning up to the pool and swimming aimlessly each day. You need to focus on areas that are going to help, such as the following:

  • A check of current ability to gauge and measure progress. I would suggest at least a 400m freestyle time trial – any less and you’re relying on improvements to pure swim speed, which is a much longer-term goal. Minimising drag through better technique is a far more instantly rewarded improvement to longer swims. Swimming fast for shorter distances can be achieved through improvements to power and strength, but rarely do they carry over into your longer swims.
  • Technique sessions – these should work as a reminder of what it is that’s slowing you or exhausting you. How to recognise drag should be a key session. Deliberately over-exaggerating bad technique can also help you recognise ineffective movements in your full stroke.
  • Some fitness work should be included, since you’ll want to put the improvements under some stress.
  • Technical endurance is beneficial since it allows another fitness block, this time with good technique pointers punctuating the otherwise continuous nature of a long steady swim (where technique often escapes us as the mind drifts).

Your seven days in the pool

Think about the following schedule for your seven days of swimming, if you can commit to it.

1. Test & technique. Include at least a 400m time trial (TT) and leg/kick work – usually a triathlete’s worst enemy as it creates the most drag.

2. Pure Technique. This session is about recognising a streamlined body position and maintaining minimal drag. Learn to channel water in a direction that’s beneficial to forwards momentum.

3. Fitness. Elevate your heart rate for at least 30 minutes – maintaining a breathing pattern of 3 could be enough to do this. Bilateral breathing will help with stroke symmetry.

4 Pure technique. Focus on body positioning with effective upper body rotation driven from the legs. Keep the head still when not breathing (another key issue that can slow progress and interrupt a streamlined shape).

5. Fitness. Aim to go over race distance in some capacity, or to match it. Our broken race distance swims are always popular: 3x200m then rest 30 seconds, 5x100m then rest 20 seconds, 8x50m then rest 10 seconds for a total of up to 1500m.

6. Endurance technique. Punctuate a long, steady swim with technique pointers between lengths, at the wall and off the wall for just a few metres before completing the length full stroke (without using a pullbuoy).

7. Fitness & test. A challenging main set of 50m freestyle then rest 10 seconds, 100m then rest 10 seconds, 150m then rest 10 seconds etc, up to 400m. I would not be surprised if this final 400m is equal to or better than day one’s 400m time trial.

If exhausted you could isolate the time trial with more rest or a swim-down after the 350m.


Keeping the momentum and seeing results

Swimming seven days straight is obviously unsustainable week after week, but having found the time for seven swims, getting four swims in regularly each week will hopefully be manageable.  For Dr Chris, who reduced his 400m time by two minutes, this suggests he’s going to be at least five minutes quicker over 1500m this summer. That puts him into a position on the bike where he will ride with stronger cyclists, rather than work hard to catch them up. The ride might now be even easier, allowing a stronger run.

In fact, allow me to let Per Cunningham, who swam with us for the week at Club La Santa back in January, have the last word on the benefits of upping your swim frequency, having qualified for Kona at Ironman Texas:

“I felt a much more comfortable swimmer in the build-up, and I never seemed to be gasping for air or spiking the heart rate like I used to. Compared to my last Ironman, I moved up from the first 13.4% in my age-group swim to 8.9%. I think I burned much less energy in the swim than previously and fatigued the back and shoulders much less too, helping set me up for a strong finish much later in the day.”

Missed last week? Dan Bullock gives his top tips on how to swim faster on race day here.

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