Your triathlon swim training is key to getting you out of the water with energy to spare.
The swim is the first phase of the race, and whilst the duration and distance of the swim may be the shortest of all three disciplines, how you swim impacts on your cycling and running performance.
The shortest swim in main-stream triathlons is in the Sprint Distance (750m). Whilst this is short compared to an Ironman swim (3.86km), this is still a distance that pool swimmers would consider ‘endurance’ swimming!
As such for the majority of beginner triathletes and age-group racers, improving swimming endurance needs to be high on your list of priorities.
Many triathlon swim training programs might cover greater than race distances during the course of training, but often this is at a much higher paces than race pace, with frequent rest.
We firmly believe that to be successful with your triathlon swimming you first need to be comfortable with completing the distance of the swim, before spending time building the speed at which you are able to cover this distance.
The critical variable in endurance triathlon swimming is the speed at which your ‘threshold’ or more specifically your second Lactate Threshold (LT2) occurs. The higher this is the faster you will race!
The best way of identifying this is to use Critical Swimming Speed (CSS). This is basically a test to monitor your aerobic capacity. We will be writing a page explaining more about this and how to work it out as soon as we can!
If you have any questions about your swimming training you can ask us.
The first thing to note is that swimming differs from running and cycling significantly in the effect of technique on performance. In swimming, because the water is so dense any slight deviations in technique have significant effects upon speed.
Therefore triathletes aiming to improve their performance will spend considerably more time on swimming technique practice than working on any technical aspects of running or cycling.
With this in mind triathlon swim training sessions are usually designed to include 3 main sections:
This page focuses on the ‘main-set’, the training part of a triathlon swim training session.
How much or how far is endurance?
How long is a piece of string?
An endurance session is different for everyone. The key is that it should enable you to swim further, or for longer at a given pace. in other words it should improve your endurance.
This uses long repetitions – how long is up to you. You need to swim this at a pace that means you can keep your breathing under control. You might find your arms getting tired, but this will adapt quite quickly.
The intensity should be gauged by how hard your cardiovascular system is finding the swim – hence determining pace by how out of breath you are.
The idea is to use repetitions of a distance that you find challenging but not maximal, interspersed with periods of rest to allow you to repeat this.
So for a triathlete competing in a Sprint race who finds the distance (750m) challenging, your Extensive Endurance triathlon swim training session might look like this:
If this person tried to swim too far or too fast in a single repetition, they would probably fade quite badly and then stroke technique and efficiency would deteriorate badly as well. This is not good because it would mean you end up training with poor technique.
There are a variety of ways of making this session fit each individual. If you find the 200m quite long, then use shorter efforts, with less rest until you build up the muscular endurance in your shoulders. (Check out our page on shoulder stability and strength for exercises to include in your training).
Remember though that you are trying to progress the endurance aspect so the total distance of the main-set must extend beyond your race distance.
For experienced swimmers the principle doesn’t really change. You still need to swim at a steady aerobic pace. You still need to go further than race distance. However you might choose to extend much further, so the session above might become:
Ideally you are aiming to include longer and longer repetitions with less and less recovery.
When you are able to maintain that steady controlled breathing for 1.5 – 2 times your race distance on a regular basis, you have begun to develop a good endurance capacity for your speed……now all you need to do is go faster!!
This type of endurance is around the intensity at which beginner triathletes might swim their Sprint Distance Triathlon, or the intensity at which more experienced/stronger swimmers might do an Olympic or even a Long Distance triathlon (although this would require exceptional levels of fitness). It is quite hard, but not really flat out…it is uncomfortably comfortable!
So the intensity and feeling you need to elicit in these sessions is similar to racing over the shorter distances. Breathing should still be under control, but now it’s a bit more of an effort.
Developing greater endurance at this pace and intensity will help you to exit the water and transition on to the bike much better, and will help the latter stages of the swim.
For a Sprint Distance moderate swimmer these sessions might start out something like this:
As you become more proficient at this it could develop to as much as:
It would require a significant amount of training to progress this far, but for more advanced swimmers this is a reasonable progression.
A similar session that provides more emphasis on muscular endurance and strength and is also more relevant to the longer races is to increase the length of the repetition, so:
Again these can been seen as progressions, to help with building muscular endurance as well as cardiovascular endurance at this intensity.
The intensity is hard. It would correspond to an experienced, strong swimmer racing the Sprint distance or an Elite drafting triathlete doing an Olympic distance race. In a drafting race, due to tactical considerations the majority of the field swim exceptionally hard and are very well trained to deal with this. For someone less well trained it is not the best strategy to set a fast time overall!
To improve the duration you can sustain above your CSS, you need to be able to swim at a faster pace, and have short rest intervals to allow you to complete a greater total distance than you would otherwise be able to at this pace.
So a session might look like this:
This could develop into 2 sets of a similar session, initially starting with a slightly lower number of repetitions:
This is a VERY HARD session that you need to be technically very competent to get the most out of. Otherwise you will find that under fatigue your stroke technique goes and you will be working very hard but missing the times by quite a margin.
The early part of the session will feel OK, because you are swimming quite a short distance, and having with a good rest. By the time you get to midway you should find that the 20 seconds recovery is only just enough to get your breathing back under control. And by the end you will be gasping for breath as you start the last few reps, and the recovery will be essential!
The purpose of triathlon swim training for endurance is make you able to go further at a set pace. You will probably gain some speed from these sessions but that is not the primary objective.
The key reasons for doing endurance training are:
Extensive EnduranceThis is your basic aerobic steady swimming, longer distances developing fatigue resistance.
Intensity is: Steady, breathing is under control and not rushed or forced. CSS minus 5 – 10s per 100m depending upon how far you are swimming.
Intermediate Endurance This is your solid, uncomfortably comfortable endurance pace, similar to the intensity for race distances over Sprint for weaker swimmers, Olympic for moderate swimmers, and as much as Long Distance for Elite swimmers.
Intensity: Uncomfortably comfortable or CSS.
Intensive Endurance This is not for the weaker or less experienced swimmer. It could be considered your longer time-trial in your CSS assessment. Not a session type you want to do too often.
If you have any questions about your swimming training then please ask us!
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