Training > Swim

How to maximise your pool time to improve your swim

Specific session goals, regular intervals and shorter efforts are the secrets to an improved swim.

Over the winter, it’s likely that many of you will be planning for next year and, in particular, how you can improve your swim endurance and speed. And that’s how we’re going to help you today – by giving you the sessions and info you need to improve in the pool this winter.

10 of the best pool goggles

All in the planning

The two most fundamental and well-documented issues for swimmers are balance and propulsion. Good balance allows you to swim through the smallest ‘hole’ in the water and therefore minimise resistance. Correct application of force then ensures that you achieve the greatest distance per stroke for your efforts.

However, there is a third significant difference and that is preparation. The majority of triathletes swim alone: they turn up at the pool without a plan or a goal for the session, let alone the season. Swimming like this quickly becomes a chore. There’s no benchmark, no plan, no goal and no purpose for the swim.

I watched a triathlete at the pool recently. She arrived on the poolside, dived in and swam 60 lengths (1,500m). The first length was quite tidy and took about 25secs (25min 1,500m pace) and 19 strokes; by the last 100m she was taking 29 strokes per length and 35secs (35min 1,500m pace). Two things caused her performance to drop: a reduced stroke rate and a reduced stroke length. This box shows just how dramatically a drop in these two things can affect your swim.

So, during this off-season…

Give your sessions a focus

Don’t just turn up at the pool and bash out 60 lengths. That’s the surest way to bore yourself to death. And it’s no use saying that it’s a great way to relax or switch off – that’s not what you’re there for!

Swimming isn’t just about training – it’s about precise practice. Consequently, you should go to the pool with your session printed on a piece of paper. The session should contain details of what strokes/distances you’re going to swim – and how you’re going to swim them; your intended training level; kicks or pulls; and what you are focusing on.

Each session should contain:

A few minutes’ stretching/loosening by the side of the pool.
A warm-up – steady swim of between 200m and 1,000m depending on ability.
Some drills – choose drills to improve your technique, not just the ones you enjoy.
Main set – interval and distance to match required training level.
Cool down – 100-400m of your very best technique, which can include drills as and when required.

We’d also recommend swimming shorter sessions (40-60mins), but more frequently, especially if you haven’t been in the pool for a while or are fairly new to swimming. The shorter session times not only prevent you from getting too tired, but also stop you becoming frustrated if things aren’t going well. Shorter more focused sessions will also be more mentally stimulating than bashing out 60 lengths of ‘garbage yardage’.

It’s also better to keep your interval distances fairly low (25-50m) in the early days. If the distances are too long you’ll become fatigued and more likely to swim with poor technique. It’s far better to keep the distances short and maintain good form, then, as you become more competent at holding form, you can reduce the interval time to achieve the desired training level.

That said, don’t become overly obsessed with swim technique because the frustration can spoil your enjoyment. And anyway, there’s no such thing as a perfect swimmer…

David Davies won an Olympic bronze medal with a 14:45min 1,500m effort, only 2secs behind Grant Hackett and only 1/10th of a second behind Larsen Jensen. However, while Hackett and Jensen averaged 32 strokes per length, Davies averaged over 42, taking an extra 300-plus strokes to cover the same distance… more slowly.

All you have to do is swim 1.5km in under 25mins and you’ll be in the top 10% out of the water every time. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist – just some effort and planning. 

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