How to incorporate skill work into longer endurance sessions

Rather than seeing skill work and training as separate, start to see them both as part of the same process, says top US swim coach Andrew Sheaff. Here's how…

Michael Phelps trains in the pool ahead of the Arena Grand Prix at Charlotte at Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center on May 15, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

When aiming to improve their swim, triathletes face two major challenges. They need to improve their skills so they can swim faster, and they need to improve their fitness so they can sustain their skills while pushing hard for an entire race. 

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It’s simple in theory, yet complicated in practice. The main issue is that solving these two problems requires seemingly opposite approaches.

Improving your skills requires the absence of fatigue so you can focus on learning new ways of moving through the water, whereas improving your fitness requires some measure of fatigue so that your body adapts to the stress.

As a result, most triathletes feel like they have to pick one or the other!

A new framework

The conflict between skills and fitness has been a problem I have wrestled with for a long time. After a lot of failure and a lot of reflection, rather than seeing skill work and training as separate, I started to see them both as part of the same process.

A better way to view your time in the water is that it’s all about training your skills. To me, all technique exercises are sensory exercises. They’re showing you the feeling of a different way of swimming.

You perform the exercise, you feel a difference swimming, and then you aim to carry those same sensations into your regular freestyle swimming, increasing the challenge over time and thus training your skills.

The key idea is to target the skills you want to improve, perform a short series of exercises to help you learn to feel the impact of those skills, then perform some solid training aiming to reinforce those skills.

Periodically, you’ll perform some brief skill work to remind yourself of what you’re working on, then hop right back into the training.

Putting it into practice

Here’s a simple example that illustrates these concepts. Understand that this is just an example, and as I’ll explain below, it can be adapted to your unique situation with little to no effort.

  • 2 x 25m drill
  • 1 x 150m freestyle
  • 2 x 25m drill
  • 2 x 150m freestyle
  • 2 x 25m drill
  • 3 x 150m freestyle
  • 2 x 25m drill
  • 4 x 150m freestyle
  • Take ~10 seconds rest between repetitions

For the drill segment, you can perform any exercises that you want. If you want to improve your arm pulls, you could perform Power Pulls.

If you want to improve your breathing, you could include Paddle Cap Freestyle.

If you want to improve your alignment in the water, you perform Elevator Swim.

The exercise doesn’t matter provided it helps you move closer to your goals.

Likewise, the Freestyle segment can be anything you want, as long as it’s aligned with your goals and your abilities. It can be long and smooth, it can short and fast, or it can be long and fast. It’s up to you.

The main idea is to perform a short segment of skill work, do some solid work, return to some skill work to ‘refresh’ your skills, then back at it.

It’s a simple concept that has nearly infinite flexibility, one you can tailor to your technical goals as well as your current fitness levels.

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Top image credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images