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.

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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.

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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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Before cracking on with your winter training it’s imperative you establish your current swim level, both technically and physically. Swim fitness is a little different than general fitness. Fitness is often fairly specific to the task and this is especially true of swimming.

You might be able to run a sub-3hr marathon and/or go under the hour for 25 miles on a bike, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be exhausted after 50m in the pool. Use the following test to see where you are right now:

Swim for 15mins. You can use any stroke or mix of strokes – you can even change during the length. You may rest at the end of a length if you wish but the clock keeps ticking.

Count how many strokes you take on every fourth length and take the average.

After 15mins, complete the length you’re on (even if you’ve just started a new one) and note the time – for example 15:18mins. Also, record how far you’ve swum.

Take your heart rate as soon as possible, either with a heart rate monitor or with two fingers on your carotid artery in your neck.

In a table format, write the eight column headers that follow and fill in the details: date, total time swum, distance covered, heart rate, average 100m pace, average stroke count per length, lowest stroke count, highest stroke count.

As you become more competent, increase the time to 20, 25, 30 or 60mins (the latter for Ironman events).

You should re-test every two to three weeks to gauge your progress.

Key aerobic session

Once you’ve found your level of swim proficiency, you can move into your off-season training. Now, there are a myriad of wonderful sessions out there, but core to your winter training plan should be a variation of the example below.

The distances, interval times and training level can be adjusted to your standard but, for the purposes of this feature, we’ve created an aerobic session based on a 30min 1,500m swimmer (2mins per 100m/30secs per 25m length):

Poolside warm-up/loosening (2-5mins): pay particular attention to shoulders and ankles.

Water warm-up (6-12mins: 200-600m): include backstroke if you can to open your chest. Keep your heart rate low and try to find your ‘feel’ for the water. Avoid breaststroke in the warm-up if at all possible because of the strain on the medial ligaments in your knees.

Drills (5-10mins): focus on how the movement will integrate into your stroke and try to perform them with a similar rhythm.

Main set (30-40mins): 40 x 25m freestyle on 45secs (see Jargon Buster), heart rate (HR) @ 30-40 beats below maximum (BBM). Aim to hold a pace of 27secs per length (110% of race pace) and a stroke count of +/- 2 of the count on your first length. Focus one of the four aspects of your technique per length and rotate through the four for the 40 lengths. For example, length one – head position; length two – high elbows underwater; length three – arm recovery; length four – timing of breath.

Cool down (3–5mins)

Total session time 46-72mins

Note: more advanced swimmers can increase the distance to 20 x 50m; 10 x 100m; 5 x 200m; 2 x 500m; or a pyramid of 12 x 25m then 6 x 50m then 3 x 100m and finish with 4 x 25m.

You can also change the level you work at – see the ‘Training this winter box’ below – by reducing the ‘on time’ (in this case, 45secs) and, therefore, the rest. Alternatively, you can up the distance swam between rests. Either way, it’s heart rate that dictates the level you work at. For instance, to train at your anaerobic threshold, maintain a HR of 20-30 BBM. To do this you may have to lower the interval from 45 to 40secs.

Ideally you should swim a minimum of three times a week, though we wouldn’t discourage more. We know it can be difficult to get out for more than two but squeezing in that extra session will really pay off in the long run. 

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As well as improving technique and fitness, there are many gadgets available that can help improve your swimming. Here are three that, from experience, will serve you well (all available from www.mailsports.co.uk and other reputable swim retailers).

Front-mounted snorkel by Finis. Your swim stroke/rhythm/timing should be led by your arm movement and its cadence. It should be smooth, regular and uninterrupted. Unfortunately everyone needs to breathe and this, in 99% of cases, causes an imbalance in the stroke. As a consequence most adult swimmers never find their flow or rhythm. A snorkel will allow you to swim endless laps of smooth, uninterrupted freestyle. Be patient though, as they take a little getting used to.

Tempo Trainer by Finis. This is a waterproof metronome that clips to the side of your goggles and is invaluable for learning how to pace yourself. Many triathletes lose time during the swim because their cadence and/or stroke length drops.

Fist gloves by Better Times. Swimming with fists has been around for years. The idea is that, without your hands, you have to keep your elbows up during the underwater phase of the stroke or you won’t go anywhere. Swim a few hundred metres with them on and you’ll be amazed at your increased ‘feel’ for the water when they come off.

Further research

Good resources are hard to find in swimming and it can be very much a matter of opinion, but in reality not a great deal has changed since Doc Counsilman wrote The Science of Swimming back in the late ’60s.

Unfortunately, though, much of what is written is aimed at coaches and/or competitive swimmers who are looking to shave 1/10th of a second off 100m freestyle when they’re already swimming it under 50secs. The most important thing to remember is that fast swimming is about minimising resistance first then maximising propulsion.

However, for the technically-minded with time on their hands, you could try Ernie Maglishco’s Swimming Fastest – all 791 pages of it. It’s a weighty read and a fairly heavy price at around £40. Maglischco has been a coach for over 40 years and has a PhD in exercise physiology. More applicable for most triathletes is Fitness Swimming by Emmett Hines, which at around £12 will give you all the info you need on technique and ideas for programmes.

There are also several websites that are worth checking out: www.swiminfo.com is a huge site, although it’s mainly aimed at competitive swimmers. Swim scientist Rein Haljand’s website www.swim.ee has lots of good video clips of the world’s best swimmers. Note: when watching videos of great swimmers, don’t try to copy them. Instead, observe the similarities between them and swim within those parameters. 

Conclusion

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All this takes time and effort, but that’s what it takes to improve your swim. Slip in an extra session at lunch or before work if you can. And remember: making each session specific will pay dividends.