Distance Swimming Made Easy ... and Smart
by Terry Laughlin
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How cleverness can sometimes beat mileage and talent in distance swimming.
Long, grueling workouts and tedious miles of repeats have always been the accepted prescription for distance-swimming success. But while itís true that long-haul swimmers need to train more than those fortunate to be have been born with lots of fast-twitch muscle, cleverness counts for more than unimaginative and generic bulk yardage. Just because you may not have the training time or aerobic capacity of Olympic champions Grant Hackett or Brooke Bennett doesnít mean you canít set and achieve challenging goals in longer races. Smarter training can be a great equalizer, allowing those with modest natural endurance or training time to beat those with more aerobic capacity, but less economical strokes or race plans.
Iíve favored the clever approach, over sheer mileage both to train myself for moderate success in Masters distance and open water swimming (2nd place at U.S. Masters Nationals on two occasions) and to guide several elite distance swimmers to far faster times. Rather than simply cramming in as much yardage as the available training time would allow, my preference has been to train for endurance and economy at the same time in a seamless blend.
Sprinters need stroke efficiency because they swim faster. The faster you go, the more powerfully drag resists you and a "slippery" sprinter can go faster with a lot less power than one who just muscles their way. Distance swimmers need to be efficient because they swim farther. No matter how many yards or hours you train, you still have only a limited number of heartbeats and calories to spend during the race and a more efficient swimmer can go much farther and faster on that limited energy supply, an obvious advantage in a long race. Here are some tips on swimming better distance by training for economy and endurance.
The more efficient your stroke, the less energy you expend to swim any distance. Take me as an example: In college, I couldnít swim a slow 25 yards in fewer than 15 strokes. At race pace, my count increased to about 24 strokes per length, so it took me over 1600 strokes to finish a 1650-yard race. By age 50, my lowest 25-yard stroke count (at very slow speeds) had improved to 9, while I was able to swim at race pace in about 14 strokes per length, or about 925 total strokes for a 1650, the equivalent of "saving" myself nearly 700 yards of swimming. That increase in efficiency was the main reason my pace slowed only 9 percent in 30 years.
In really long swims, stroke efficiency can provide some astonishing savings. Don Walsh, a 54-year old marathon swimmer and Total Immersion coach, adopted the TI approach while training for his first 28.5-mile Manhattan Island Marathon. After taking a TI workshop in the fall of 1995, he learned to swim with such great efficiency that he averaged just 10 strokes per 25 yards in training, compared to 15 to 16 strokes per length previously. When he swam the race in 1996, finishing in 9 hours, he maintained a stroke rate of 50 strokes per minute. All his peers (those swimming around the same pace) averaged 72 or more strokes per minute, as monitored by Donís boat crew. Over nine hours, Donís 50 strokes per minute totaled 27,000 strokes, while his rivals took at least 41,000 strokes. With his savings of 14,000 strokes, Don could have gone halfway around Manhattan again! "I never felt tired," he recalls, "and if someone had said at the finish that I missed a lap and had to go around again, I wouldíve had no problem doing it."
The fastest way to improve your efficiency is with TI drills that teach you better balance and more "slippery" positions, reducing drag and increasing stroke length and by making fluent stroking a habit to create fewer waves and less turbulence. Then make it a habit to monitor your efficiency by constantly counting your strokes in practice repeats.
Learn to cruise.
As I write this, Iím training to do a marathon swim this summer. I havenít chosen the race yet, but Iím aiming to complete a swim of at least 20 miles. My longest previous swim was a 9-miler across Long Island Sound from Greenwich CT to Oyster Bay NY when I was 21. To prepare, Iíve increased my weekly yardage from about 14,000 to 24,000 yards, but Iím doing 90 percent of it at 65% to 75% effort level and only about 800 yards of "fast" swimming per week Ė mainly some quick 25s and 50s -- to avoid falling into a slow-pace rut. And to ensure that I swim my marathon the way Don Walsh did, Iím focusing on ease, relaxation and economy on EVERY yard.To train effectively for distance races, you need to balance volume against intensity to manage the demands training places on your body. When you increase the volume of your training (both the weekly yardage total and the distance of repeats or sets), you have to compensate by reducing the intensity. This means your training will be more extensive than intensive. Moderate intensity works best for building your fitness base. Itís also best for developing habits of stroke length and fluency (the absence of struggle.)
Good distance swimmers succeed not because they swim very fast, but because they can maintain a moderately fast pace tirelessly for a long time. That comes from learning to swim consistent practice paces, both within sets and over the course of weeks of training. Training at a lower heart rate makes it much easier to maintain consistency than more intensive training. Learning to swim at the same easy pace for a prolonged time allows you to lay down a solid aerobic foundation and turn efficiency and consistent pacing into habits.
Swim fast easily.
The secret to distance success is not how fast you go, but how easily you go fast. First you have to learn to swim any pace with greater ease and economy. An example: To swim 1500 meters in 20 minutes, you need to average 1:20 for 15 consecutive 100-meter repeats with no rest. If you start at 1:10 and get a bit slower on each successive 100, you might stagger home in about 1:30 on the last 100. Or...you might swim the first 100 in just under 1:20 and hold 1:20 for the next 14, making the second half of the race a far more pleasant experience and increasing your motivation to do more of them. The first 1:20 might feel stunningly easy, but as fatigue gradually increases with each subsequent 100, it gets harder and harder to hold the same pace. The more easily and economically you can hold that 1:20 pace, the easier it is to maintain it as you get more tired. How to do this? Instead of only doing descending sets of repeats in training, always working on going harder and harder, you should also practice economy by swimming an extended set of repeats and creatively seeking ways to make the pace feel easier as you go along.
If you watch the best distance swimmers, youíll notice that they maintain a metronomic rhythm unceasingly lap after lap. You, too, can learn to replace effort with rhythm for easy speed. But donít try to do it with your arms. Instead, focus on the rhythm of your torso, swimming with your body, instead of with your arms and legs. When you want to swim faster, do it by moving faster in the core. When you use your core as your "rhythm center," youíll also feel less tired, since core muscles tire much less quickly than do your arm and shoulder muscles.
Make economy a habit.
Tirelessly practice the ability to keep your technique impeccable, no matter what distance you swim. If your stroke deteriorates over the course of a longer swim, youíre going to exhaust yourself faster and waste more of your dwindling energy with each meter you swim. And if your stroke deteriorates during practice repeats, muscle memory will ensure that the same thing happens when you race. So learn to say no to struggle, roughness or inefficiency. If you feel your stroke getting rough, itís time to stop the set or go a bit slower. Refuse to "practice struggle" by learning to be smooth and fluent and patiently increasing the distance you can swim fluently. Only go farther or faster in training as you develop the ability to do so fluently.
If your stroke is imbalanced or asymmetrical, youíll end up with sore or tight muscles as they bear more than their share of the load over a long swim. A common cause is breathing only to one side. A simple fix is bilateral breathing. It helps make your stroke more even and reduces the chances of localized muscle tightness, because it distributes the workload more equitably in training and racing. Bilateral breathing doesnít mean you have to breathe every third stroke and risk running out of air. You can breathe every stroke cycle by breathing to one side on one lap and to the other on the next. Or breathe to your less natural side in the first half of repeats or longer swims, shifting to your natural side in the second half. Or anything in between. Just aim to breathe as often on your right side as on your left, however you choose to distribute it.
Maintain your fitness.
You can prepare for an important raceóeven one as long as 5K (3.1 miles)ówith only 12 weeks of intensive, focused training, if youíre already in good basic condition at the beginning of that period. And you can accommodate two such periods of intensive preparation per year for a total of 24 out of 52 weeks. What about the other 28 weeks? Simply train at 60 to 75 percent of the volume you maintain during the intensive preparation phases. And complement your basic fitness training through cross-training. My cross-training includes rowing and cycling in the warmer months, hiking and rock scrambling in fall and cross-country skiing in winter, plus yoga year round. All help maintain basic fitness and keep me fresher mentally than if I did nothing but swim. And when I begin a phase of more-intensive swimming, my body is ready for the increased demands of harder training. And what to do in the pool during maintenance training? The lower intensity and volume are the perfect opportunity to increase your efficiency and Stroke Length still farther and to work on improving your other strokes.
Sharpen your edge.
As you shift into higher gear for a specific raceóor racing season (such as the open water season which lasts six to ten weeks in the summer) you need to do two things: convert your training fitness into racing fitness and work on racing strategies and pacing ability. These approaches have proven effective:
Keep it short.
Rely more on repeats of 200 meters and less. Itís one of the best ways to train effectively for longer races. Because you can hold a much faster average pace for, say, 15 x 100-meter repeats than for a straight 1500 meters, you train your muscles and energy systems to do what it takes to move your body at faster speeds for that distance. You also get less fatigued than if you tried to swim the same pace in longer repeats, helping you maintain consistency in your training. Finally, itís much easier to maintain good Stroke Length (and train efficiency into your muscle memory) on shorter repeats.
Clock in your head.
Hone your sense of pace in practice so you can predict what the pace clock will read on each repeat. Sharpen your sense of pace to the point where you know just how hard to push the throttle to drop your time by one second on each of 10 successive 100-yard repeatsóeven without looking at the clock. You should be able to judge your effort so precisely that you donít lose steam a nanosecond too soon. This comes from paying close attention to the pace clock and your perceived effort. Once you learn to swim at the optimal pace, youíll avoid the most common distance-swimming mistake of blowing the race by overswimming the early part. Just one 100 swum too hard at the beginning of a 1500 can be disastrous for the next 14.
Plan your pace.
Learn to split your races evenly or negatively. This means swimming the final 400 meters of an 800-meter race faster than the opening 400 (negative split) or swimming the final 500 of a 1500 as fast as the first 500 (even split). There are two advantages to this strategy. You donít go into oxygen debt until the end of a long race because youíve swum well within yourself during the first half, which also makes it easier to maintain your Stroke Length and fluency through the entire race. And you get to watch less prudent swimmers go out fast then fall apart later as fatigue and oxygen debt hit. You wonít even have to chase them. Just keep swimming at the same pace and theyíll come back to you. Picking off rivals, almost effortlessly, one after the other, and feeling completely in control, makes any race more fun.
But youíll have to pay your dues first. Pacing is a skill that must be developed and practiced thoughtfully and diligently. Try a set of 5 x 200 with the 200s descending (each one faster than the one before) and each individual 200 even or negative split. By continually practicing the art of going slightly faster and delicately balancing speed against effort to be able to descend any set or negative-split any swim, youíre also developing an acute pacing sense that will become steadily more acute and ultimately become second-nature on race day. If, during warm-up for the race, you can effortlessly swim several 100-yard repeats, each exactly at the pace you project for the bulk of the race, youíre ready to swim unerring pace in the race itself.
Holding a pace is all well and good, but what if youíd like to make that pace faster? There are three ways to do that without killing yourself: longer rest, shorter repeats, or speedplay. Australian swimmers, who have dominated mensí distance swimming for most of the last decade, use longer rest. Their workouts include a heavy diet of swim sets in which rest time equals swim timeó100-meter repeats, holding a minute or faster on a 2:00 interval, for example. If you want to swim 1500 meters in 20 minutes, but canít hold a 1:20 pace for 100-meter repeats on an interval of 1:40, try doing it on an interval of perhaps 2:30, leaving yourself more recovery between repeats. Once you can hold that 1:20 pace, gradually reduce your rest until you find the minimum rest on which you can hold the pace. If you canít hold a pace of 1:20 for 100-meter repeats, try shorter repeats. Learn to acclimate to that pace with 50-meter repeats at 40 seconds or 75-meter repeats at 60 seconds until your body gets strong enough to hold that pace in 100-meter repeats. Or you can try speedplay (also known as Fartlek), alternating race-pace repeats with slower recovery repeats. Swim 10 x 100-meter repeats at race pace, alternating with an easy 50 meters. If you still canít hit the 1:20 pace, then increase your recovery swim to 100-meters. And you should definitely swim your recovery repeats at lower stroke counts than the faster repeats. That way you recover efficiency at the same time as you recover physiologically.
You can never control what the person in the next lane does in a race. Often, you canít even control how fast you swim; some days your body is just a bit less ready for a fast swim. The only aspect of racing you can always control is how intelligently you pace yourself and split the race. And the better you do that, the better you will swim, no matter how you may feel on a given day. The best way to race smarter is to almost ignore the competition for the first quarter of the race, focusing only on "grooving" a smooth and fluent stroke and rhythm that you are certain you can maintain for as long as necessary and build on in the second half. As you pick up the pace, never add anything in rate or effort that you canít maintain or take higher at some later point in the race.
Racing like this is a skill that must be practiced and developed as well. There are two ways to do so. One is to do timed race-rehearsal efforts (half or full race distance) from a dive start in practice in which you practice negative splitting. The other is to swim developmental or "rehearsal-type" races, early in your distance-swimming career and early in any given season, in which your sole goal is to swim the second half faster than the first half. Your first efforts may not be completely successful, either because you went slower at the end, or because you swam too fast at the end after starting too conservatively and having too much left over. But with practice you should steadily improve your pacing until you can consistently swim the second half of any distance race just a bit (one second or less) faster than the first half. Learn to "race yourself" before you worry about racing someone else.
Iíve heard distance swimmers say that fast turns are only important to sprinters. But a slow turn in a sprint race will only hurt you once or twice. Bad turns in a 1650-yard free could hurt you 65 times! Fast turns won the Olympic gold medal in the 1500 in Sydney. According to race analysis on NBCís website, Kieran Perkins was the fastest swimmer in the race (measuring velocity while stroking), but he lost the race to Grant Hackett, who was sufficiently faster on each of 29 turns to not only wipe out Perkinsí speed advantage, but to forge a comfortable five-second margin for himself. Consider how it must have felt to Perkins to work hard for 50-meters trying to catch Hackett each lap, only to have Hackett leave him behind again on each turn. Because distance swimmers do more yardage than other swimmers, they also have more opportunities to practice turns. Every turn you do in training is "turn practice." The choice is yours; you can practice winning turns, as Hackett did, or losing turns.
This article has been adapted by Terry Laughlin from his book, Triathlon Swimming Made Easy: How ANYONE can succeed in triathlon (or open-water swimming) with Total Immersion.