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Swim Faster: 3 Keys to Your Next Swim PR

By Chris Kaplanis

swimmerIf you’ve been a swimmer your entire life, you can stop reading here. However, if you’re like the vast majority of triathletes, swimming is where you struggle the most. Let’s face it, humans are land animals. Swimming proficiently does not come easy, but rest assured there is hope. The offseason is an excellent time of the year to improve upon your weakness in the water and start swimming faster. Instead of ignoring your swim skills (or lack thereof), it’s time to face them head on with three simple keys toward your next swim PR.

1. Get a Swim Coach (or a friend)
Needless to say, swimming is highly technique intensive. Learning proper form and or revisiting your swim technique will go a long way. If your legs are dragging behind you or your breathing isn’t in sync, you’ll pay the price by moving slower and feeling completely out of breath. Do yourself a huge favor and find an experienced swim coach. Better yet, find a coach who is experienced in working with triathletes and has worked with others with a similar ability to you. Your swim coach will be able to evaluate your stroke and should offer specific drills and suggestions to improve. It is recommended that you plan to see your swim coach two or three times over a few weeks so you have time to practice in between. This way you’ll be able to progress further and continue to build upon what you covered in your first session.

Many swim coaches will offer video analysis if you ask. Whether it’s done underwater or solely from the pool deck, there is nothing more valuable than seeing your swim stroke on tape. Frequently, when working with athletes in the water, allowing the person to see themselves enables faster progression and brings about awareness to small annoying technique flaws they didn’t realize they are doing.

Are you on a tight budget? If hiring a swim coach is not in your cards, consider asking a friend or training partner to tape you. Try using a smartphone or a similar device. This way you can use the video to help identify and correct your own technique flaws. Finding drills online to improve your shortcomings is easy with a simple Google search.

Tip: You may want to consider finding a swim coach who is not necessarily a lifetime swimmer or Olympic gold medalist. Sometimes athletes find it easier to relate to and learn from someone who once struggled in a similar manner.

2. Swim with a Purpose
Jumping in the pool and swimming endlessly for an hour is a waste of time. If there is no purpose to your workout or swim routine then how do you expect to improve? Each time you swim, it is important to always begin with a warm-up and end with a cooldown. This is nonnegotiable. Your warm-up and cooldown are also a good time to drill and work on technique. The next part of your workout is commonly referred to as the main set. This will vary based upon the purpose of the particular workout and the phase in your training cycle. Generally speaking, you will have easy, moderate/tempo and hard/interval days. Each serves a different purpose, but collectively all of them will put you on the fast track to your next swim PR. Below is an example for each type of swim.

EASY - “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” –Vince Lombardi

Warm-up: 10x50 [25 swim, 25 drill] (10 seconds rest after each 50)
Main Set: Swim easy 300 / 400 / 500 / 600 (20 seconds rest after each) – Focus on PERFECT form
Cooldown: 4x75 [1 & 3 drill, 2 & 4 swim] (10 seconds rest after each)
TOTAL: 2,600

Forcing yourself to swim slowly, will help promote good form and proper technique. Maintain focus during these sets and don’t let your mind wander.

Tip: Easy should be at least 10 seconds slower than your race pace.

TEMPO – “The pain of discipline is far less than the pain of regret." - Sarah Bombell (Swimmer)

Warm-up: 2x[200 swim, 100 drill, 100 kick] (10 seconds rest after each)
Main Set: 2x[100 / 200 / 300] swim at race pace (20 seconds rest after each)
Cooldown: 4x100 [50 drill, 50 swim] (10 seconds rest after each 100)
TOTAL: 2,400 

Tip: Race pace can be determined by doing a 500-yard or 1,000-yard time trial (TT) and taking your average 100-yard pace. You should swim as hard as you can for the duration of the TT effort. It’s a good idea to do a swim TT every five to seven weeks in order to adjust your target pace as you progress.

HARD – “No Pain, No Gain!”

Warm-up: 200 swim, 2x[50 drill (:15), 50 kick (:15), 50 drill (:15)], 200 swim
Main Set: 3x100 (rest*), 6x50 (rest), 12x25 (rest)
Cooldown: 8x50 [25 drill, 25 EZ] (10 seconds rest after each 50)
TOTAL: 2,000 

Tip: Hard means HARD. This should be noticeably faster than race pace. *Your rest time should be equal to the amount of time it takes to complete the distance you are swimming. (i.e. if you swim 50 yards in 45 seconds, rest for 45 seconds following those 50 yards)

3. Frequency is Key
Technique can be improved and proper workouts are easy to design, but unless you’re getting in the water regularly, you will not improve. It is impossible to get better at anything if you do not practice. If you are looking to better your swimming ability one or two times a week will not cut it. Three times a week is OK, but you’ll really start to see gains when you’re in the water four or five times each week.

It is not necessarily important to swim for 75-90 minutes each time. Although more time and more yardage in the pool will certainly lead to results, it’s important that swimming does not become a dreaded chore. So how much time should you spend in the water each time you swim? The answer to this question depends upon your time constraints for that day/week. If you only have 20 or 30 minutes, that’s fine, but 45-60 minutes is perfect. Anything is better than nothing. If you have a little extra time, go for longer, but don’t overdo it either. As long as you are getting in the water frequently and you don’t go several days between each swim, you will be on the right track. It’s all about muscle memory, repetition and comfort in the water.

Here’s to Swimming Faster in 2014
Your offseason is the perfect time of year to dedicate to improving your swim. If you follow the three keys outlined above and remain diligent about getting in the water frequently, you will undoubtedly see results next season … and more bikes in T1.

Chris Kaplanis is the co-founder and assistant head coach at Ridgewood Tri Athlete (RTA), a multisport coaching business and triathlon club based in New Jersey. RTA works with athletes from across the country, offering a variety of services to get you faster, fitter and on track to successfully accomplish your goals. He is a USA Triathlon Level I Certified Coach and USA Cycling Level III Certified Coach.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.