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Make the Most of Your Training Time

Swimming is the most inefficient from a prep time to workout time perspective.

Of the three disciplines triathletes train for, swimming is the most inefficient from a prep time to workout time perspective. For each swim workout, whether it be 30 minutes or 2 hours, you need to get to the venue, find parking, change, socialize, workout, shower, change, return to work, or home or elsewhere. I sometimes find myself spending just as much time prepping to swim as I do swimming. In order to make swim training more efficient, it is important to be doing the right training at the right time of year.

Most seasoned athletes follow a periodized annual training plan. Through the winter months, most athletes focus mainly on aerobic and endurance training. It’s important to remember, though, when you’re setting up your periodization plan for the winter that the two main points about swim training periodization are: the body develops best if its different systems are developed sequentially and training stimulus needs to be changed every four to 12 weeks. Otherwise, progression and improvements will slow or stop.

For most athletes in Canada the months of November and December are part of the Base phase of training. This phase is characterized mainly by endurance and, secondly, by strength and speed work. Muscular Endurance should be introduced in the winter at the end of the Base phase.

Endurance workouts need to be intervals of eight to 20 minutes in length and in zone 2/3 (usually considered between 52 and 76 percent of your max HR). For most athletes training for sprint distance triathlons and longer, the length of an endurance set should be at least 45 minutes in total. The recovery period between intervals should not be more than 60 seconds, regardless of the interval length. Your heart rate is typically 20 beats below your running heart rate for a similar effort and it drops very quickly when stationary in the water. If you take excessive amounts of rest between intervals, you will not be effectively working your aerobic system.

General strength work in November and December can be done in or out of the pool. Circuits, including Stretch Cordz swim tubing,TRX, pushups, dips and core exercises can be a fun way to build strength training into any workout. General upper body strength work in the gym is a very effective way of developing strength and preventing shoulder injuries. Some athletes even build indoor rock climbing and stationary rowing into their program to add variety to their strength training.

A common mistake athletes make is to stop doing speed work in the fall and winter. Consistent speed work, done with a work to rest ratio of 1:2, can improve your swimming economy. In order to swim fast you need to be able to maintain a high arm and kick cadence without wasted effort. Over the last several years of coaching triathletes of all levels, I have observed that one of the major differences between the faster and slower athletes is arm cadence. While watching the world 70.3 championship this year, I took record of the arm cadence for the top pros. For the first 1,000 m, swim leader Andy Potts was taking 40+ strokes per minute. I find a lot of swimmers take less than 32 strokes per minute at race pace. Swimming at these higher cadences sometimes requires slightly different co-ordination, which can only be perfected through practice. Fins can be an effective way to develop arm turnover and coordination during speed work.
Here are examples for each of the three types of workouts for November and December.

Endurance 2 to 4 X 800m – 30 seconds recovery Average your times and try to better it week over week
Speed 12 X 50m – 60 seconds recovery Try to beat your fastest time week over week
Strength 10 X 100m – No formal rest do 10-25 units of circuits after each 100m

In January and February, athletes should either continue with their base training or move to the “build” phase of the periodized training cycle. The build phase maintains the endurance component, but includes a bigger focus on intensity. Power workouts are introduced and a couple of low-pressure races should be scheduled. Masters swim meets are a great way to get the competitive juices flowing. If swim meets are not an option, it is a good idea to plan a couple of group time trials to get some benchmark performance measures. One of the key requirements during the build phase is that muscular endurance workouts should start taking precedence over pure endurance workouts.

Developing power requires short, near maximal efforts followed by large amounts of rest. The focus of any power workout should be fast arm turnover with perfect form. Power work is best done with swim tools like paddles, a parachute, an ankle band or a tether. Endless pools can also be used effectively for power workouts, if the current is set at a high level.

Muscular Endurance is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to repeatedly contract against a resistance for an extended period of time. High muscular endurance is the key to any successful time trial, swimming or otherwise. Just as in the case of the power sets above, muscular endurance sets are best completed with the use of swim tools. Muscular endurance work needs to be done at a zone 3 (76 percent of your max HR) or above. Here, paddles, a small parachute and a pullbouy are all useful. The rest between intervals for a muscular endurance set should be about double what you would normally take for the same interval of a pure endurance set. It is very important that you build your tolerance up slowly to power sets and longer muscular endurance sets. The increased shoulder load imposed by the swim tools can cause injury if you ramp your training up to quickly.
Here are examples for each of the three types of workouts for January and February:

Endurance 2 to 4 X 1,000 m – 15 – 30 seconds rest Average your times and try to beat it week over week
Power 1 to 2 X 4 X 100 parachute or paddles 60 to 90 seconds rest Try to beat your fastest time week over week
Muscular Endurance 1 to 2 X 3 X 500 with paddles with 30 to 60 seconds rest Try to maintain pace but reduce rest week over week

Most triathletes swim two or three times a week. To get the biggest bang for your workout buck, it is often a good idea to combine two different sets into one workout.

Ayesha Rollinson is a professional triathlete, performance coach and former national team member currently living in Toronto. She founded the Toronto Triathlon Swim Club and the Trek Women cycling club.