Having been a competitive swimmer for 14 years, there are many workouts that I look back on and still have nightmares about. There are two that truly top the “crazy sets” list, though.

The one that instantly comes to mind is the Christmas classic – 100 x 100. That’s 100 repetitions of 100 metres freestyle. The set is a never-ending, mind-numbing experience that is much more mentally draining than it is physical. And, while it might seem like doing that kind of mileage should be beneficial for someone training for an Ironman, it’s simply too long (and includes too many stops-and-starts) and typically your technique will fall apart as the set goes on.

That was done back in my younger days, but when I got to university, I was introduced to an even crazier set – the craziest set I’ve ever done.

The workout went as follows:

  • 30-minute OYO (on your own) warm-up
  • 10 x 400 kick/swim BA (best-average)
  • Easy warm-down, minimum 300 m.

The warm-up is a full half an hour to do whatever you want – whatever you deem necessary to prepare yourself for what lies ahead.

The main set then consists of 10 repetitions of 400 metres. You kick for 100, (usually with a kickboard) and then do a 100 swim (usually freestyle). You do that twice to make up each 400. The idea is that you’re going as fast as you can. The goal of a “best-average” set is to achieve the lowest average time for all 10 of the 400s. You take about 15 seconds of rest after each 400.

So, for example, if you were coming into the wall in about 6:30, you would start again on 6:45, give or take five seconds. Typically I would make the mistake of not taking enough rest – holding something like 5:53 per repeat (short course metres) or 6:17 (long course metres), then leaving on 6:00 or 6:25.

Sometimes I held on the entire way, sometimes not. Either way, this strategy was both bold and stupid.

Photo: ThinkstockPhotos

What makes this set so hard is that unlike the 100 x 100s set, this set is long enough that it feels like it goes on forever, but still short enough where you can push yourself to your limit and maintain a really high heart rate.

While the set is extremely difficult no matter what, doing the set in a 50-metre, long course, pool will truly test you. You don’t have as many walls to negotiate to get a short rest for your legs or arms.

From a triathlete’s perspective, this set may seem pointless. You’re hardly going to kick in your race, you’re thinking, so why train the legs? But, it does serve a purpose.

It’s a great test of endurance – an all-out, hour-plus effort that is beneficial no matter which distance you’re preparing for. An increased focus on kick will both condition the legs and, if implemented in your actual swimming, will improve body position, reduce drag and give you a bit of extra propulsion.

Additionally, the short, frequent intervals of freestyle, while you are so tired, will force you to find a rhythm within your stroke that you can then implement in a race. This is particularly true if you are doing the set in a long course pool.

If you’ve got a big enough window – at least 90 minutes for both the warm-up and the set – give this workout a try. Assuming you don’t go out too hard on the first interval, and take an adequate amount of rest, you’ll probably make it to the end.

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