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1) In their training sets they perform short very fast swims with lots of recovery - this sort of set is commonly used by masters squads, a set might be 15x 100m with 45 seconds recovery. This is good training if you are a sprinter looking for best performances in races up to 200m in length, however as a distance swimmer this sort of training is too fast with too much recovery.
2) They do not train for fitness at all believing that stroke technique is all important. Whilst stroke technique is very important in swimming you need to be able to sustain your technique over longer distances and also develop a stroke technique that is sustainable (i.e. does not over-use the shoulder muscles which quickly fatigue - a real danger if you only ever swim 50m or 100m at a time). Without swim-specific-fitness your stroke will soon shorten as you swim and you will feel as if your stroke technique is falling apart after a few hundred meters (or sometimes less!).
If you are a triathlete, does your fitness carry across from cycling and running? Unfortunately not - ask an strong runner or cyclist what happened when they first tried swimming a lap of freestyle! A large part of your aerobic system lies in the veins, capillary networks and cells in the specific muscle groups used in a sport. For swimming you need to develop these systems by focused and consistent swim training - this is still very much the case for triathletes as the main propulsive muscle groups in swimming are completely different from cycling and running.
There is an extremely important principle is sports science called 'specificity' which backs this up. It says that for maximum effect training needs to be specific to the sport, pace and environment in which you shall race.
How You Should Train
As a distance swimmer, when you perform your quality training sets you need to train at a pace that is close to your lactate threshold. Compared to those short and fast masters sets, a lactate threshold set is a slightly slower pace but with much shorter recoveries. The pace won't feel too hard for the first 200m or so but will gradually build to a crescendo by the end of the set:
At Swim Smooth we like to use something called CSS (Critical Swim Speed) to help you with this training, it is essentially the same thing as lactate threshold but is easier to find. Two example CSS sets are:
8x 200m with 20 seconds recovery between each
16x 100m with 10 seconds recovery between each
Notice the short recoveries between repetitions, meaning such a set might be best described as 'relentless'! Another good example of a CSS set is the Goldilocks Set here.
The benefit of CSS training is that it targets the development of your aerobic system so that you can swim faster for longer in your races. Make the switch away from short fast swims with lots of recovery towards more sustained CSS training and your distance swimming will rapidly improve. For more information and more example sets to follow see: www.swimsmooth.com/css
One last tip: The consistency of how you train is a make or break factor here. Perform these sets religiously week in week out and your swimming with consistently improve but miss sessions here and there and your progress will be much much slower.