The Two Classic Swim Training Mistakes

As an open water swimmer or a triathlete you should be training as a distance swimmer, looking to develop your fitness for best performance over distances of 800m and longer. There are two classic mistakes swimmers make with respect to this:

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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:

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.

Swim Smooth!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great article, and all the others I am really glad a stumbled on this blog.

On top of these CSS sets should you be swimming the actual tri-distance a few times a week. Timing a 1.5K swim in the pool, or is that that not going to help things at all.

I used to swim the short sprint sets but wanted to make a move to tri so I just started swimming the distance!

Mike said...

Swimming like this (with some swim smooth training plans and various css workouts) a little more than a year by now ...and hey guys: It really rocks! Good stuff! Many thanks to you Paul with the ss team

Rudolf said...

Well, this is a question that does not directly relate to your current post / newsletter, but i have carried this question around now for the entire week.
I thought i post it here online, where anyone else can see it and hopefully also an interesting answer to it, so it's beneficial for all vs. only for myself if i had asked it by email.

I have asked something similar before, but back than it was pointed out i may suffer from "sinking legs".
Since than i have done my home work on kicking and feeling the water and getting good rhythm so i can swim up and down even while i am asleep (so to speak) and my bside and legs are always at maximum drag reduction levels.

The problem is the breathing!
The breathing with leg kicking in particular.
In more detail:
I have started to cross check things with wearing a snorkel for freestyle.
When i use the snorkel plus a buoy between my legs (hence my legs are totally "jobless") i can go on and on and on, regulate my breathing to in and out with ever fast stroke or to in / out only every second stroke, no problem.
If i do the snorkel without the buoy between my legs and just do the basic kicking i can get to 100m, but than i am in desperate need for a quick stop to catch my breath.
If i do maximum kick /feels great to do) than i want to stop at the end of the 50m already and take a couple of deep breaths!

What is wrong with this picture please??
Again, i am 56, i assume old guys have their "air supply limits", but i still think there's something i am not doing right (or could improve on).
P.S. Yes, i do bilaterals, 300m, yes, i do kick boarding, 300m. Yes, i do dolphin kick boarding, also 300m, and when i do fast freestyle without any toys i make sure that i swim up breathing to one side and than down breathing to the other side.

Rudolf said...

P.S. wish your comments would have an
"eMail-me when a follow-up comment was written."
option so we would know when to check back......
blogger does have this now
by the looks of it...

Coach Paul said...

Hi Paul,
Interesting that you feel that 15 x 100's would be seen as a "sprint set"...when in reality if you are able to hold 1:30 per 100 @ 2:15 intervals you would actually be training in the En1-En2 range which is a primary zone for most distance swimmers/triathletes.

"Sprint" (AN1/AN2) with regard to short distance swims such as 100's would be with rest intervals of at least 4 : 1+ with maximum yards swam at 400-600.

All to often we see swimmers training for Tri's & OW come in wit the mindset of more at less is better...rarely wanting to train for what we call "easy speed". Yet attaining it requires a significant amount of training in ALL energy zones not just the aerobic end of the spectrum.

Grant Hackett, arguably the greatest distance swimmer of our generation rarely training sets with repeats longer than 200m...his coach Denis Cotterell gave a talk at ASCA a number of years ago talking about this titled "everything is about speed"...great stuff if you ever have a chance to read it!

We have embraced this type of training for years and have many examples of our athletes showing significant gains...4 of our Tri's came in with Ironman swim times in the 1:30 range and after 12 months all dropped under 1:10 with one going sub 1:00!

Best regards,
Paul Smith
Director/Head Coach Mesa Aquatics

Paul said...

Hi Anonymous - yes, a continuous swim of 1.5 to 3km once per week (or preferably once per 10 to 14 days) is not a bad idea, especially if done close to your CSS pace.

Mike - glad you've found it useful! Keep up the good work!

Rudolf - this simply points out how leg kick for the massive majority of us is an incredibly inefficient source of propulsion. Studies have shown that even an elite swimmer might only generate 10-15% of their propulsion from their kick. If you're bending and flexing at the knee heavily as you kick, you'll be overly utilising your quadricep and hamstring muscles (thighs) which burn a huge amount of oxygen and energy when used with poor technique. This would explain why substituting for a pull buoy is much easier for you - that and the fact that you drag issues are instantly solved. Now, it's not that you should forget about your leg kick completely, you still need to work on reducing drag (i.e. pointing the big toes inwards and brushing them lightly against each other to help keep you streamlined), but that you don't want to be thinking of the kick as propulsion per se. Most leg sinkers will always find pull buoy work significantly easier than without - the key is closing that gap between normal swimming and the pull buoy.

Coach Paul - a pace of 1:30 per 100m is 22.5s per 25m which on a set of 100s turning around on 2:15 is a work:rest ratio of 3:1. All we're suggesting is that if a triathlete or open water swimmer is swimming only 2-3 times per week, that the type of speed set that they should be focusing on should be more threshold based work (i.e. around CSS) pace and utilise a much shorter recovery period, i.e. 10-20s as opposed to 45s in this example. As detailed further down the set, we'd still recommend 100s, but on a turn around of 10-20s rest between each. In fact we call this our 'blue ribband' set after Grant Hackett as like you say he was a fantastic swimmer and would typically do this set hitting 58.2s to 58.8s per 100m on a turn around of 65 to 70 seconds. For Grant this would still technically be a CSS set given that his world record pace was 58.3s per 100m for 1500m.

I think we are agreeing with each other in that it is important to do some faster work per week for any swimmer as too much drilling and steady swimming is not good either, however, I think our only disagreement is in our terminology of the word 'sprint'. We would caution though that too much anaerobic sprint work (i.e. well above threshold pace and with work:rest ratios of less than 4:1) in the place of threshold based work can be detrimental to a swimmer's performance over longer distances. I think you'll find this paper very interesting reading:

[4] MacLaren DPM, Coulson M (1999). Critical swim speed can be used to determine changes in training status. In: Biomechanics and medicine and swimming VIII, edited by
Keskinen KL, Komi PV,Hollander AP. Jyväskylä: Grummerus Printing, 1999, p. 227-32

Hope this helps solve your query Paul.



Adam Young said...

Hi Rudolf,

That's a nice feature that blogger have added and it seems to have been automatically enabled now - great.

Would love to see some video of your stroke if you ever can get some (preferably also below the water). I think we'd learn a lot together then about how to improve your swimming.

Cheers, Adam

Paulo Neves said...

Hi Paul,

Just to try and clarify!
I think it does not make any difference in what you were trying to point out but you said "a pace of 1:30 per 100m is 22.5s per 25m which on a set of 100s turning around on 2:15 is a work:rest ratio of 3:1".
Isn't this wrong? 1:30 is 90s work + 45s rest for a total of 135s (2:15). That is a work:rest ratio of 90:45 or 2:1 instead of 3:1.

Since I am capable of doing sets such as 10X100m @ 1:40 + 10s rest you are suggesting work:rest ratios of 100:10 or 10:1. Am I right?


Paulo Neves

Paul said...

Hi Paulo

Thanks for writing in. You are indeed correct - that is an error on our part, it should have read 2:1. Apologies. If you're doing 10:1 that sounds great for this type of work.

Have a great weekend.


Zack said...

Hello, I started training with 5x200m sets, then 6x200m, then 4x300m, then 4x400m or 2x200m. All with short recovery times and the more I trained the more confortable I got with the breathing. Cool. My question is what is the way forward, bearing in mind that I would like to swim faster while remaining at ease with breathing? Keeping on increasing the number of sets, swimming faster the same number of sets, or something else ?
Also, I swim about one hour almost everyday, is that too much a frequency?

Zack said...

6x200m not 2x200m on line 1 of previous comment, sorry

Zack said...

Actually 2x600m (must be NYE's hangover, sorry)

Adam Young said...

Hi Zack. What speed are you swimming those sets at? You are swimming them hard (at your maximum sustainable pace) or steady pace?

Cheers, Adam

Adam Young said...

Swimming every day is probably OK as long as you don't feel that you are going stale. Some swimmers prefer one day off a week - or a very easy day - sometimes it's good to have a mental as well as physical break.

Zack said...

About 55s per 50m, quite easily. I could swim faster but cannot do in 50s sustainably as of now.

Adam Young said...

Hi Zack, I think for now your overall CSS set distance is about right but I get the impression from what you say you are holding back to keep your breathing under control?

For CSS work to be really beneficial you need it to be at your maximum sustainable pace. So at first it will feel quite easy but soon becomes harder and towards the end of the set feels very hard! All at the same swimming speed.

However, it sounds like you have a problem with your breathing too which you need to address. Tell me about that. Have you read these two? :



Zack said...

Thank you, regarding breathing I may be far from the ability of champions but technically I don't feel like having a problem with breathing. I mentioned being comfortable with breathing because I thought the CSS meant the maximum sustainable speed at which one can swim comfortably. Given your answer, I take it the set becoming harder and hardre is in terms of breathing more than muscle pain. Unless you tell me otherwise I will try swimming faster (about 50s).
Another issue: I read that kicking account for less than 15% of propulsion. I happen to swim next to some professional swimmers, and noticed that female swimmers were kicking very very fast, like rabbits. And when they do kicking exercises (belly down, with a board), they do 50m in 55s (I do not better than 90s) sustainably. These girls kick as fast as I do freestyle!I take it that they rely a lot on kicking when they train in freestyle, at about 35sec/50m.

Adam Young said...

Hi Zack,

> I mentioned being comfortable with breathing because I thought the CSS meant the maximum sustainable speed at which one can swim comfortably
No, it's the maximum sustainable pace full stop - whatever holds you back! :)

Yes, professional swimmers are looking to maximise everything, including their kick, especially over short distances. Many of them are training for sprint events however (most pool swimmers are sprinters or near enough). You still need to give your kicking technique some attention so you are not wasting energy or creating drag but you are not looking to create lots of propulsion. It's unrealistic.



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