46 Seconds Per 100m Faster In 10 Weeks!

"Critical Swim Speed" (CSS) is the maximum speed you can swim for 1500m and we express it as a time per 100m. A good goal might be to improve your CSS speed by 3 or 4 seconds per 100m - if you do that with consistent CSS training sets you'll see some big improvements in your performances over any race distance.

But what about taking 46 seconds per 100m off your CSS speed? Gavin joined our Swim Smooth squads in Perth a few months ago and has done just that - a phenomenal improvement and the largest we've seen over such a short period of time, improving his CSS pace from 2:55 to 2:09 /100m.

At the beginning of the 10 weeks, Gavin's 200m and 400m times were 4:55 and 10:45 /100m - a drop off in speed of 9.3%. As we discussed in our previous blog post here, such a drop off suggests he has a lot to gain from CSS training, which certainly turned out to be the case!

Developing Gavin's Swimming Engine

A key distinction with our approach with Gavin was to have him tackle some structured training sets. Many swim coaches would say that a swimmer taking over 9 minutes for a 400m swim should only focus on stroke technique and not consider swim fitness at all. Unfortunately that can leave you on a plateau (sometimes literally for years) as you never gain the fitness you need to sustain a good stroke technique.

In our approach we worked on improving Gavin's stroke technique but combined this with some structured sets at the right training pace for his level of swimming (his individual CSS pace). This helped him develop that 'swimming engine' that we all need and allowed him to progress so quickly.

If you can swim 400m continuously then you're quite capable of tackling this sort of training yourself. Improving your swimming shouldn't take years, when you have the right approach it should happen really quite quickly.

We caught up with Gavin for his reflections on how things have gone with his swimming:

SS: Hi Gavin, what prompted you to start swimming seriously?

A few things got me interested in getting into the pool:

- I needed to keep fit while recovering from a running injury, so that was the trigger. - I haven't been into aquatic sport before and this has always struck me as something I was missing. - I have two young daughters and wanted to set a good example to them for fitness, water safety and sticking at learning a new thing. - A friend of mine who knows me well thought I would enjoy it and thrive on it.

The next question was where to go. I read somewhere that if you want to run faster you just need to run more but to swim better is as much brain as brawn. So I knew I needed help, and your program was recommended to me as a good way to start, by someone who had himself started as a self-confessed "muppet" in the water.

SS: What were the first few sessions like?

Tough! As a beginner I had no idea what to expect in a squad session, and even less idea what I was doing. You were encouraging in a relaxed sort of way, just saying "get in the water and give it your best". This was simultaneously re-assuring and daunting! However my fears of being belittled or embarrassed were unfounded - I remember you giving me a genuine "well done" on my first ever continuous 400m.

Fortunately most of the drills are pretty straightforward and even a beginner can quickly master them to the point of concentrating on getting the technique 100% right. This makes someone like me feel like they are learning fast.

However the stand-out feature of those early sessions was that the last 100m in the session was definitely easier than the first 100m in it.

Gavin is this year's "biggest loser"
in the Swim Smooth squads!
SS: What single technique tip has worked the most?

Tricky question! My problem was body position in the water and we've done several things to fix that so its hard to pin down. However the one that was my biggest challenge and hence I think the biggest difference was simply to breathe!

Coach Alan pulled me up one morning and said in his Glaswegian accent, "Are you holding your breath? I cannae see any bubbles". Focusing on breathing out has got my head down and my hips up, and everything flows on from there.

SS: What is your prior swimming experience?

Basically none. I could avoid drowning for some period of time. The last time I swam a lap of a pool would have been in secondary school, over 25 years ago! I've never been involved in a squad or had any coaching. Now I regret not doing it before!

SS: How did you feel about a 46 sec /100m improvement in your CSS?

I was blown away! I didn't think it was possible. I would have been delighted with half that improvement. I do qualify it a bit because it comes on a laughably slow base, but 2:09 /100m is a good pace in its own right and I am really proud.

I also feel very grateful to you and all the coaches, also to my mates who have supported me with extra-curricular swims and encouragement. While you said it was down to my hard work and persistence, support and encouragement are food for those things and no way I could have done this in isolation, even with the techniques.

The Biggest Loser!

Every year in the Swim Smooth squads we run our "biggest loser competition", normally over 10 weeks from October to January. Gavin's improvement was the biggest improvement we've ever seen in someone's CSS pace over such a short period - can you beat it?

How did the whole 184 member squad fare? Their average CSS improvement was 3 seconds per 100m which is excellent considering most of the squad train very consistently all year round anyway and the Christmas holiday was in the middle of the 10 weeks :

(A special thanks to Mike Fischer for crunching all the numbers and creating this analysis)

We tested our squads with the classic 400m/200m CSS test at the beginning and end of the 10 weeks and in the middle put them through :

- A solid CSS training set once a week with an emphasis on good pacing throughout each set.

- Technique based training sessions to maintain and develop their strokes, including some longer swims focusing on technique.

- A weekly open water skills session (normally in the pool) which is a fun blend of drafting, sighting, turning and swimming quickly in disturbed water.

Combining our "three keys" of Technique, Training and Open Water Skills in your year round training is the secret to improving your swimming and that's exactly how we developed the whole training squad here. It's not rocket science but it's almost guaranteed to improve your swimming.

Swim Smooth!


sheila sekhar said...

How I wish there was something like this coaching in India! I have been struggling all by myself from the last 10 years, & my coaches are only the DVDs & video lessons. I live in Hyderabad & am 54, learned to swim at 43. I can swim 1km non stop, in 27 minutes, [only in the pool, as I am terrified of open water], still very scared of the deep, too scared to pick up things from 7 feet down :(
Wonder how these water polo guys tread water so easily!
20 laps - 27 minutes .....? ... bad..

Michael said...

Wow did your headline suck me in! Look not to take anything away from Gavins' improvement, but to then read down and see it was from nearly 3mins. It is not quiet the excitement I was expecting to read aka 46s improvement from 1:46 to 1:00...and I suspect many other national swimmers-now that would have me over to Perth SS on the next plane to learn how. Seriously it equates to a newbie learn to run a marathon. Their 1st 26.2 was walked in then their fitness improves to where they can jog it. Effectively you just telling the reader he has improved fitness it has nothing to do with technique. Your misleading the average Joe swimmer who can swim sub 2:00/100 by posting such a title in the email and blog...I suggest being a little less dramatic in how you choose the title. Your normally quality work has somehow being dropped with this post. Seriously.

Wyatt said...

I agree with Michael here that it's not the best example to use, since it's taking a very slow swimmer to a slow swimmer, although I'm sure technique had a lot to do with that. Also not to take away from Gavin's improvements though, as I had similar results last year just starting out as a newbie swimmer for triathlon--it's nice to see improvement, but realisticly I was still slow. I focussed a lot on technique and just swimming 2-3x per week (not part of a group/coached). I'm LESS slow now (CSS = 1:49/100m), but I'm hoping that doing some CSS focussed work over the next little while will help push me forward a bit more :).

Adam Young said...

Hi Sheila, definitely worth giving some of these CSS sessions a crack if you haven't already. If you can swim 1km then you're quite capable of doing so! :)

Hi Michael, sorry you feel mislead there! Obviously it's an extreme example, that's the whole presentation of the post. Yes, we can't take people from 1:46 to 1:00/100m CSS pace in 10 weeks (1:00 is good enough to get men into an olympic final and much faster than any woman in history).

I'm willing to take all your comments in good spirit except for this sentence:

> Your misleading the average Joe swimmer who can swim sub 2:00/100 by posting such a title in the email and blog..

No, anything but misleading them. The whole point of the post is that someone swimming 2:00/100m has a LOT to gain from some structured training. No, they might not gain 46 seconds (we never said that) but they could well gain 15-20 seconds, which would really transform their performances. There are BIG gains to be had for swimmers who just focus on technique and don't train, as so many do nowadays. That's the message we're giving in the post.

Hi Wyatt,

Definitely - I'd be surprised if you don't make some big strides forwards if you've only been doing technique work so far. :) How long have you been swimming that way?

Cheers guys!


Wyatt said...

Hi Adam,

I didn't *only* do technique work, but spent a good chunk of time each session focussing on it (basically a mix of technique, short stuff and long stuff every session). I hadn't done any "real" swimming as a child other than swimming lessons so I basically knew how not to drown! lol. Anyway, I started in November of last year having to take breaks every 25m, but tried to pick up as many tips and tricks from sites like yours along the way and eventually did a 5000m pool swim event on April 1st (1:40:29, just shy of my "would be nice if..." goal of breaking 1:40:00, since I really had no idea what I could do for it) which I was pretty happy with the progress I made by that point :). I swam until the end of June after I finished up my first triathlons (one 500m pool swim, one 1500m open water) then started up again near the end of October, working on getting some of my lost form/speed back, but not being very consitent in getting to the pool. Now that the new year has arrived it's focus time! :) I have my first Half Ironman this year and I'm training for a good result there--thankfully it's a wetsuit swim, although it'll be a COLD wetsuit swim! Loved me some wetsuit swimming in the spring last year haha.

Anthony said...

Having been a fan of your site for a while i recently got a copy of your book and am really enjoying it. The technique stuff has been really helpful and I feel like I've made big improvements. My struggle is the fitness side of things so the CSS training is really appealing. The trouble is I can't continuously swim the 400m required for the calculation. That's seems to be an obstacle to completing the threshold training sessions described in th e book. Could you give me some advice on how to build up the basic fitness?

Thanks, and keep up the great blog!

BTW, I struggled through a 400m with some pauses in 7.30 and a 200m in 3.30

Adam Young said...

Hi Wyatt,

Sounds like you've been making excellent progress, well done and let us know how you go with the CSS work. :)

Hi Anthony,

Ref get you up to 400m continuously, what do you feel is holding you back? Breathing by any chance?


Anthony said...

Hi Adam, yes I guess at the end of the day it's my breathing. I'm not holding my breath but I have to stop to catch my breath.


Adam Young said...

Hi Anthony,

I strongly suspect that when you go to breathe, your lead arm collapses down in the water and so not giving you any support, making breathing a real struggle.

Check out this article and see if it helps you develop better stroke timing when breathing:


When you get it right, it will make a huge different to your swimming endurance.

Cheers, Adam

sheila sekhar said...

Thank you. I started trying CSS .

Anthony said...

Hi Adam,
Thanks for the link. I am a recovering over glider having worked on keeping that lead arm out in the past, but maybe I've gone back too far in my anti-gliding efforts. I'll think about it next time I get to the pool.

Cheers, Anthony

Sarah Hart said...

Michael, why should Swimsmooth only be for fast swimmers? My first thought when I read the opening sentence was "I bet this is about a fast swimmer who has got even faster..."So I was delighted to find it was about someone who is about my level who made a massive improvement...every one has to start somewhere, credit to SS for not forgetting this... as a largely self taught swimmer I was stuck at around 2.40/100 MTs, for what seems like years, having bought the SS book in November I have made a similar improvement to Gavin, I can now do 2.15 for session swimming, with a PB of 1.58. Not all of us are competitive, some of us just swim for the pure pleasure of it, but that doesn't mean we don't want to get better. I don't want to be the best swimmer in the world, I just want to be the best swimmer I can be, and the guys at SS are helping me achieve that. I might say, too, that even at 2.40 I was still faster than all but around half a dozen swimmers at my pool, many people can't swim at all, certainly not many can manage 100 MT continuously. The point with sharing Gavin's improvement is that SS's tips WORK

Sarah Hart said...

Hi Swimsmooth

I'd be interested to get an update on Gavin, what is he swimming now? Has he continued his improvement?

I'm swimming around 2.04 now, never thought that was possible for me, I'm delighted! Wonder how much more improvement I can make...

Paul said...

Excellent improvements Sarah, really glad to hear you're doing so well!

Since our post about Gavin, he's now signed up for his first few open water events and has begun to use a wetsuit for the first time. Given the added buoyancy this gave him, he was down to swimming just a smidgen under 1:40 for 100m. Whilst he wouldn't sustain that for a longer distance or without the suit, it's great to see his level of enthusiasm for swimming and the gains that are coming his way.

Keep us posted with how you continue to go on Sarah.



Sarah Hart said...

Wow! 1.40! I dream of that! My goal ATM is to break 2 mins, I'm down from 2.40, so I think that's achievable.

One problem though, I live in France during the summer and there is no pool near me, and while I can swim once a week to keep my hand in, it isn't practical to swim more often that that (too expensive with petrol and tickets) There is also an out door pool that's open for two months in July & Aug - and that's it! What can I do instead of swimming to keep my progress? Weights? I have your book so I've seen the exercises there, but I thought they were more for shorter periods, like a fortnights holiday...Any advice would be welcome

Adam Young said...

Hi Sarah,

Probably weight wouldn't be best but exercises like rowing or paddling (kayaking) can be useful.

I'm not sure how flexible you are in the upper back, shoulders, hips and ankles but you could use that time to develop those areas. Then as you get back into your swimming you should get some good benefits from that.



Tahlia Plunkett said...

How was Gavin's foot, has it completely recovered from the injury? How bad was it, and did it stop him from swimming? I had an ankle injury, and I was afraid to get back into the water that's why we closed our pool for the moment. But now I was inspired by Gavin's determination. I wish I could go back and swim again.

Alexandra George said...

As for a swimmer, it's important to catch up with their daily routine to improve their own performance when the day of the competition comes. That's why, I believe each and every official and staff of any swimming event are making sure that place where they are going to hold the event is safe for the swimmers. So that, their efforts in practicing will not be wasted.

Anonymous said...

Hi Swim Smooth I'm finally taking the challenge of CSS swimming 'to heart'! I have been a Masters sprinter for nearly 20 years, but have recently found a love of open water swimming.

How many of these sessions would I want to do if I swim 6 days a week? I'm looking for any advice you feel like lending as I have no idea how to structure my training for this focus given my sprint pedigree. I'm at about 25k a week right now over 6 swims. Thank you!

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Hi Anonymous,

Great that you're giving it a go! You'll really start to see some significant benefits. Have you got our book? It has a handy table in the back (p.299) suggesting how to structure your training week in a four week cycle. http://www.swimsmooth.com/swim-smooth-book.html

Briefly, for 6 sessions for the first week of a four week block we suggest the following for each session:

1) Technique
2) Threshold/CSS
3) Endurance
4) Technique
5) Threshold/CSS
6) OW Skills
+ one rest day

One weeks 2 and 4 swap out a technique session for speed work (I'm sure you won't find that a problem!). Week three swap out OW Skills for a long continuous swim, ideally in the open water.

Hope that helps!

Anonymous said...

Hi Annie thanks so much for breaking down the 6 swims a week for my new CSS routine. Loving it!

Question on one of the CSS sets:
"5x(200m then 100m) with 10sec recovery"

As a Masters junkie when I see an interval followed by a shorter 'then' I think recovery. Does this mean a 200 at CSS and then an easy 100. Repeat 5 times through?

Thanks! First CSS calcs were way off due largely in part if not all to my horrific pacing. My sprinter genes are hard to get rid of!

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Hi Anonymous,

So glad you're enjoying the new structure to your swimming! Have you done a recent CSS test and if so what improvements have you seen?

I'd need to see the whole set to break down what you've written there...

jaja said...

I'm digging up this old post because this week I came across an article on Human Race - http://humanrace.co.uk/preparation-articles/open-water-swimming/item/490-improve-by-5-percent.
In this article Paul talks about an "experiment" which entails dropping CSS by 0.5% each week which led to an average 2.59% improvement.
And this post on the biggest loser talks about an average 3 second improvement (using standard CSS training with the same CSS pace over 10 weeks if I understand right).
Without data specific to each approach it's hard for me to see if one approach is more effective than the other.
So my question for Paul is - is one approach better than the other? Or can they both be used to put some variety in training?
Thanks for all your interesting posts - they've really improved my swimming in the absence of a certified Swim Smooth coach in France :).

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