The Art Of Chasing Speed

In the last of our mini-series on training, Head Coach Paul Newsome gives us his take on training appropriately and progressively to become a faster swimmer - aka 'Chasing Speed':

One of the great things about using the Finis Tempo Trainer Pro as a training tool is that it is programmable in increments of 1/100th of a second, allowing very precise time targets to be set during your fitness training sessions. Once you have ascertained your baseline CSS pace (approximately the speed you would maintain for 1500m continuously) you can go about systematically chipping away at your times each week. This is a very motivating approach, ensuring you are always moving forwards and never stuck on a plateau.

This method of training is especially powerful because it allows you to maintain your stroke technique as you go along. The pace is carefully controlled and progression is very gradual, so whilst you're working hard you can still maintain control of your stroke technique - not thrashing or fighting the water.

This is precisely how Mega Megan has improved so much (see posts here and here) - each week training just a little bit faster than the week before, gradually accumulating over many months. These increments are barely noticeable as you go along, as your times decrease by 0.3 to 1 second per 100m per week.

Over the last two years Megan has shaved off 40 seconds per 100m (!) using this gradual progression, even though she never set herself that huge target to begin with - like most of us she just wanted to be a better swimmer. This is "Aggregation Of Marginal Gains" in action (a method famously described by British Cycling and Team Sky Manager Sir Dave Brailsford).

Move Your Foundations Closer To Your Ceiling

Your current CSS pace is a simple but fundamental reference point to your swim fitness, if you increase your CSS pace through your training then you can be assured that for any distance you race over 400m, you will be quicker. What you're doing is moving your threshold speed (which is very trainable) closer towards your maximum speed (something much harder to train). In elite distance swimmers these two points are very close together - you might only be able to sustain CSS for 1000 or 1500m but elite open water swimmers will be very close to this level of effort over 5 or even 10km!

Rhys Mainstone motoring during Swim Smooth Video Analysis

In fact two time Australian 10km Champion Rhys Mainstone from Perth can swim 1:05 /100m for 10km continuously including (very quick) drink stops. Incredible! Rhys has worked hard to push his CSS pace as high as possible but it all started from knowing this point and then training at that pace to gradually and progressively push it upwards: "Slowly Chasing Speed"

Know Thyself

Five weeks ago on the blog we discussed getting your swimming mojo back by finding your CSS pace and then gradually moving forwards from that point, whatever it is. I recently started my own personal training comeback after spinal surgery in December. Since 14th April I've been swimming 5 times per week, completing 36 sessions so far.

On that very first session I bit the bullet and timed myself over 400m to see how much I'd lost and ensure that I was starting my program at the right intensity. The result was a lifetime worst 5:40. Being the competitive guy I am I was shocked as I've never swum slower than 5:00 in my whole life! My CSS pace was 1:28 /100m (a full 18 seconds per 100m slower than when I won the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim 10 months earlier). This is the point I started training at and moved forwards from there, telling myself "it's only a benchmark" and "it is what it is".
Get your training progression right and you'll feel this good!

In years gone by my head and body would have battled each other at the start of a program - my head telling me "You're still as good as you used to be!" but my body screaming "No you're not! You can't be - you haven't done the work yet!". And that's exactly the point of the article, you have to do the work - there is no magic pill or easy way. Thankfully though, there is a right way to do the work.

Getting Started

I am sure many of you more experienced swimmers will have felt the same at some point. You have good intentions and want to get back into the flow of your training but for that initial 2-3 week period it feels so difficult to gain traction. Training feels hard. You beat yourself up for the time you have had off and your times are very disappointing.

There's a tendency to over-estimate your ability at this time and push too hard too soon - blowing up during sessions and struggling to finish as planned. But what if you set your target pace a little lower, at your true current ability level? Swallowing your pride, perform a CSS test and then setting your Tempo Trainer Pro at your current fitness level is a much quicker approach to getting your fitness back, even if it means dropping down a lane in your squad. Suck it up, accept where you're at, get the sessions done and you'll soon be back to where you want to be, proud of what you've pushed through.

In our Perth squads we have four talented Ironman and 70.3 athletes working hard to prepare for some major international events, including the Hawaii Ironman World Championship in October. Jono, the two Marks and Andy have all suffered a few false start in the last couple of months but by slowing them down and getting them to complete some endurance sessions at their current level of fitness - not where they think they should be - they have started to push through and their confidence is now blossoming.

By not starting too fast, blowing up and pulling the pin on the session, they've become much better at understanding the benefits of pacing too, a skill which is entirely learnable if you have the patience for it.

1 Second Per 100m Faster Each Week
The 10x 400m Red Mist Set on the squad board

My key session over the last 8 weeks has been a 10x 400m "Red Mist" set which looks like this:

4 x 400m at CSS +6s /100m
3 x 400m at CSS +5s /100m
2 x 400m at CSS +4s /100m
1 x 400m at CSS +3s /100m

Between each 400m take a quick 20 seconds rest - just enough time to take on a little fluid.

(If you're attempting this set for the first time you can reduce it to 10x 300m or even 10x 200m for very new swimmers).

It's not rocket science but this is precisely what I have done over the last 8 weeks at 5:30am on Monday morning without fail. Reducing the beeper by 0.25 seconds per 25m (1 second per 100m) per week - gradually (and precisely!) chasing speed.

Being slower than threshold pace makes for a very aerobic endurance set regardless of your ability - as long as your CSS pace is accurate. In the first four intervals you'll feel like you're being held back, settling into a rhythm in the next three intervals, suddenly feeling some effort in the penultimate set and having to really push on in the final interval.

It's not the most interesting session by any stretch but it's a really good chance to find your rhythm, build some endurance and most importantly measure your progression objectively as the weeks go by. You're also testing your ability to concentrate on maintaining great form and technique in a challenging session where you're not quite sure if you're going to achieve the target on all ten intervals.

It's much harder and much more representative of real world racing (maintaining your technique under pressure) than endless sessions of single-length technique work, hoping for the speed to one day magically come to you.

Each week I simply made each interval 1s /100m faster with the caveat that to do that I have to have completed all ten intervals on the target times on the previous week. I started at 1:28 descending down to 1:25 /100m and progressed really well for the first six weeks as planned. On week seven (1:22 descending to 1:19 /100m) I just missed my times by a few seconds on the last two 400s so repeated the same goal times again this week - made them comfortably - and will forge on again next week.

Of course it feels disappointing when that happens but the reality is after a while progress has to slow slightly otherwise we'll all be qualifying for Rio 2016! When that happens you'll have to make your margin of improvement smaller each week but that is where the precision of the Tempo Trainer Pro comes into full effect - we can reduce things by as little as 0.04 seconds/100m per week if we wish!

I hope you find these 'real world' example of Chasing Speed in action useful. This is how Megan did it, how the entire SS Perth Squad is doing it and how I'm doing it too. So why not give it a try yourself too?

Cheers, Paul

PS. Now I'm back below 1:15 /100m CSS pace I shaved off my beard as a reward! :



Unknown said...

Love the last pics Paul. Very James Bond! Sean

Unknown said...

The journey of chasing speed is a blast with the awesome SS Perth Squad; especially Red Mist Wednesdays. I have seen my own CSS drop from 1:40/100m to 1:32/100m in just 6-months. 1:30 is just around the corner. Thanks Paul and SS!

Anonymous said...

I have a finis tempo trainer pro but can only change it by 1 second/25m (setting2). If I use setting 1 I can sometimes miss the single beep. Help please on how to reduce the timings by 0.25s per 100m

MrNewbie said...

Captain Birdseye !

Great article though Paul.....

MrNewbie said...

anonymous, I think you would reduce by 1 second over 100m.... 1 second is 0.25 per 25m.....

Cyndy@swimsmooth said...

Thanks Sean & John!

Anonymous, Jon might be right here, use mode one and set the beeper so it reads 25:00 for example, this means it will beep every 25 seconds. Then to reduce it by 1 sec per 100m, or 0.25 sec per 25, change it to 24:75 on the beeper. More on that here:

and here:

I hope that helps and your swimming is going well!

shoraztri said...

Awesum article . Just what was needed to get back into my Swim programme , the CORRECT way.

Unknown said...

Love the article. Just interested to know if upon successful completion of the red mist sets you then dropped you CSS by 1 for the other CSS based sessions.

Unknown said...

I find one thing I struggle with is how to taper back by pace to the slower 25m times without slowing my stroke rate. I know I have a tendency to over glide so I am focused on not pausing in my stroke, but when I start a set and obviously feel good, keeping myself at say 28s per length requires reigning my self in a bit. I try to ease on the power but still find myself swimming too fast for the length or over gliding. Then as I either tire or perhaps lose my form a bit I settle in and hit the times really well. Looking at the red mist set how would you recommend adapting/slowing to the CSS +6 etc

Steven Kliffen said...

Thanks for your brilliant blogs every week.

Motivated by the Mega Megan blog I started with the CSS training Yesterday and I noticed that my CSS time of 1:37 was higher than my 400m (1:33/100m) and 200m (1:28/100m) times. Is this correct?

Furthermore the finis pro in mode 2 can only be adjusted per 1 second and you have to take mode 1 if you want to do it more precise, but then you get only 1 beep.

Adam Young said...

Hi Hamish, yes you would also drop your CSS sessions by 1 sec/100m too. :)

Hi Jez, I think you're probably doing it about right, you have to take it pretty easy over the first few laps until you settle it. As you develop that aerobic engine and your CSS pace increases you should find this less of an issue as you'll be able to go off that bit faster and it will feel more like 'normal' swimming.

Hi Steve, thanks!! Yes that's right, your CSS pace is closer to your 1500m timetrial speed, so it will be slower than your 200m and 400m times. Yes use mode 1, in the later software versions once you slow the beep down (I think to 10 seconds or longer) it gives multiple beeps. However we always used to use the single beep in the old days and it normally works fine too.

Thanks chaps!

Neil said...

Hi Paul

Thanks for a great series of articles. I have been following the CSS approach for a month and have reduced my CSS from 1.51 to 1.48 in that time. A couple of questions:

1. I seem to be able to hold a split for 1.46-1.47 for 16x100. I guess this indicates that I should nudge the CSS up now for maximum progress?

2. You suggest re-testing every 3-4 weeks. Do I nudge up the CSS speed by 1 sec per 100m every week (if sustainable) in between tests, or just stick with 1.48 over the next period?

3. If you train close to, but just below your CSS (for example because the test swim was not 100% inaccurate), will the training still be effective in making a CSS improvement?

Many thanks


ps I see that there are a lot of questions about how to set fractions of a second for 25m times on the Tempo Pro - for which the answer is 'use mode 1'. You might want to look at your webpage on the Tempo Pro which advises the use of mode 2 for CSS training.

Paul said...

Hi Hamish

Just for clarity, you may find nudging up your CSS pace itself for a true threshold session by 1s/100 a bit too much. We typically work on ~0.3-0.5% which depending upon your CSS pace will be about 0.3s to 0.8s per week. Given that the Red Mist sessions are performed at sub-threshold pace, there is usually scope for more rapid improvement of these as you nudge your foundation closer towards your metaphorical ceiling as explained in the article.

A good way of doing this is once you start to slow down in terms of improvement, would be to do 2 weeks at a set level - week 1 to try the new speed and potentially not quite make it, week 2 to have another go and see what can be achieved. This is a very effective way I've found.


Thanks for the note on the webpage - we'll look at changing that...I believe we wrote that before the Tempo Trainer Pro came out and had the ability to go to 1/100th second accuracy - apologies, but yes, Mode 1 would be the one to use as highlighted in the article above.

1. It's usually possible to hold a smidgen quicker than CSS pace for 100m intervals - what sort of rest are you taking? The true litmus test would be if you could do say 8 x 200 +20-30s rest still at these paces. Give it a try.

2. Good question - it's worth experimenting here. Typically if you're fairly new to these concepts I'd say go 4-6 weeks at the last tested CSS pace maintaining each week and getting used to using the Tempo Trainer Pro for pacing as much as nudging the CSS pace upwards. The article above was aimed more specifically at those who've either a) been using one a while and/or b) have a little more general experience at these types of sessions and have potentially had a bit of time off. Nudging up each week works well in this context - how much though is the million dollar question and for this I would suggest you experiment based around the parameters I outlined in the article.

3. Indeed training slightly above / below CSS pace is a very effective way of improving CSS pace. It's often referred to as "Massaging Your Threshold". Here in Perth we have a range of sessions that allow for working within these parameters.

Hope this all helps.



Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

One thing I don't really understand... my CSS is around 2:00, so my Tempo Trainer is set to 2:06/4 = 0:31.5

So far do good. At each turn in the 25 m pool I know where I am compared to the needed speed. But when I have done my 2/3/400 meters I don't really know how to fit in the 20 seconds of rest... Because the Tempo Trainer is set to (in this case 31,5 seconds...

I don't want to rest more than necessary, but I don't know how to manage this?


Paul said...

Hi Anonymous

Firstly I'd question your "about 2:00" but then setting it at 31.5s? If it's truly 2:00 then you should set it for 30.0s? It pays to be accurate with these things...

Secondly, the top button on the Tempo Trainer Pro is a re-sync / re-start button which when pressed lightly will re-start the timing cycle you have set. Whilst a little fiddly, you could finish the interval, count out 20s (or whatever) and then quickly press the re-start before setting off again. Avoid pressing too strongly as this will turn the beeper to Mode 2 - a little frustrating if this happens.

On longer intervals we often express the rest in beeps, i.e. 8 x 200m with 1 beep recovery, which in your case would currently be 31.5s, thereby meaning you don't have to fiddle around with the beeper too much after you've started.

Hope this helps.


Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

what I meant by setting it to 31.5 was due to that the first sets were supposed to be at CSS+ 6 seconds, i.e. 2:00 +6 =2:06/4 =31.5 seconds/25meters

OK, since I have the tempo trainer under my swim cap I'll just press the upper button lightly. Thanks!

Is it easier if I just use a "beep recovery" for these 10x400 sets? You have stated 20 seconds - I was worried that I would be too lazy to wait the 31.5 seconds?

A second question. The other day only the 50 meter pool was available. I set the tempo trainer to 63 seconds but failed to keep the tempo. If I am in a 50 meter pool it should be:
4 x 400 at CSS + x seconds?
3 x 400 at CSS + x-1 seconds
2 x 400 at CSS + x-2 seconds
1 x 400 at CSS at x-3 seconds

What is X for a 50 m pool?

Paul said...

Hi Anonymous

Yes, 1 beep recovery will work, but be quick between sets to adjust to the new level.

Long course vs Short Course is probably worth 2s/100m to yourself. Try adjusting like that, i.e. 2s/100m slower in Long Course.



Paul said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nikki said...

I have had 3 Tempo Trainers and they are great, but they break, making it really hard to train on the CSS pace. Paul, do you have any recommendations for how to deal with this? Do you go through tempo trainers like crazy, or do yours not break? Thanks.

Nikki said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul said...

Hi Nikki

Here's a little trick I use with the TT Pro:

1. Remove the back with a coin
2. Remove the battery and give it a little wipe with a soft cloth on each side
3. Very gently pull the metal clip / conductor in the TT Pro upwards. Be very gentle here though!!
4. Replace the battery with the writing side against the lid.
5. Replace the old seemingly upside down so that Open / Close reads the wrong way up

...hey presto! It works again?

Let me know


Paul said...

Sorry, old in point 5 should read lid!

Peter Knapp said...

Brilliant - I love this set! Already seen improvements in my pacing ability in 3 weeks. One question - on the white board picture, what are the fins set abbreviations (#2/4) in the warmup?

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