This Diesel Engine Is Just Getting Started

Have you noticed that most swim sessions are very stop-start in nature? They tend to include lots of short swims with significant recovery between each? Swim-rest-swim-rest-swim-rest. Stopping every 100m is fine in training if you are only racing over 50 or 100m but how about if you are a distance swimmer, an open water swimmer or triathlete?

Can you imagine preparing for a half marathon with every workout consisting of running for 45-90 seconds and then stopping for a rest? You could probably run pretty quickly like this but come race day you would have very little endurance and badly under-perform as a result. And yet traditional swim coaching offers this approach to everyone.

At Swim Smooth we often talk about your fitness as like either a petrol engine or a diesel engine. A petrol engine is high revving and able to put out a lot of power over a short period of time. With this sort of fitness you would be able to sprint well over short distances but quickly slow once you are beyond 400m.

Rory proudly wears our Diesel Swimming
Engine shirt after swimming the
mighty 19.7km Rottnest Channel
On the other hand someone who is a diesel engine can't sprint so quickly (in fact they may have trouble sprinting at all) but they are able to sustain a strong pace over a long distance. Clearly this is the sort of fitness you need for distance and open water swimming.

If you think about it this difference has to exist otherwise Usain Bolt (a classic petrol engine) would also hold the marathon world record. In fact, although Usain is an incredible athlete and the greatest sprinter who ever lived, he'd be a very average marathon runner at best.

Of course everyone has a genetic predisposition somewhere on the petrol-diesel spectrum. You might be a natural petrol engine or natural diesel or somewhere in between but the point is that you can develop either fitness type by focusing on it with the right sort of training.


Starting Up Your Diesel Engine

Training for swimming events of 400m or longer requires you to train like a distance athlete. This is especially true if you are only swimming two or three times a week, which is typical for a triathlete. With so "little" time swimming, your training sets need to be entirely focused on developing your diesel engine with very little time spent swimming above threshold pace.

Compared to traditional swim sessions, training that develops your diesel engine requires longer swims with less recovery between. Of course you won't be sustaining the same speeds as you would over short distances but don't worry you'll still be working hard and feeling the burn.

Swim Smooth has two main types of session aimed at developing your diesel engine - CSS sessions and Red Mist sessions.

CSS sessions (you can find an entire library of them in the Guru here) focus on your ability to sustain a strong pace over events from 800m to 3 km. They are intense and require mental focus to swim at a strong sustained pace without blowing up and slowing down.

Red Mist sessions (library in the Guru here) focus on your ability to swim 4km and further at a strong pace. Perfect for longer events these session often get progressively faster through the session to challenge you mentally as well as physically. This highlights that a key component of a diesel engine is your mental fortitude to sustain hard work, which is just as important to train as the capacity of your aerobic system.

If you are swimming up to 3 times per week then choose either a CSS or Red Mist session as your main fitness workout of the week. If you swim 4 times or more then you have time to swim one of each per week, just space them at least 2 days apart to recover between.


Technique, Fitness And Your Stroke "Falling Apart"

If your diesel fitness is at a very low level then you may feel like your stroke starts to fall apart once you swim further than 100 or 200m. It might feel like you have a problem controlling your movements and so assume this is a coordination problem. It isn't. In fact you are simply experiencing fatigue at the speed at which you are swimming. As fatigue comes in you struggle to complete each stroke, so your stroke shortens, so your body roll reduces and you start to fight the water.

The solution here isn't more short technique swims to practise your technique. The solution is to slow down slightly, swim further and keep your recoveries short. After a few weeks you will find you can sustain your stroke technique over progressively longer and longer distances. In fact if you build an extremely strong diesel engine then you won't feel like you are really getting started until 1000m or more!

Of course stroke technique is important (and much of Swim Smooth's coaching philosophy is dedicated to stroke development) but equally important is fitness, and the right sort of the fitness at that.

It forces us to ask the question: is swim fitness your weakness, not technique?


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1 comment:

Lew said...

Thanks! Interesting article. As someone who swims about three times a week this is definitely a problem I recognise. Doing too many shorter sets to focus on speed and technique. It's been exacerbated by the Covid rules implemented at our pool where we only have a 50 minute slot, up to 10 swimmers in a double width lane and no overtaking allowed. I could probably do sets of 200M before I catch up with a slower swimmer. What sort of rest should I be targetting before going again?

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