Friday, April 11, 2014

A Dummies Guide To CSS Training

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When it comes to swimming quickly, your stroke technique is very important but so too is your fitness. Without a good level of swimming fitness you won't be able to sustain your stroke technique over distance, leading to that horrible feeling of your stroke 'falling apart'.

The key to developing fitness specific to swimming is to introduce the right sort of training so that you can simultaneously improve your stroke technique and fitness at the same time. And the best way to do that is using something called Critical Swim Speed (CSS) training which we're going to explain in this blog post.

CSS sets can be swum in a squad but equally you can do them
by yourself or with a few friends.
Even if you are relatively new to swimming freestyle, don't be afraid to introduce some CSS sets into your swimming routine, your swimming will come on leaps and bounds!

Your Swimming Week

If you are swimming three times per week a good way to structure things is to focus each of your sessions in the following way:

Session 1. Stroke Technique Development
Session 2. Open Water Skills (see here)
Session 3. Threshold / CSS Training

CSS training is Swim Smooth's preferred form of fitness training set for distance swimmers and triathletes. It gives you the biggest bang for your training buck and also has a strong focus on developing your pacing skills - which are critical to swimming as fast and efficiently as possible.

Swimmers moving from conventional masters training to CSS sets normally see improvements in their distance performances after just a few weeks, which is very motivating in its own right.

What Is CSS Training?

CSS training focuses on developing something called your lactate threshold, which is a physiological marker which indicates when your body is at the limit of its aerobic system. CSS training has you swimming at lactate threshold speed ('CSS pace') in order to get faster at that intensity. If we can improve your lactate threshold speed then you are pretty much guaranteed to swim faster in your races.

Don't worry if that previous paragraph read like mumbo-jumbo, simply perform the CSS test below, try the training sessions and notice how you get progressively faster as the weeks go by!

CSS training focuses on your ability to hold a strong pace
over your race distance.
The CSS Test

The first thing you need to do is find your CSS pace using the CSS test:

1) Perform a thorough warmup, progressively bringing your heart rate up.

2) Time yourself over a 400m swim, swimming as quickly as you can. Make sure you pace it out well but go as hard as you can - this is a time-trial!

3) Then take 5 to 10 minutes to recover, swimming some very easy laps to help flush waste products from your muscles.

4) Now time yourself over another time-trial, this time 200m. Go as hard as you can again!

5) Swim an easy cool-down to recover before hitting the showers.

Finding Your CSS Pace

The first thing to check is that you swam the 200m at a faster time per 100m than the 400m. This should always be the case as it is a shorter distance. This is essential or the calculation will not work!

Then take your 200m and 400m times and use the free calculator here to find your CSS pace:

Or use SS Coach Steve Casson's excellent Swimulator+ iOS app:

Both of these will spit-out your CSS pace per 100m which you then need to train at. If you're using a Tempo Trainer Pro to help set this pace accurately (see below), also take note of the time per lap the calculator gives you so you can set that in the beeper.

Simply put your 200m and 400m times into the The Swimulator+ app and
it spits out the setting to go in your tempo trainer - neat!
We recommend you re-test yourself every 4 to 6 weeks to see how you're improving. Improvements of 1 or 2 seconds per 100m are significant in well trained swimmers but for those new to fitness training, taking off 5 or 10 seconds per 100m is quite normal (or in some cases even more than that).

Using A Finis Tempo Trainer Pro

At Swim Smooth we're big fans of using a Tempo Trainer Pro to help pace you accurately through CSS sessions. You simply set it to your target pace per lap, pop it under your swim cap and then stay with the beep as you swim.
Simply take the time per length from
the calculator and set it in the beeper.

For example if you want to target 2:00/100m in a 25m pool you set it to beep every 30 seconds, then simply set off on a beep and make sure you turn and push-off on each beep. Stay with it and you're guaranteed to accurately swim at 2:00/100m with perfect pacing.

You can also use it to time your recovery between swims. To do that finish a swim and touch the wall on the beep, then wait until the next beep and immediately set off again on the next swim. We call that 'one beep recovery'.

Tempo Trainers are brilliant training partners and a lot simpler than using the pace clock! More information here: Finis Tempo Trainer Pro

The Goldilocks Set

There's plenty of examples of CSS sets to follow in the Swim Smooth Book and our Waterproof Training Plans but here's a good first session to try, the classic Goldilocks set:

After a thorough warmup, swim the following straight through, all at your CSS pace:

Baby Bear
2x 100m + 20 seconds rest (or 1 beep)*
1x 200m + 20 seconds rest (or 1 beep)

Mummy Bear
2x 100m + 20 seconds rest (or 1 beep)*
1 x 300m + 20 seconds rest (or 1 beep)

Daddy Bear
2x 100m + 20 seconds rest (or 1 beep)*
1 x 400m + 20 seconds rest (or 1 beep)

* to create a longer set, increase to 3 or 4x 100m.

You may find CSS pace quite easy at first but stick with it, it will get harder and you should be feeling the pace over the 300m and 400m swims! Don't go faster that CSS pace on the 100s - the temptation will be there - but control your pace instead and in doing so develop your pace judgement skills.

If you find you cannot sustain the pace for the whole set then rather than taking additional rest, swim very slightly slower to keep things manageable. Don't take things too easy though, you should be working really hard in the second half of the set!

CSS vs. Traditional Masters Training

Compared to traditional master swim sets, CSS training involves swimming at a slightly (only slightly!) slower pace but with much shorter recoveries between each swim. This keeps things focused on developing your aerobic system, which is what you need to become a better distance swimmer.

The problem with sprinting hard and then recovering is that it focuses much more on your anaerobic system, which is great for sprinters but far from ideal for distance swimmers and triathletes.

For more information see our classic blog post Becoming A Diesel Engine and the main CSS article on the Swim Smooth website:

Meet Mega Megan!

She looks innocent enough but Mega Megan's rapidly
become a swimming machine... and she's not done yet.
As a great example of what CSS training can do, watch out for a forthcoming blog we're writing featuring SS Perth squad swimmer Megan Surrette.

Over the past 18 months Megan has gone from a complete beginner in the pool to swimming the mighty 19.7km Rottnest Channel swim!

The mainstay of her training? Consistent CSS training sets week in, week out which have increased her CSS pace from 2:18/100m to 1:36/100m. A fantastic level of improvement!

18 months ago she would never have considered this sort of training thinking it 'too advanced' for her but quite the opposite was true, she needed consistent CSS training to build her swimming engine - which for her was even more important than for an established swimmer.

More about Megan's experiences and exploits coming in a few weeks time...

Swim Smooth!

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