Important Swim Workouts for a Triathlete - Key Swimming Sets

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Working only on technique will not make a swimmer much faster; some work must be done at speeds and efforts that could cause technique to deteriorate.

By Mat Luebbers
Reprinted with Permission from Guide to Swimming

Important swim workouts for a triathlete involve race simulation, swimming skill proficiency, sustainable swimming speed, and recovery time after a swim. These factors, along with the athlete’s experience and goal race distance, will help a swimmer balance the types of swimming workouts done in the swimming pool (or lake, river, or ocean) among emphases of technique sets, endurance sets, strength sets, and speed sets.

Working only on technique will not make a swimmer much faster; some work must be done at speeds and efforts that could cause technique to deteriorate. Improvement comes through stress and recovery. Work on technique, work on going faster, work on holding good technique while going faster, but don't work on only one of these elements. They are all important. The novice may need more technique work, but will have greater overall swimming gains from mixing workout set emphases among technique sets, fitness sets, and combined sets.

One of the key workouts for a triathlete is swimming the race distance at a steady, sustainable, non-stop effort at least once—essentially a simulated race. If possible, it should be done in the same clothing that will be used while in the race. Completing this set helps mentally, since the athlete will know he/she can cover the distance. It can also help to find any problems with race clothing choices. Alternately, this swim can be done with mixed efforts, mimicking the race effort pattern (but not necessarily mimicking race intensity level) to simulate the different parts of the swim leg.

Increasing swimming ability is not all about speed and effort. Increasing swimming efficiency pays huge benefits. Swimming is the most technical portion of a triathlon (not counting the intricacies of a bicycle or of race nutrition). Good swimming looks almost relaxed and effortless. This becomes even more apparent when highly skilled swimmers are compared with less proficient ones. How do swimmers move towards that effortless looking performance? By increasing their skill level. But how is this done?
There are at least two metrics to gauge improvement in skill level:

  • Swim a distance in a lower number of strokes in the same time; this is increased efficiency, getting more distance from each stroke:

    • Day 1: 25m swim in 25 strokes with a time of 45s

    • Day 14: 25m swim in 23 strokes with a time of 45s

  • Swim a distance in the same number of strokes in a lower time; this is increased tempo, taking each stroke more frequently:

    • Day 1: 25m swim in 25 strokes with a time of 45s

    • Day 14: 25m swim in 25 strokes with a time of 42s

Both are good. Increased efficiency will probably yield lower energy expenditure, helping a triathlete perform better in the bike and run, leading to a better overall time. Increased tempo will probably yield a faster swim time, again leading to a better overall time; however, this will only occur if that increased tempo does not result in excess fatigue, which would lead to a slower bike and run. I have found that increased efficiency is important, while increased tempo is good to learn but not as vital to a successful triathlon swim. Tempo changes become a tactical tool, often used early or late in a race. They can also be used to latch on to a swimmer ahead for drafting purposes, with long-term energy-savings as a result.

While the peak velocity of a swimmer will influence the range of velocity a swimmer can achieve, that peak velocity is much less important than the peak sustainable velocity. What speed can a swimmer maintain over the distance of the race? The swimming speed that can be held for the duration of the race (that still allows the athlete to bike and run effectively!) is the triathlete's race pace. Going very fast early in a race, then slowing down as the race goes on is not a great strategy in most instances. Starting a race slightly faster than goal pace to clear out of the crowd, then dropping into a sustainable race pace or rhythm is often successful. The key is that sustainable pace—the highest speed can you maintain for the duration of the race that still allows you a good bike and run performance.

The following links include seven basic swimming workouts for a triathlete. How you mix them into your routine depends upon your needs. The workouts will help you become stronger physically and mentally, help improve your technique and speed, and should get you ready for a great swim in almost any triathlon - sprint, Olympic, half-Ironman, or Ironman distance.

Swim On!

Mathew Luebbers Guide to Swimming 


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date: July 31, 2005

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