THEN SWIM FASTER.
I “WANNA SWIM FASTER? f you find you’re having troubles making the pace times, consider swimming faster,” says Neil Harvey, the man I consider to be the Yoda of swim coaches.
That comment was always good for a chuckle – usually to those of us who were making the times, but less so for those who weren’t. But it was funny because it was true.
Too often, I have to deal with athletes who neglect their swim speed, focusing solely on endurance so they can just get through that portion of the race and get to the bike. Their logic is simple: the swim is the shortest of the events, and the difference between good and great is only a few minutes, so why bother to kill yourself in the water? It would be better to knock big swaths of time off the bike and run splits. Makes sense, right? No, it doesn’t. I’ll tell you why. You need to be swim fit to execute a good triathlon, so obviously you have to do enough work in the pool. But, if you’re just swimming to finish, you’re not realizing your full potential as a triathlete.
If you go to the pool day after day and punch out two to four kilometres of straight swimming, you’ll get fit. You’ll get out of the water on race day. Without adding volume or time, though (in fact, you will likely drop both), work on your speed so that you come out a few minutes faster (remember, it is a race) and, believe it or not, you will be in a better position to complete the bike and run more effectively.
Let’s start with your 100-metre time. That’s somewhere between two to 15 per cent of your final race distance for almost all of you. If you can swim 100 metres faster, it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll bring your full-distance swim time (and overall time) down.
Here’s how it works. View your 100 time as being the top, or “ceiling,” of your fitness. It represents you “100 per cent” number. When you swim more than 100 metres, even at an all-out effort, by necessity, you will be working at a percentage of the 100 per cent. Let’s say that for a 1,500-metre swim you can work at 85 per cent of your ceiling effort. If your all-out 100 time is two minutes, then working at 85 per cent of that effort might give you a 2:10 per hundred pace ( percentage of effort does not correlate directly to seconds, but I’ll save that for another article), which would give you a final time of 32:30.
If you were to work on your 100 time and bring it down to 1:50, suddenly 85 per cent of your ceiling for that 1,500-metre effort might be closer to two minutes per 100, saving you two and a half minutes in the swim.
So how do you bring down your 100 times?
First, determine what your best 100 time is. To do that, do at least a 20-minute warm up with some short accelerations towards the end. Then do a 100-metre time trial as hard as you can.
Then, at least once a week (twice is better), work on your speed. Execute sets with shorter intervals and longer rest times. My lane one swimmers (slowest) would go through this twice for a main set, while the lane four swimmers (fastest) would go through the set three or four times. You can also do a slight variation of this set by dropping the number of repeats from four to three for both the 100s and the 50s and adding 10 seconds more rest for the 100s and five seconds more rest for the 50. If you record the average times for the 100s and the 50s, then you have a bench mark to measure against to see if you’re getting faster. Execute the set again every few weeks to see how you are doing. The sets don’t need to be complicated. Removing the timing element from your speed efforts is healthy as well. Every few weeks you can repeat the 100 time trial to measure your improvement.
One of the caveats of working on speed is to make sure you’re not dramatically changing your stroke. You don’t want to overkick or flay your arms during the recovery. Keep a nice, smooth long- distance stroke going, but increase your cadence and try to pull more water.
Clint Lien is the head coach of Victoria’s Mercury Rising Triathlon; mercuryrisingtriathlon.com.