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Intelligent Swim Performance Training

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Intelligent Swim Performance Training 


Swimming has the distinction among endurance sports of being the most technique-oriented.  Since water is 7 times more dense than air, even world-class elite swimmers are just 9-10% efficient.  For the rest of us, just 1-3% of our energy expenditure actually moves us forward.  

What a great opportunity!  A one percent increase in efficiency can yield at least a 25% in performance gain.    Do you really think you can increase your aerobic capacity by 25% for the same performance gain?

So, what’s the most intelligent way to increase swim performance - focus on improving efficiency or aerobic capacity?

Those world-class elite swimmers devote about 90% of their training to technique - both through drills and low-moderate intensity swimming with specific technique focal points.  Just 10% of their training is devoted to race pace intensity!   Amazingly, the vast majority of swimmers, triathletes (and their coaches) disregard the precedence of technique mastery and focus on swimming hard  - technique be damned!    “Uh, no pain no gain.”

The Big Three  

Efficient swim technique has three components: balance (both fore-aft and rotational), hydrodynamic body position, and propulsion.  Training at high intensity without regard to these fundamental elements of smart swimming is… well, dumb.  The slogan for intelligent swimming: “No brain, no gain!

This article assumes that you already have the “tools” to study and continually improve your balance, streamline and propulsion. These “tools” include comprehension of hydrodynamic principles, as well as drills and focal points that address your particular needs.  (For more visit www.totalimmersion.net.)  

How does the technically proficient distance swimmer/triathlete intelligently pursue performance?  Following is a basic guide:


Begin by establishing your SPL - the number of strokes per lap you take with your most balanced, streamlined and propulsive swimming form.  In your next few pool sessions, monitor your SPL at various intensities.  Keep in mind that your most efficient swimming form is at a low-to-moderate pace.  

Here is a key principle for brilliant efficient fishlike swimming.  Move through the water instead of moving around in it!  The less you thrash around, the less turbulence you cause.  Just watch a fish!

Swim Golf

Typically, a lower stroke count means you are swimming more efficiently - using less energy to move through the water (not in it).  Play “swim golf”:  Swim a distance - say, 100 yards - at a moderate pace, then add your stroke count to your time (in seconds) for the distance.  Now try swimming the same distance at a faster or slower tempo - by increasing or decreasing your stroke cadence - and tally SPL and time again.  Is your score higher or lower?  Just like golf, you’re striving for the lowest score.  This is a great way to evaluate your efficiency - your ability to maintain balance, streamline and propulsion - as you increase tempo.

Tempo Training

I have only one “swim toy”.  It’s not a kick board, pull buoy, snorkel or pair of swim paddles.  It’s a Tempo Trainer - a waterproof metronome I slip up into my swim cap.  Here’s how to use it to pursue intelligent swim performance:  Warm-up with a focus on technique.  Pick a few specific focal points or drills and integrate them into your whole stroke swimming for the first 10-15 minutes.  Then, swim another 100 with your best technique and get a feel for your stroke cadence.

Now turn on your Tempo Trainer and find the tempo that meshes with your stroke cadence.  For efficient swimmers at a low-to-moderate effort, this is typically between 1.20 and 1.40 - meaning that time interval between each beep (and hence each stroke) is 1.2 to 1.4 seconds.  (Note that the lower the number, the faster the tempo.)   

Now, swim a given distance at that tempo, monitoring your SPL.  If your SPL increases by more than 2 strokes per lap (in a25 yd/m pool) over the distance, your efficiency is beginning to diminish.  Slow the tempo or shorten the distance.  If you are successful at maintaining your SPL or even decreasing it over the distance, increase the tempo by subtracting .02 (two one-hundreths of a second) as you rest at the wall.  Now swim the same distance and strive to maintain your previous SPL, even though you have increased your cadence by .02 seconds per stroke.  (For consistency, I allow 3 beeps for each turn and push-off.)

Manipulate these variables to train performance and efficiency:  

 - Cadence 

 - SPL

 - Distance

 - Recovery time 

 - Subtle changes in technique.  

As you manipulate these variables, compare your time to your perceived rate of exertion (PRE).  Some things to consider as you approach swim training in this way:  SPL is an accurate indicator of efficiency, but absolute minimum SPL is not the ultimate goal.  You may find that your most “efficient” 100 yard repeats - comparing time to sustainable, repeatable effort - is not your absolute lowest stroke count.  Optimum SPL will vary over distances, as will cadence.

The Big Picture

Always consider your training and racing goals:  Performance training with a focus on optimal technique is vastly different for an Ironman than it is for a 1-mile swim-only race or a 100m freestyle competition in a pool.  A 10% reduction in energy for a 1% reduction in performance is a wise choice for the Ironman, but a poor one for the 100m sprint.  

Neural Nanoseconds  

This approach to performance is focused on training your neural system to maintain efficiency at higher cadence, rather than just swimming harder with diminishing technique.  Evaluate your performance based on your SPL, PRE and your time.  

That “little beep” has an amazing way of keeping you very attentive during each nanosecond of each stroke, whereas the “swim hard” method keeps you gasping for air as you churn through the water, praying for the end of the pool.  Move through the water, don’t move around in it!

I have offered just a glimpse of this technique-focused approach to swim performance, which Terry Laughlin, Founder of Total Immersion Swim has been developing for years.  See Terry’s blogs and the Forums on the Total Immersion website for lots more information on tempo training workouts.

Originally published in Hammer Nutrition Endurance News, Issue 70, July 2010

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