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Swim Training Metrics
By Max Wunderle
Swimming can be, by far, the most intimidating and frustrating of the three disciplines in triathlon. Unlike biking or running, true advances in swimming can’t simply come from piling on the yardage. Conversely, if you live in a hilly area, adding volume to your biking or running routes can pretty much guarantee solid increases in your aerobic engine and/or muscular endurance, yielding more speed in either discipline.
Unfortunately, swimming success does not follow this formula. In truth, simply adding volume to your workouts can even retard swimming improvements if one’s stroke and overall mechanics are not optimized. In virtually every lesson I’ve given I try to convey this issue through another sport, golf. For those of us who have ever swung a golf club, we all know how frustrating a bad swing can be. We also know how euphoric we can feel when we execute a flawless swing. I would also suggest that some of our best shots have come when we’ve swung the club at a rate significantly lower than our bad swings. Swimming demands the same attention to technique and efficiency.
“That’s great, Max, but I don’t know what’s wrong with my stroke and I don’t have access/timing/money for a coach to teach me!”
No problem. The remainder of this article can help you better define success, design workouts and most of all, gauge progress in each element of swimming improvement--time, efficiency and effort.
First of all, we need to level set our effort. The easiest way to do this is to use our heart rate information that we should be using for running and biking. As with the other two disciplines, we should be targeting the same aerobic effort level in swimming. In a pool environment, the best way to accomplish this is to take our heart rate from our carotid artery in our neck, while looking at the pace clock. Count your heart beats for 6 seconds, then multiply times ten. This will give us our average heart beats per minute. This is important as many times we may head to the pool with our wonderful workout in hand that may offer all sorts of different configurations on how to swim 2000 yards (10x200, 4x500, 20x1000, 40x50, etc). Even though our workout might call for repeats at different distances, our effort never changes! This results in what many call “garbage volume” that fails to increase our aerobic engine or build muscular endurance. By better understanding our effort level (in practice and on race day), we can better train ourselves by understanding various pacing strategies and their effect on our progress. Such understanding will allow for better quality training time, better race preparation and advances in our practice sessions.
Now that we know how to measure our efforts, we can move to efficiency. In terms of efficiency improvement, there are dozens of tools available—drills (catch up drill, fingertip drill, closed fist drill, thumb drill, etc.), breathing patterns (every 3rd, 5th, 7th, etc.) and swimming aids (pull buoys, paddles, etc.). When all is said and done, the most efficient stroke is the one that delivers the greatest speed at the lowest effort level. The simplest way to distill all of the above tools into tangible progress is strokes per length. How we reduce our strokes per length at the same time/effort level as performances with more strokes per length is the trick. The above mentioned tools all contribute to making our strokes longer, stronger or evening out any lopsided tendencies our stroke technique may have. If you don’t have access to someone who can course correct any shortfalls in your technique, reducing your stroke count at the same effort level and time performance will help you drive better efficiency. By attempting to reduce your stroke count and stay at a high effort level, you will naturally extend your stroke and “catch” more water in your pull cycles. This will automatically improve your efficiency.
Finally, advancements in effort and efficiency yield what is most important, reduction in time. It can be very frustrating to simply gauge the success of our training and race efforts solely by time without understanding the effort we exercised (pace) or the efficiency in which we did it. However, if we understand the effort and efficiency improvements/failures realized in going faster (reducing time), we can better plan track our progress as we get closer to our key races.
So, remember, when it comes to swimming more isn’t always more! Make sure that your advances in time come at the same proportion to your advances in efficiency and ability to stabilize your effort level.
Good luck and happy training!
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