1602 header sprint impr project

Since I am back in Oregon USA and back to the short 25 yard pool, my interest has been drawn back to short distance work for these winter and spring months, until open water season arrives again. In Antalya I enjoyed year-round sea swimming, but I am now back to a similar situation as many of you – in the pool in the winter with the hope to get in local open water as soon as conditions permit. I return to Turkey in late May to lead our series of open water camps there so I have to change training gears in May to get ready for that.


Over the last 8 years my body has essentially become specialized for distance swimming, because most of my training has reflected that. But with the return to a short pool, my interest in short distance improvement has returned – after all, swimming 5+km in a pool is not exciting for most people (can you imagine running a marathon in a basketball court?). As varied as it can be in the sea, all that focus on distance work can easily put a swimmer into a neurological ‘rut’ – where he develops a relatively small range of gears and neuro-muscular control suitable only to the conservative exertion of distance swimming. I suspect that is my case.

Since I started competitive swimming in high school, I have been fascinated by the 100 sprint. In my mind it has always been a marker of a swimmer’s ability. It is so common to use one’s 100 time or pace as the standard reference point for ranking a swimmer in our midst. I am naturally curious what I might be capable of in the 100 these days with my 40+ year old body since I haven’t really given it serious training and testing in decades. Back in high school I was on a very successful school swim team, though I was not one of the talented or accomplished members. I was in the water with those who were, and I dreamed and strove to break the 60 second barrier (for 100y) to earn my way into the training lane closer to them.

How close could I come to that mark now, training on a reasonable budget of time and energy?

The US Masters all time records show 51 seconds (Long Course Meters) to be about the best time for the Male 40-44 Age Group. I noticed our former Olympian Matt Biondi competed in a masters meet in 2014 to be ranked 6th in 100 LCM with a time of 54.10 seconds in the Male 45-49 Age Group. These not-young-but-not-old guys are still really fast!

100 Sprint Project

So, when I returned to Oregon in January, I laid out the initial design and started my 100y Sprint Improvement Project, and in the (open to the public) section of the TI Forum I have started to share the outline and record some of my results from that training.

Now, “What’s the big deal?” you might ask. Why not just swim as fast as you can for 100 and see?

Because as fast as I can go right now is not as fast as I know I can go! Something is holding me back.

Re-Wire The Brain

On some recent tests I realize I am not coming close to maximizing my heart rate nor pushing my absolute muscle strength, but something in my brain seems to strongly resist working above a certain threshold – as if there is a governor on the engine that restricts my exertion above a certain point. I am deeply wired to work in high aerobic range, and up to my aerobic threshold – it sets guards at that boundary in order to allow me to swim for hours. I have been an endurance athlete for 20+ years now. From all my time in the sea and at swim camps I am prepared to swim for hours, not blow the fuel tank in mere seconds.

Because I have trained for very strong yet non-competitive distance swimming these last few years, I suspect that my brain is wired to resist explosive movement which would clog my system with waste products I am not prepared to process, thus shut down my muscles in short time. Trained sprinters can afford to work all-out in a totally different metabolic state because their race is only going to last 25 seconds, 60 seconds or perhaps 2 minutes. The line is quite fuzzy but above that distance, there has to be some restraint in how energy is burned up in order to distribute it well at competitive speeds. We hold back a little to last longer. And, it is likely that most non-competitive swimmers do not even come close to developing their all-out sprint potential because the incentive and accountability to achieve it is not there.

I might be strong, and I might be generally fit, but sprinting requires power (= strength exerted within a span of time) and efficient sprinting requires neuro-muscular control at a very fine, fast level. My neuro-muscular system is very conservative of energy, so I must working through a process of coaxing it to execute more precise-and-explosive movements.

Because this is a Total Immersion approach to training – whether long distance or sprint – I emphasize loyalty to ‘quality speed’, i.e. efficient-speed which still demands that I use energy well, even if for a very short duration. This requires that I maintain form, precision and synchronization in the movement patterns as I work with more power and faster tempos. As older swimmers eventually realize, what we used to accomplish in shear power and grit we now have to learn to accomplish with finesse. So, the process has to develop both the quantity and the quality dimensions of the sprint stroke together. Every set I do has a clear requirement in both those categories.

Pace Combinations For 25 Splits

If you are curious, here is my pace matrix that is guiding my decisions about SPL x Tempo combinations for 25 yard splits.

160215 Pace Combo Matrix MAT

In the columns are the range of SPL I am working with in the 25y pool. And in the rows are the tempos which, combined with those SPL, produce 25y pace (in the GREEN boxes) in the range I am working in.

By recent testing I am currently capable of about 18 second pace per 25y (a total of 72 seconds per 100y, with a wall-start) as seen in the YELLOW highlighted boxes. So, if I want to break 70, 65, or 60 seconds, I know precisely what SPL x Tempo combinations I must to achieve to do that. I am currently working in the .90s and into the high .80s. I’ve got a ways to go still.

[This matrix uses a few assumptions – like a 5 meter push-off to first stroke.]

Decisions And Consequences

As I work toward faster sprint speeds, I have to make a decision about whether to allow myself to give up a stroke (add +1 stroke to my stroke count), or to persist in holding that SPL and keeping working to lower tempo. See, if you compare 15 SPL x 0.94 seconds to 16 SPL x 0.88 seconds, both produce the same speed – but the difference is, if I give up one stroke, I have to increase tempo -0.06 seconds just to keep the same pace. Therefore, in the interest of maintaining pace, let alone going faster, every drop in stroke length has a time consequence I must carefully consider. One cannot just turn up the tempo without regard to its impact on SL, otherwise arms start spinning faster while the swimmer goes slower, and that is the fate awaiting the swimmer who doesn’t train to prevent this.

In this matrix, in YELLOW, I highlighted the pace combo options for my current 18 second capability, and then I highlighted a challenging pace goal of 16.5 seconds in light BLUE, and a crazy pace goal of 15 seconds per 25y (60 seconds per 100) in PINK. Now I can see clearly what metric options I have for achieving those goals. I get to deal with reality of the math of speed, not wishful thinking.

As I work down in tempo each week, I will be searching out and training for my ideal (i.e. most efficient) combination for each subsequent speed goal. As I reach what feels like a limit in stroke length at that pace, I will have to decide whether I need time to lower drag or develop more power to preserve SL, or if I need to allow SL to shorten slightly to lower the force-per-stroke and work in more strokes-per-minute to make up for it. There is a required budget for each variable in this speed equation, so I cannot just keep shortening SL and keep speeding up Tempo indiscriminately – there are limits and untenable consequences at the extremes for both of those variables.

As you can see, this is not going to be easy project at all – it is going to be technical, effortful, and mindful all the way. But in this way of approaching it, the training is so much more engaging and objective. I have to deal with my body and mind within the reality of the numbers. There are complex decisions to be worked out but there is little guess-work and no wishful thinking. I know exactly what has to be done to get to my goal.


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In the next blog I will demonstrate a statistical way to estimate what my performance should be in 100 based on my performance in an event of another distance.

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