Just the other day one of my swimmers was describing his weekly training plan in order to get my input on it. His goal is to build up his capabilities over the next few months in order to prepare for his first Alcatraz Triathlon with a 1.5 mile swim (2.4 km), and a few months later, the Santa Rosa Ironman with a 2.4 mile (4.2 km) swim.

He needs to be ready to swim farther than he’s gone before and do it faster too, yet still have abundant energy left for the rest of the race. This is a tall order, considering where he has started at. But for many months he has been swimming 5 days a week, he pays attention intently in our weekly practice session and without hesitation gets to work on each technical improvement we choose with noticeable results the following week. I think it is within reach for him.

His plan for the pool includes a good array of practice types for each week. Of note are the day focused on improving stroke length, the day focused on higher speed, and the day focused on longer distances.

In order to take his training plan to a higher level this is what I recommended:

 

Always Require A Quality With Each Quantity

All your practice types are meant to challenge some part of the performance system in some way. You may be taking it easy on one part in one type of practice but you will be pushing your capabilities on another part.

With each quantity requirement you assign yourself (e.g. swimming 10x 100, or swimming at X pace per 100, etc) make sure you also require a high standard on some technical feature of the stroke as well. Specifically, notice some part of the stroke that is particularly vulnerable to degradation under the stress of that kind of work and require yourself to protect and correct that feature as you get into the more stressful half of the set. You need to train your body how to respond to these conditions, and you want the body to be even more vigilant for maintaining best technique under stress, not less, because this is not its natural tendency.

For example, when you are doing your longer distance swims each week (eventually swimming farther than your race distances) you may not be going as fast as your intended race pace and therefore it will be easier on your metabolism and muscles in one way, but you should demand something else in your stroke that makes it quite challenging to maintain over the latter half of that distance. Increase the neural challenge. For you, since we know your stroke is on the short side, a good option is to maintain the same stroke count (with no more than +/- 1 stroke) over the entire distance.

When the going gets really tough, which part will you be most loyal to – finishing the long swim or maintaining your stroke count? If you can’t accomplish both the assigned quantity or the assigned quality, which one will you carry out to the end? … I think I will save that answer for another post to spare the length of this one.

 

Put Some Emphasis On Weaker Parts

Of that array of practice types, rather than just do the same five different practices each week, notice where your weaker part of performance is and put more emphasis on the practice types that work on that part.

In your case, your stroke length is still rather short for your wingspan and event type and so I recommend you  increase emphasis during the week on maintaining and strengthening your ability to hold consistent your best (average) stroke count. Just the requirement of maintaining a stroke count (rather than trying to lower it just yet) will do a lot to improve your neural and muscular strength because achieving that specific stroke count narrows the options down for how your body can achieve that and your nervous system will be refining the muscular control around what it already knows is needed to achieve that stroke count. By doing this over a few weeks, you will likely find your stroke count decreasing without directly trying to as the nervous system is forced to refine the action, subconsciously reducing both drag and making its muscular effort more efficient.

To put emphasis on this you could either repeat once or twice a certain practice type that feels particularly challenging and effective for working on that stroke count, or you could make sure to maintain that same requirement on stroke count consistency in the other practice types for the week.

 

Better Speed Practice

And lastly, the ‘speed’ day caught my attention. Your basic plan is to take a set distance (like 1 mile) and swim it as fast as you can.

My concern is that, for a swimmer at this stage of development, if you just plan on swimming fast without any other particular requirement to keep your form accountable, what nearly always happens is that your stroke quality degrades, little by little, under increasing fatigue, and you don’t notice how much until you are really tired and the hope of protecting and correcting it is lost. By letting the stroke do whatever it will under fatigue, without conscious monitoring, this trains the nervous system to accept this degradation as the normal response to fatigue. Under fatigue the brain’s increasing priority is to reduce effort and conserve energy, and this comes at the expense of an effective stroke. When the going gets tough, the message the body receives is that “its OK to let the form be distorted in order to lower the discomfort” – the problem is that any distortion in form increases drag, increases the rate at which energy is consumed, lowers speed and puts you in a downward spiral of increasing fatigue that is impossible to pull out of once you fall into it.

Instead, what I recommend for your speed day is that you break up your total distance into repeats (perhaps 10x or 12x 150), with a strict limited amount of rest between each, and then set your pace goal for each 150 at higher than the pace you can currently hold for 1 mile (1800y in this pool). And most important of all: break that pace down into its composites of stroke count and tempo. Then require of yourself that you maintain that precise stroke count and tempo for every length of every repeat in that set (with only a small range of variance tolerated). This will do two important things:

  1. it will hold you accountable to a precise pace which you can monitor while in the act of swimming because you can hear the beep and count strokes, and
  2. your options for how to execute the stroke are limited by what the body already knows is required to achieve that particular stroke count (because you’ve practiced it extensively already)

It may not feel challenging at first, but if you’ve picked an appropriate pace (greater than what you can hold over the total distance without rest) and the suitable stroke count and tempo (for your current abilities), you should find this set to be quite challenging in the second half, or toward the last length of each repeat. Over the course of the set, you will experience increasing fatigue and in that zone you will then be training your nervous system to respond to that fatigue in a form-protecting way. This is how you actually get stronger in the way specific to your best stroke pattern.

And just as I described previously, the refinements and strength that develop from this kind of neurally demanding practice will likely usher you into a lower stroke count in the weeks ahead. 

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