Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A New Approach to Training – Part 1: The Swim

Any regular reader of this blog will know that a few months ago I hired a triathlon coach in the hopes that I could improve my times—particularly at long course events where I’ve often struggled.

I did okay with my own training and I still view 2012 as something of a watershed year given my strong performances at both the Boulder Peak and Rattlesnake Olympic distance events. I struggled in between at HITS 70.3 but that was also my first attempt at that distance and (as you can see in my race report) there were several factors making it a more challenging race.

Due to injuries, bad motivation, poor diet, over-racing and inadequate training, most of my 2013 was not a particularly good year for me. I did manage to turn things around in my last two races, but I also knew that I wanted to make significant strides at the half-iron distance.

Until January, how that would happen with a coach was something of a mystery to me. I noted in this post that the intensity of the workouts I was being assigned was far higher than anything I had previously done. No more just getting in the pool and swimming for 1500 to 2000 yards. Even the “easy” workouts are characterized by higher intensities than I’ve ever had in a practice and even most of my races.

Fundamental Changes

Since I started swimming regularly back in 2010 when I decided I wanted to be a triathlete, I’ve never done much kicking in the water. I think sometimes my feet would twitch a little bit, but there was no concerted effort to kick. One of the things about my coach is that he is not only a triathlon coach but also a swim coach. As a result, I’ve had to get used to using my legs both as part of the swim as well as on kick sets with a board.

Since a test in early February, most of my swimming is built around a set of numbers specific to my ability. This was done after having me swim two specific distances after a long warm up and with only a one minute rest in between. Now I get a set of distances with my targeted speed being somewhere along the scale. Each yardage amount has a value so the speed for 100 yard intervals is much higher than it would be for say 600 yards.


Previously, I never saw much value in items like paddles and fins. It seemed to me that they just made the swim easier. Turns out, I was pretty wrong about that. Paddles actually create more resistance during the pull thus making you work a little harder. They also slow down the overall stroke and force you to work on form.

Likewise, proper swim fins (not the really big ones you use on snorkel trips) have a similar effect on the kick. I’m using either or both multiple times a week and though it’s too early to tell if they have made a difference, I think they will.

Rest Intervals

During my training, I almost always went out and swam my targeted distance without stopping. If that meant 45 minutes, I kept going until I was done. That’s not an altogether bad thing, but keep in mind, all of my training now is based on targeted intensity rather than just long steady-state work.

In practice, this means that a really hard interval (like 200 at near maximum pace) will include both a rest between then intervals and then a longer rest once the set is done. These rest intervals are not particularly long—they can be anywhere from 20 to 30 seconds with up to 60 seconds after a set—they do serve the purpose of allowing me just enough recovery to go hit it hard on my next set.

Net Improvement

This is another case of it being just a little too early to tell if the effort is creating any improvement, but I am swimming much further than in the past. At this point a year ago, my weekly average was less than 1500 yards a week. This year it’s over 4700 and I’m in the water twice a week. I am reasonably confident that if I were to do an open water competition today, I’d turn in one of my better performances.

Fortunately, it’s still only March and my first event, the Summer Open Sprint, is still more than two months off. That means there will be several thousand more yards of swimming between now and when I swim off the beach of Union Reservoir.

So that’s the short and sweet of the aquatic portion of my coached training. In upcoming posts, I’ll discuss the bike (all on my trainer so far) and the run. Both have their own intensity characteristics and I’m pleased to see that I’m getting better at both.

Until then, thanks for reading!

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