(Stop the) Swimming insanity: Why most swim programs are dumb

There is one inevitability of training, no matter how well-intentioned, someone will always find a way to add complete insanity to a sport. In the sport of triathlon, its swimming. What’s equally insane is that many triathletes see this as completely normal. Let’s face it, though, endurance athletes are predisposed to overtraining and the tri community is rife with it. But this doesn’t need to be the case! My objectives for this article are to highlight why swim training, particularly for triathletes often makes no sense, and how you can make your training better.

Once upon a time…

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m not a fast swimmer. Even on my best day I’m down around the 50th percentile; i.e., I’m average. It sucks, I hate it, and its really made a mess of races, so I work at it all the time. I’ve searched out coaches, made small gains, and continue to struggle for more speed. I know its largely technical faults, but finding what the specific issue is has been elusive, so fixing it is impossible. Not surprisingly, like most triathletes, I joined a masters swim group. Now, I don’t want to knock any specific training group for not fixing my specific issue, so I will focus specifically on training, and less on coaching.

Truth be told, if you’re looking for good technique coaching, joining a large swim group is largely a waste of time. There is no replacing one-on-one help, which as I’ve learned, is hard to find for many reasons. My point here, is that if technique is your problem, avoid swimming in large groups more than once per week. If you need the motivation (physical or mental), then you also have larger issues to address, because external motivators will ultimately be your undoing. What’s the harm with these swim melees you say? Lot’s! Here’s the run down:

  • Plain Jane Training: The training is typically too general for your needs.
  • Goldilocks Training: The training is not specific to your plan; its either too hard or too easy. Worse, its tailored to a specific event nothing like your own. What’s the point of going?
  • Hammertime/300/SEAL Training: The training is too f##king hard all the time. We’ve all seen this style of coaching or training, where you’re abused every session and fooled into thinking that destroying yourself is the key to success.
  • Crossfit Training: While I’ve relaxed some of my views on Crossfit if applied by good coaches. But combining Crossfit with swimming is just dumb. Why? Never mind the fact that its not specific to your sport needs at all (not even close), combining high intensity work using mechanics averse to the specific mechanics of a sport wholly dependent on good mechanics is asinine.
  • David vs Goliath Training: Training in massive groups, or groups where the ability levels are huge can create issues in maintaining a good overall session for everyone.
  • “Everything but the kitchen sink” Training: This sums up most of the group sessions I’ve attended. They make absolutely no sense! It’s a mish-mosh of drills, intensities, distances, rest periods, and intervals that’s so complicated it not needs to be written on a white board, it needs to be translated! I’ve had more than one session where I’ve so oxygen deprived I cannot actually comprehend what’s written. 

What other sport writes workouts so complicated they become as much mental as physical training?

STOP the Insanity!

The easiest fix here is to just stop being a slave to these crazy workouts. Does that mean you have to quit your swim group? Maybe. But more likely, you may need to start being more strategic with your attendance. You might want to start by talking to the coaches about what their training objectives are in the upcoming workouts. With luck, they will have a plan at least a week out. Unfortunately, I suspect that many coaches are writing workouts less than a couple hours in advance, without rhyme of reason to the training. In which case, you can simply plan for a “hard” session without specifics a few times a month. Beyond that, regular attendance will do little to build fitness beyond the first months of the year; this is a hard truth that you may have already realized. We see this a lot in youth/high school/Division 3 sports, where workouts are generic and often too hard for most.

Recalling my season a few years ago, I made great progress in training sessions for a few months, but it never translated to race performances. Moreover, by mid-season, I was cooked. I was up early for rehab for months, then I was up early for swim training. Sessions were always hard, and always the same duration. I started arriving a bit late to cut some of the warm-up and started sitting out some sets; something many coaches don’t like. By the end of the year, I gave up on the training, and started training alone again. I asked a coach later that year how I could improve and got the all too common advice to “train more”. 

Building a better swim program

In April, I attended The School of Thought Clinic featuring Jan Olbrecht. Jan is a leading sports scientist and training advisor, working with some of the best swimmers and triathletes in the world. The material covered in this clinic extends beyond this post, but one lesson that came from those discussions were how unbelievably simplistic Olbrecht’s, and others, training schemes and sessions are for swimming. Honestly, they were familiar because they looked like a typical run or cycling workout, rather than the convoluted mash that is commonly presented on the white board. Accordingly, assuming you’re training will be specific to your needs, here are my tips for developing better swim workouts:

  • Periodize your training: I’ve already discussed ways to periodize training, so I won’t rehash those. Suffice it to say, when it comes to triathlon, you cannot training every sport equally or similarly year round. The rotating non-linear model is similar to one used by many top athletes and coaches, including Prof. Olbrecht. Rotate your training to match your needs!
  • Get specific: It cannot be stated enough, you need to train specifically for your technique, strengths, weaknesses, and race needs. This includes training specific aspects of fitness, including aerobic and anaerobic capacities, power, recovery, specific race tactics. Training load is determined not only by the volume and intensity of training, as well as the distances and recoveries for intervals.
  • Simplicity is key: The simpler the better. Sessions look similar to other swim training with a WARM-UP, DRILLS, MAIN-SET, AND COOL DOWN, but keeping each section easy to remember and follow allow for more mental acuity to tune into your technique and overall feeling. I’ve included a couple sample workouts from the past season for some ideas.
  • Swim less, recover more: I simply don’t by into the whole idea of “feel for the water”. Yes, it is true that elite athletes who training with high-volumes become accustomed to regular training. However, if you’re like me, you may not train more than 10 hrs/week. By allowing for 2 days between swim workouts, especially on “off weeks” (not necessarily rest weeks) you leave yourself with more energy to train harder, and more time to fit in other sports for training.

You may be wondering if this really works. I cannot say definitively, but I can say I have made steady, albeit slow progress for 2 seasons. Moreover, no matter how good a swimmer you are, the typical master swim layout is probably one of the least effective ways to train, which is why it looks nothing like elite training programs. Moreover, you need not give up all your masters sessions. But if you’re like me, you may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome a simpler program yield. You can always go back.

AnC Blast session

The objective of this session is build anaerobic capacity, as well as improve aerobic capacity (capacities play well together). However, technique is critical, so an easy warm-up is included with drill work included.

Warm-up 

500 – 800 yd

  • Includes specific stroke work w & w/o snorkel

Mainset

6X 50 sprint with 2 min rest. Emphasis on technique and turn-over.

100 back to unwind

3X 200 (75 easy, 25 fast, 75 easy, 25 fast) with 15 sec rest

100 back

Cool Down

200 easy free

Race Endurance Taper session

The objective of this session is final prep for an upcoming race with a 1200 m swim. Emphasis is on technique, especially comfortable smooth swimming at the beginning, not race speed.

Warm-up 

1200 m steady, sub-race pace

Mainset

100 back

4X 25 kick 15 sec recovery

2X 50 form w/ snorkel

2X 150 @ RP with 15 sec rest

100 back

Cool Down

100 easy free

 

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