Tri Swim: Winter Training

To swim better, says Joe Beer, (writer of Fitness and Science in Cycling Plus, and Ironman triathlete) you must assess your current ability and tweak your training to focus on stubborn areas…

 With winter training underway, your good intentions over this period need to produce measurable results and not simply burn off a few calories while the dark days tick by.

From now until your next race, you need to assess your performance regularly, make changes where necessary and continue to maintain focus on your training at hand.

You’re not going to get faster out of the water or more economical going into T1 by accident. But nor should you expect to see weekly improvements; fitness gains and skill improvement take weeks and months. So, below are some session suggestions to help you assess the various areas of your present ability.

* What next?   From these tests, you get something to note in your training diary and compare to past and future data. It’s not wasted time; rather a training stimulus and something to use to assess whether your current training is making any difference.

The art of progress is to tweak the mixture of technique and fitness work. For most of us that means good mechanics before we rush into fitness sessions. Losing good mechanics and economical movement just to get miles in the diary or hit a particular session total is going to hinder progress. Test yourself, tweak session focus to improve weak areas and complete a consistent block of targeted training.

DIY Swim Tests  

Undertake these sets throughout your winter training…

– Speed endurance

What to do: Maintain a consistent top-end speed with a short rest holding good form: 10 x 100m at 85% of maximum heart rate (HRmax) with 20secs rest, counting your last length stroke count throughout.

What’s measured?  The brief recovery allows you to keep the effort more aerobic and controlled. But it’s not how easy you can swim the set; rather how you can bring your average time across the set down while still maintaining a strong stroke. You can incorporate a similar main set into a tri-club session to measure this parameter, though drafting can give a false impression of your swimming.

– Stroke efficiency

What to do: 100m adding total strokes to total seconds to give a final number. For example, swim 95secs in 80 strokes = 175 for 100m. The aim is to reduce this score.

What’s measured?  This is a great drill to ensure you focus on stroke technique. Don’t try to fluke this with exceptional push-offs and glides or catch-up style stroke mechanics.

– Endurance capacity  

What to do:  A big one for sprinters: continuous swim of 1 x 1,000m after 10min warm-up.

What’s measured?  This tests the muscles’ capacity to both reproduce a movement pattern and deliver aerobic energy. This can improve both confidence to finish a new race distance and allow an automation of the stroke mechanics by switching you off and relaxing your stroke.

– Race simulation

What to do:  A similar venue, distance and warm-up scenario. Race-day swim cord warm-up followed by 400m timed pool swim with a haul-out.

What’s measured?   This is a great way to mimic your race-day pool swim performance; that said, clearly it’d be tricky to undertake open-water testing, except at training camps or if you live in warmer climes. It’s still a good reality check with nowhere to hide.


What to do:  Full-blown time-trial performance: 1 x 25, 50 or 100m at maximal effort.

What’s measured?   This swim test is the least relevant of the five because it focuses on all-out speed and, subsequently, the efficiency of your anaerobic system. Triathlon is an endurance event so measurement of stamina is more important than speed, especially during the off-season where you should be training at a low(ish) intensity, but high volume, to build your aerobic base.


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