The 1,500-meter swim that constitutes the first leg of an Olympic-distance triathlon is a unique test somewhat different from the challenges presented by both shorter and longer triathlon swims.
It's short enough so the well-trained athlete can sustain a very high intensity from start to finish, but it's also long enough so even the well-trained athlete must hold something back and pace evenly.
The main cause of fatigue during a 1.5km swim is muscular acidosis, or loss of pH balance in the working muscles, which inhibits further muscle contractions. Thus, you can improve your performance by decreasing your susceptibility to muscular acidosis through appropriate training.
There are two physiologically distinct ways to achieve this effect. The first is to increase your swimming-specific aerobic capacity--that is, to increase the rate at which your muscles are able to use oxygen to release energy during swimming--because aerobic metabolism does not produce the chemical byproducts that cause muscular acidosis. You can also enhance your body's ability to neutralize, or buffer, the metabolic byproducts that cause your muscles to lose their pH balance.
I asked three top triathlon coaches--LifeSport head coach Lance Watson, 2004 U.S. Olympic triathlon team coach Gale Bernhardt and former ITU triathlon world champion Siri Lindley--to share some of their favorite Olympic-distance swim sets, and they generously obliged. Be sure to warm up thoroughly before and cool down after each of these main sets.
Lance Watson's Lactate-threshold Test Set
Benefit: This main set divides the 1,500-meter race distance into three work intervals of decreasing length. By swimming each at maximum intensity and then recovering, you train your body to sustain a faster speed over the total distance.
- 800 TT (i.e. time trial, or 100-percent effort)
- 200 easy/recovery
- 200 TT
- 200 easy/recovery
- 100 TT
If possible, get splits at each 100 (and at each 50 for the 100) to monitor your pace. Also note your finishing heart rate after each time-trial swim.
Alternative main set if you want to trim some yardage: 200-400 TT, 200 easy/recovery, 100-200 TT, 200 easy/recovery, 50-100 TT.
Coach's comments: "This is a set I regularly use with my athletes to mark progress," says Watson. "It is usually on a Tuesday morning after a very easy recovery day on Monday that may or may not include a light swim to tune up. This set helps me determine my athletes' fitness at threshold and race start speed, which is crucial for getting out fast and getting a good draft.