Set a Training Benchmark with a Swim Time Trial

Benchmark time trials are valuable. I like them because they put a stake in the ground for your current fitness. You can set goals based on your fitness rather than some obscure number you got from a magazine or a friend. Once you've set your goals, it's time to strategize workouts that help move you toward those times.

After a few weeks of training, you can do the time trial again to see if your strategy led to the improvement you were looking for.

I do understand that some athletes loathe the thought of time trials. About half of these athletes get performance anxiety and time trials are a way to help them work through the nerves that come with a test. Others athletes may just be lousy testers but great racers. For these athletes I usually use races as benchmark time trials for the non-aerobic tests.

The Time Trial

One of my favorite long-distance time trials for Olympic and Ironman-distance swimming is a broken 900. Here are the instructions for the time trial:

Swim 3 x 300 with 30 seconds rest between each one. The goal of the set is to swim at the highest average speed possible.

An accurate test is when all three 300s are within 15 seconds of each other. In other words, do not swim a fast, first 300 and have the third 300 be 20 or more seconds slower. Watch the clock and get your time for each 300.

Average the time for all three 300s and divide the average by three to establish a T-pace for a 100-yard distance. For example, if you swam a 4:55, 5:05 and 5:00, the average time for the 300s is 5:00. Divide that result by three to obtain a T-pace of 1:40 for a 100. Your 50 T-pace is 1:40 divided by two or 40 seconds.

Train for the 1,500-meter Swim Leg

Here is one workout that you can use to help improve your Olympic-distance swim time:

Warmup:
200 swim, 200 drill of your choice, 200 swim, 6 x 75 breathing every third stroke

Main Set:
First, you need to determine some swim intervals (SI). A swim interval means that you will leave the wall each time the clock hits your interval time. There are four SIs for this workout, the first two are 25 and 20 seconds longer than your T-pace swim time. The third is 20 seconds longer than your T-pace for a 50, and the fourth SI is 10 seconds longer than your T-pace for a 25.

For example, for the 100 swims, if your T-pace is 1:40, your 25-second SI is 2:05, and your 20-second SI is 2:00. Your SI on the 50 is 1:00 and the SI on the 25 is 30 seconds.

Round up to the nearest five-second mark for the SI if you get numbers between integers of five. For example, if your T-Pace was 1:43, make your first SI 2:10 rather than 2:08.

Plan to go right from one swim to the next. Don't take extra rest between each set of swims. Within this set, you'll be swimming at your established T-pace (i.e. speed) but varying the intervals. Here is the set:

  • 4 x 100: Swim at T-pace on a SI that is T-pace + 25 seconds
  • 4 x 100: Swim at T-pace on a SI that is T-pace + 20 seconds
  • 4 x 100: Swim at T-pace minus two seconds, on a SI that is T-pace + 25 seconds
  • 6 x 50: Swim at T-pace minus three seconds on a SI that is T-pace + 20 seconds
  • 16 x 25: On the odd numbered ones, build speed throughout the swim. On the even numbered ones aim for perfect stroke. SI is your 25 T-Pace plus 10 seconds.

Cool Down
Swim an easy 100 to 200

Of course, you need to continue working on good swimming technique; but, improving your swim speed comes with manipulating rest times and swimming pace.

Other workouts to improve your swimming can be found in the books Workouts in a Binder for Triathletes and Workouts in a Binder for Swimmers, Triathletes and Coaches.


Gale Bernhardt was the 2003 USA Triathlon Pan American Games and 2004 USA Triathlon Olympic coach for both the men's and women's teams. Her first Olympic experience was as a personal cycling coach at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Thousands of athletes have had successful training and racing experiences using Gale's pre-built, easy-to-follow training plans. For more information, click here. Let Gale and Active Trainer help you succeed.

Related Articles:

    • Three Swimming Sets for a Faster 1,500 Meters

    • Swim Drills vs. Swim Volume

    • Swim Workouts for Triathletes

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