Length of warm-up is a personal preference, but I have always maintained that the more luxurious and lengthy it is, the better prepared you will be to finish your main set successfully.
Note that a warm-up is not meant to tire you out or make your muscles sore; it is a supplement to your practice session and should be approached as such. Swim long and slow, be easy on your intervals, do a few random sprints, and feel free to kick and pull a short set. It's up to you.
The first 1,500-meter freestyle is a pace-setter for the rest of your workout. Ryk admits that his times overall were nothing too crazy, about 17:10 for the first 1,500.
17:10 is pretty fast for a medium-paced 1,500, but remember: this is all relative. The first leg ought to be at about 80 percent?effort, with roughly a minute's rest before the next set. With three more broken 1,500s to follow, you want to make sure you have enough left for the last one while not shortchanging yourself by loafing the first one.
The next three 500s offer you an opportunity to better your 1,500-meter time by giving you two brief periods of rest after 500 meters and then again after 1,000 meters. You should not allow yourself more than 30 seconds of recovery, and be sure to pick up the pace on the last 500 in an attempt to beat your previous two 500 times (this is what descending is all about!).
At this point, the prospect of being only halfway through your main set may be discouraging to even the most positive-minded athlete. Ryk admits that there were days he wasn't in the mood to finish this workout, but had no choice given the stern coach on deck. He would try a few interesting tactics to stay focused and motivated:
"I would sing my national anthem when it really started to hurt. I was very young and hungry for international competition. I also had some songs in my head that pumped me up. Mostly, you just have to keep telling yourself to relax whenever possible. You become efficient that way.
Whatever your motivation, attack the next set of 5 x 300 knowing that the shorter repeats lead to increased amounts of rest (though the time you take between each 300 should only be 15 seconds). You need only descend each 300 by a second or two, so take care not to blast through the second one and bonk for the remaining three.
To put things into perspective, Ryk's 300s ranged from 3:25 to 3:15; your last 300 need only be five to 10 seconds faster than your first one, so approach the initial repeat accordingly.
The Home Stretch
The last set of 15 x 100 is the final and most crucial test of endurance. Given what came before, this is the set that is most intense, as this 1,500 meters is divided into 15 short segments, each an explosive slice of race pace (though at this point in the workout, each repeat may feel like a sprint!).
Ryk recalls delivering a burst of 100s ranging in time from 1:02 to 0:58, and attributes such final sets to his success as a back-half swimmer (one who always comes back strong in the latter part of a race to overtake sprint-out-of-the-gate competitors).
"I think this type of set really helped me in the long run, as you must know," he says, laughing (a reference to a few open-water swims last year where he let me lead the way, only to outswim me under the finish line).
If you can get your arms out of the water after this frenzy of fast swimming, a few hundred meters of easy cool-down swimming will flush out any build-up of lactic acid in your shoulders and prevent extreme soreness the following day.
A Modified Workout
Swimmers who can't fathom completing the full 8,000 meters can easily modify the workout by cutting it in half:
2 x 400 Free
4 x 200 Free
8 x 100 Free
The distance of the workout is not as important as retaining the integrity of the set: descending each repeat and descending each broken 1,500 or 800. Ultimately, the workout will result in increased endurance and the ability for you to finish strongly in even the most demanding of race circumstances.
Always concentrate on your stroke, too. It is easy to get sloppy as you get tired and as the meters mount throughout the workout. If you can maintain good form at the end of the session, you will be that much better off at the end of a race, when your competitors fall apart in technique and endurance.
Best of all, conditioning yourself with the mental challenges of facing such a long and arduous set will make the first leg of a triathlon or an open-water swim seem that much easier. Sometimes, this mental advantage is all it takes to beat an opponent who is otherwise stronger and faster.
Alex Kostich was an All-American swimmer at Stanford and is an open-water masters swimming champion.