Fitness Makeover: Boost your speed by swimming against the clock

Credit: Al Bello/Allsport
Fitness Makeover mania is sweeping the nation and beyond, for our March candidate is none other than Miss Fernanda Cristina Ferreira Moura, a triathlete who hails from Brazil!

Fe, as she refers to herself for short (making it a lot easier for me to write this column), has a concern that many of you have written in about: How do you get faster in the pool if youve been swimming at a plateau that you seemingly cant break?

Fe already has a full athletic plate: She cycles four times a week, runs five days a week, and swims four days a week. In addition, thanks to reading Januarys Fitness Makeover, she has taken up weights twice a week. She trains on her own and would like advice on how to improve her swimming speed from a 1:40 per 100 meters down to 1:20.

First off, the twice-weekly weight routine is certain to give Fe the added strength she needs to be a faster swimmer. As I have reiterated before, weights done in moderation as a supplement to your normal swimming, running, and biking routines are a great way to maintain muscle mass (which is easy to lose if youre a dedicated cardio-freak). Weights also build the strength necessary for explosive sprinting at the end of a race.

I will not suggest altering Fes 4:5:4 (cycle:run:swim) weekly workout regimen. If she has the time and dedication to do 13 workouts a week, more power to her! Fe is lucky in that she clearly has endurance on her side; a key component to having speed is first having enough stamina to be able to sprint at any given time during a long race.

Now, how do we get her to drop from a 1:40 to a 1:20 pace per 100 meters? Barring the obvious first-look solutions that I cannot do on-line (such as consulting a coach or fellow athlete to analyze her stroke mechanics, attending a swim camp in her area to make sure her stroke is efficient, or buying a book on proper stroke technique), Fe can add sprint sets to her swimming sessions as a way of lowering her overall 100 time.

Like many of us, Fe is a dedicated and motivated athlete who trains on her own. While this is commendable, it can also be difficult to make improvements without the motivation of a coach or other swimmers to push her along.

Because she does not have the resources to race other swimmers during her practice time, Fe needs to push herself with a different kind of friend: the pace clock. (Here's a story with a quick lesson on pace-clock reading.)

Here is a set she can try, with the clock as her challenger:

Five times through:
100 meters at 1:45
50 meters sprint at 45 seconds
50 meters easy

This is a set that focuses on speed work while not sacrificing an opportunity to incorporate endurance. The 100s at 1:45 allow Fe to cover some serious yardage while maintaining her usual 1:40 pace per 100 meters, but then she is required to sprint a 50-meter and hopefully push herself to 45 seconds.

Since she has no one to race against or a coach to push her, Fe relies on the clock as her competitor: She needs to beat the intervals I have set and really go for those sprints.

By making 50 meters on 45 seconds, she is halfway to a 100 meters at 1:30. This is already 10 seconds faster than her normal 100-meter pace of 1:40. As she continues to excel at the above set, she can occasionally try putting two sprint 50s together to make up a 100-meter at 1:30.

When this becomes routine, she can modify the above set to doing the 100s at 1:30 and the 50s on 40. Eventually this will get her to the 1:20 pace she wants to do for 100 meters.

Swimming improvements come slowly, and fit together like pieces of a puzzle. Fe should not expect to get from a 1:40 to a 1:20 in three weeks. Perhaps in six months she may only be at a 1:30, but this is still a very significant improvement. Also, in order to do 100 meters at 1:20 she first has to be able to do 50 meters at 40 seconds, and then put two of those together (hence the puzzle analogy).

So by breaking up the goal in bits and pieces, it becomes less daunting, more realistic, and readily achievable. Another speed set is a simple set of 25-meter sprints. For instance:

4 x 25 at 2:00

This is a tiny set, only 100 meters, and with lots of rest. However at the end of a workout, it is a great way to finish up and get your heart rate going while conditioning your body to sprint when you are fatigued. Fe should incorporate this drill into some of her workouts as well.

Adding up her 4x25 times, she should aim to be at 1:20. In time, she can modify the set to 2x50s at 3:00 (with the added-up 100 time at 1:20), and after that eventually a 100 sprint at the end of her workouts at or under 1:20.

Again, dedication and persistence are essential to making such swimming improvements. Fe has her work cut out for her because like many of us, she trains alone and has little encouragement, guidance, or competition. But by using the clock as a fellow competitor, she can push herself while training alone and gage her improvements accordingly.

If you are interested in being the subject of a Fitness Makeover, please e-mail your questions to Alex, and include a phone number where you can be reached upon your selection.

Get advice for getting back on track with Alex's Fitness Makeover column

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