How to Boost Your Speed Over the Long Haul

This month's Fitness Makeover will focus on two swimmers with conflicting philosophies on ideal swim training.

Zena Courtney and Eric Dybdahl find themselves in the same lane at their Seattle, Washington, masters swimming program, but recently could not agree on the best way to improve speed and conditioning.

Zena, who has an extensive competitive swimming background dating back to her college days, has advised Eric that the best way to improve his 1,650-yard freestyle time is to swim 4,000 to 5,000 yards a day and focus on some faster-paced sets to quicken his average speed.

Eric, who only started swimming in his late 30's, insists that swimming a whopping 10,000 yards a day, five days a week, will provide him with the conditioning he missed out on as a youth. With such yardage under his belt, Eric claims he is bound to improve his long-distance swims. Ultimately, the goal is to get Eric's 19-plus-minute 1,650 time down to under 19 minutes.

Swimmers and triathletes always seem to struggle with the yardage question. Generally a motivated and focused bunch, they know deep down that doing more may not always be the best way to improve. However, these athletes can't help but believe that if they slack off, they just might get beaten by the slightly more dedicated someone who may have done those extra miles during mid-season training.

Call it insecurity or justification of obsessive-compulsive tendencies, but the end result to swimming extra garbage yardage is usually a fitness and speed plateau, and occasionally a shoulder injury or chronic fatigue.

That said, Eric is partially right in believing that lots of yardage will give him superior conditioning. If he recently began swimming or had been sedentary prior to his new found exercise regimen, he will develop added endurance by spending more time in the water. However, if he is looking for improved cardiovascular ability after a few years of the same swimming schedule, then he should focus more on the quality, or speed, of his swimming rather than the distance.

By adding shorter, intense sets to his swim workouts, Eric will learn to swim fast while maintaining and even improving upon his cardiovascular conditioning. Because he is currently accustomed to swimming slowly for long periods of time, Eric does not have the speed to reach his 1,650-yard goal time. The faster he swims in workout, the more prepared and accustomed he will be to swimming fast in his race event.

Currently, he is probably in fine shape to complete a 10-mile ocean swim at a slow and steady pace but he is having difficulty repeating a mere 16 consecutive 100s at 1:09 pace to get under 19 minutes.

Eric need not cut his yardage down too much if he feels that his 10,000-yard workouts are manageable. What he does need to do is make sure that for at least 1,600 yards per workout he is pushing himself to race pace speeds (even if he does short repeats with lots of rest). By forcing himself to swim faster than his average pace, Eric will improve his cardiovascular endurance and condition himself to hold a certain time per 100 yards.

In addition, if Eric modifies his training to include other sports such as spinning or running, he will gain added endurance that will carry over nicely to his swimming. Physically exerting the body in different ways provides an athlete with a more well-rounded cardiovascular base. By taking up a sport that is more leg-intensive (hence working the body's largest muscles), Eric will increase his cardiovascular ability for extended periods of time.

Another benefit of such cross-training is that it allows an athlete to improve upon conditioning while preventing injuries that result from too much swimming. Rotator-cuff inflammation and chronic fatigue can set in, especially among novice swimmers who ramp up their yardage too much, too soon.

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