Is there one 'right' way to interval train in the pool?

Credit: Courtesy Competitor Pace Clocks
All the way from Hong Kong, John Brewer has written to inquire about interval training, as he is an avid cyclist and runner whose 10-year-old son is a reigning champion swimmer.

John notices that his sons workout intervals are short and fast (never more than 5, 10 or 15 seconds between swims), while his own intervals are the length of the given drill (a 1:00 run warrants a 1:00 rest before the next repeat).

John wants to know the reasoning behind such short intervals in the swimming community, and whether or not there is a right way to interval train in general.

Having been coached in the traditional distance-training school of infinite-repeat sets on barely-there intervals, I was ready to answer his query myself by stating that endurance athletes need to be pummeled into pace-holding submission.

Tons of repeats with minimal rest was the approach my coaches always took with me, conditioning me to hold consistent pace for thousands of meters on end. Even my rest time was active, for Id swim a few easy laps between challenging sets if I had the time.

Nevertheless, I posed Johns question to a couple of well-known coaches just to get a few more perspectives, and their answers were illuminating as much as they were conflicting.

Clay Evans, a former Olympian and coach/co-founder of the largest swim club in the United States (Southern California Aquatic Masters), had a succinct response as to why running and cycling enthusiasts favor more rest between intervals.

Theyre all wimps! he says, laughing.

I ask him to elaborate, fearing that hes putting both of us in danger should we ever venture into a triathlon where one of us might be recognized.

Actually its very interesting to note that it was (legendary swim coach) Doc Counsilman who started the concept of pace clock training over 40 years ago, revolutionizing the sport of swimming, and sports in general.

Other sports simply didnt practice interval training as long as we in the swimming world have, and I firmly believe that the rest of the athletic community has a lot of catching up to do in terms of interval training. Theyre simply not as sophisticated as we are, and Im sure Ill be getting a lot of flack for saying that, but its true!

The fact that swimmers are often cited as being the most disciplined of all athletes has a lot to do with Evans claim.

Not only do elite competitors clock up to six hours of training a day, seven days a week, but they practice with the control, pacing, and discipline that using a pace clock requires. Not too many other sports require the concentration and miniscule attention to detail that swimming-by-the-clock demands.

Sebastian Coe, a track star in the '70s, broke the world record in the mile several times, and he was one of the first non-swimmers to use interval training in his running workouts, Evans explains. Other than that I cant think of too many elite athletes in other sports who depend on the clock so much in their daily workouts.

Surely he cant make such a sweeping generalization without some opposition. I counter that runners and cyclists must have timed goals that they set for themselves in everyday workouts, just like swimmers.

Evans agrees, but points out that swimmers need to practice interval training a lot more often and ritually than other athletes.

As far as my swimmers are concerned, if I have a miler who wants to learn to pace himself, he needs to do 100s over and over again on a short rest, or active rest, interval so that hes conditioned to know his pace by repetition.

"A sprinter, or even someone whose specialty is the 400-meter free, needs to practice intervals with more rest so that he can get closer to peak-performance and see what its like to sprint at high speeds, rather than maintain endurance for long periods of time.

"In either case, the pace clock is integral to their workouts; you cant have a swim workout without a pace clock; its how we run the workout!

Next: Short rest? Long rest? The specifics of interval training are debated

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