Where’s the challenge and growth in that?
Instead, I’d like to present a few ideas on how to break out of the mold. If the name of the game is endurance, as it is for most triathletes, it’s important to approach swimming methodically and purposefully.
Start by establishing a baseline of your current fitness and consider a specific goal you’re working toward. You should base your cumulative training distance and endurance sets on which distance you’re training for. Regardless of your current weekly yardage, it's important to understand that adding distance should be done slowly and very intentionally so as to prevent injury or burnout.
Using a 10 percent rule is tried and true, meaning you should increase your weekly yardage by no more than 10 percent from the previous week. To take it a step further, explore a micro view of your training sets, build the distance progressively and define the different focus you should have during each session to maximize the trajectory towards your goal.
Three Types of Sessions: The Three S's1 of 5
Breaking your weekly regimen into three different sessions—skills, speed and stamina—helps define and qualify your goal for the day. This alone helps most athletes break up the monotony of slogging through countless laps to simply log yardage.
Skills2 of 5
Skills day is perhaps the most important of all sessions, instilling proper mechanics/posturing that will keep your shoulders happy and healthy as you begin upping the distance. Get with a coach, or ask a training buddy to take some video of you swimming from the pool deck. Once you understand your big limiters and inefficiencies, you'll be able to address these items directly with drills specific to your needs. Be sure to follow each drill with an easy 50-meter swim, focusing exclusively on the mechanic from the drill, as this is the best way to directly integrate the change into your full stroke and notice its cause and effect.
Recognizing how each nuance affects other aspects of your stroke will create the body awareness necessary for immediate changes during longer efforts, when fatigue can cause your mechanics to fall apart and bad habits to take over.
Generally, these workouts should total the yardage of your race distance, largely focusing on quality and concerted effort on your stroke. Ten percent of your skills workout should be your warmup, followed by 30 to 40 percent drills curated for your stroke. The remainder of your workout should feature intervals (mixed efforts) and a warm down to stretch out.
Speed3 of 5
Oh speed, the ever-elusive element we all hunt for constantly. For most, speed is everything. It certainly is something, but not the end-all, be-all for your goal of building endurance. Rather, regular high intensity training is thought to allow you to adapt and burn lactic acid effectively and efficiently when swimming. This will not only allow you to go harder and longer, but prep you for for the often chaotic starts and finishes of your race.
If your workout calls for something like "max effort" or "race pace," these should be done all-out at 100 percent. If you're wondering if this can help to build endurance, the answer is a definitive yes. A simple cheat with these sets is to reduce the rest interval slowly over the following weeks.
For example, 10x50 race pace on 45 seconds of rest may begin to feel a bit easy. To push through this perceived threshold, reduce the rest interval the following week to 40 seconds of rest—or perhaps reduce the rest interval by 5 seconds each set (45 seconds, then 40 seconds and so on) until failure. This will be decidedly more difficult than before, but is a tangible benchmark to work from and will help you string together a longer effort.
Another simple idea is to follow your speed sets with a long effort, such as a 400- or 500-meter swim to quickly switch systems to a more aerobic effort. This can help simulate making a surge in a race to pass someone, or the shift in speed after going hard to the first buoy and settling in for the bulk of the race after.
Generally, these workouts should total the yardage of your race distance, largely focusing on pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. Ten percent of your speed workout should be your warmup, followed by 10 to 20 percent drills, 30 to 40 percent speed sets, finishing with a long warm down to stretch out.
Stamina4 of 5
These sessions are the crux of your training. Longer swim sessions allow the practical application of the skills you've been honing, as well as show the result of the speed and mixed efforts you've been increasing each week. Although this is the third of three different training days, if you're able to swim a fourth day (which I highly recommend), it too should be a stamina session.
The general disdain for long sets is evident, and luckily there are a couple of simple ways to keep these redundant workouts spicy. Similar to the concept of reducing your rest interval during hard efforts to simulate a consecutive long effort, it's incredibly helpful to do the same with your distance sets.
For example, if your plan calls for 3x500 and 5x300, rather than resting 30 to 40 seconds, work to reduce these to perhaps 5 to 15 seconds to replicate an unbroken 1500 (or whatever distance you're training for). Additionally, assign a specific mechanics focus to each 100 within your long sets, helping to keep your stroke in check and your mind focused on one singular task. I guarantee it will feel as if time is passing faster, and much of the negative self-talk will be hushed with your newfound focus.
Generally, these workouts should total 10 to 25 percent more than your race distance, largely focusing on building endurance while maintaining proper mechanics. Ten percent of your stamina workout should be your warmup, followed by 10 to 15 percent drills, 60 to 70 percent distance sets and finishing with an easy warm down.
I recommend swimming your actual race distance unbroken at least twice before your race, ideally in open water. This will allow you to gauge how you feel at each portion of the swim and recognize and address when your stroke breaks down or you begin to fatigue. Most importantly, it will instill confidence that you can do the distance. This familiarity will feel great come race day when there are so many other factors present, like race day nerves, masses of people and variable conditions.