A training method called “ultra short race pace training” (USRPT) has been stirring up debate in the swimming community over the past few years. The concept is simple: To race your best, you should train at race pace. Always.
The man pushing the regimen is psychologist Dr. Brent Rushall, a professor emeritus at San Diego State University who has an extensive background in coaching, psychology and physiology dating back to 1961. He published a paper online about USRPT in 2014, which got the swim community chattering, and continues to stoke the fire by posting bulletins about USRPT on his website, Usrpt.info, where he sells how-to training DVDs. He clearly has something to gain from encouraging the regimen; the question everyone’s trying to figure out is if athletes do, too.
“At its core, USRPT is the idea that effective swim training should be about executing the most race pace yardage as possible,” Rushall writes. In other words, to swim fast you have to train fast.
Here are the rules (there are lots of rules): A typical USRPT set uses 25s, 50s, 75s and rarely 100s. These are repeated 20–40 times at race pace. The rest period is 10–20 seconds, depending on the length of interval, but is never longer than 20 seconds. When the swimmer fails to meet the goal pace, he can rest until the next send-off. He is allowed to fail to meet the intended pace twice consecutively, or three times total before stopping the set completely. So while some sets look very daunting, swimmers are not expected to complete the set.
USRPT swim sets may be broken up, so instead of doing 50×25 a swimmer may do 30×25, recover, then do 20×25. USRPT sets are to be done completely as their own workout, not in addition to an endurance set or drills. And you’re supposed to do USRPT and only USRPT every time you swim. As a guideline, the set should be three to five times the distance of the event.
For example, a 100-yard freestyle swimmer who hits 1:00 in racing may do 30×25 with a target time of 15 seconds on a 30-second interval, swim easy for five minutes, then do 20×25 with the same goal time and interval. Warm-ups are kept short to save the energy for the main set.
There are no drills or pulling with USRPT. However, technique and race strategies are important. Cameron Yick, a swimmer and Yale senior majoring in computer science and electrical engineering who has been working with Rushall since 2012 and maintains the USRPT coaches’ discussion forum, explains the point of all those rules: “A feature of USRPT is its emphasis on ensuring swimmers have something to focus on for every set, such as a technical skill and/or a psychological strategy. USRPT ensures that technical stroke features that the swimmers learn about actually gets implemented into their stroke when they get up and race.”
For triathletes, there are some issues when implementing USRPT. The obvious issue is that of distance. An Olympic-distance triathlete would have to swim a minimum of 4,500 yards per set at race pace. However, Yick points out that one of Rushall’s caveats is that the distance guidelines should be applied with good judgment—if you don’t already have strong technique, pounding out 4,500 yards of USRPT is a terrible idea. And as any triathlete knows, swimming in open water with other people around you requires a level of strength that using paddles and buoys can help develop.
Some swimmers have experimented with USRPT for the 1500, doing sets like 30×100 on 20 seconds rest. To date, no one has done research or tested how USRPT-style training could be implemented for a triathlete swimming 1.2 or 2.4 miles.
Still, there are some aspects of USRPT swimming that make sense. USRPT can be effective at helping triathletes get a better feel for their race pace, and how their technique falls apart after a certain time frame. It naturally fits well during a sharpening period when you are nearing a race and during the taper as well. It can also be a simple matter of breaking things up. Long sets in the pool can be incredibly boring, so shorter, faster efforts can be a welcome break psychologically.
Ultimately, USRPT has yet to be proven effective for triathletes, though some of its principles can still be applied. For triathletes with strong technique and a solid base of fitness, implementing USRPT may help you reach a new level of swim fitness.