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Professional triathlete Andy Potts gives his opinion on using standard interval sets in order to gauge your swimming fitness level.
People often ask me how I feel about test sets, or standard interval sets that swimmers perform periodically to gauge their fitness level: Are they an integral part of my training? What workouts do I use to gauge my fitness or race readiness? What are my favorite test sets? I don’t have a stock answer, but I’m always gauging my progress in training. Test sets have been a part of my development as an athlete and continue to be a valuable tool.
While growing up, I was constantly challenged by my coach, Todd Kemmerling, with different test sets in swimming. We used a variety of sets to improve my speed, fitness, endurance and overall swimming. All sets were timed to maximize my improvement as the season and my career moved forward. When I look back on some of my old workouts, I’m shocked by what I was able to accomplish as a teenager. My coach’s masochistic mind was the only limit of what we were subjected to. We would do anything from 100s from a dive with lots of rest to 10,000m for time.
When I went to the University of Michigan, we used one time tested set at three different points in the season for two specific reasons. The test set we all had to endure was a 3,000m for time. This is not an easy set, and it certainly challenges you physically and mentally. The first reason for this test set was to get an accurate assessment of where we were in terms of fitness. The second, and arguably more vital reason, was to plan out our training times, intervals and goals for the upcoming weeks.
My college coach, Jon Urbanchek, is renowned for his scientific approach to swim training. Using the test set of 3,000m for time, Jon would extrapolate our pace to help us define the parameters for our training. It was then our goal to hit our pace based off of color-coordinated charts that he developed. As soon as we adapted to our pacing we would have to do another 3,000m for time to get our new goals for the upcoming training block. Jon did for swimming and swim training what Jack Daniels did for running and run training.
I took all the lessons that I learned in my swimming career into triathlon. Through the years, I have learned what works best for me and my physiology. During my early years in the sport I would do test sets regularly to test my improvement. However, because I didn’t have a lot of history with running or cycling, I showed improvement with every test set.
Today, I have eschewed the specific test set philosophy for one of daily and mini test sets. My current coach, Mike Doane, firmly believes in challenging me every day. He will change the paradigm with which we train to create muscle and physiological confusion. As a result, my improvement has been steady and at times dramatic. Mike and I are constantly comparing workout data including my output (times and distance) and my values (heart rate and recovery time) to my past workouts. Whether the time frame is one week, one month or one year, my coach is constantly evaluating my progress and devising new ways to challenge me. Because of this approach, I need to be able to answer the training demands that are laid out each day. This keeps me on my toes and I never know quite what to expect on any given workout. Each day there is a test waiting for me, I’m just not sure what it is until I start working out.
There are certainly benefits to both ways of training. One benefit to doing specific test sets is knowing what is coming up so that you can mentally prepare for it. Conversely, one benefit of being tested every day is that it challenges you to mentally adapt to different daily demands.
On the physical side, the benefit of doing occasional test sets is to get an accurate measure of your current state of fitness. Then, you can set proper goals and intervals to match where you are as opposed to where you want to be. By doing daily training tests, you are constantly tweaking the stimuli to elicit a positive result.
But there are also drawbacks to both philosophies. It is hard not to rest up for a test set to get your best performance. However, that approach tends to skew the results because instead of treating a test set like another training day, you have more energy and your performance is more like a race than like training. A major drawback to being tested every day is that if you don’t recover from each session, your overall training will suffer.
Both philosophies have shown results and both require you to push yourself to improve. It is up to you and your coach to decide whether one of them would work for you.
Although I don’t do test sets now, I am constantly searching for new stimuli to bring about improvements. I test myself in training on a daily basis with different challenges each day. Progress is measured by my ability to recover and my ability to repeat the ever-increasing demands of staying ahead of my competitors. My bottom line is that test sets are race days—that’s when things matter most and when I get the clearest picture of where I am in my season.