This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue of Triathlete magazine.
Training might be a big priority for you, but on a daily basis, you have to make decisions around keeping your training, career and family in balance. Swimming is often the most difficult of the three triathlon disciplines to fit into a time-crunched schedule. Fortunately, there is a great training tool available that you can use when your time is too crunched to complete a full in-water swim session. Say hello to the Vasa Ergometer.
To use the Vasa Ergometer, you lie on your belly on an elevated padded platform that moves forward and backward on a rail. In each hand, you hold a swim paddle that is attached to a resistance unit via a cable. As you mimic your swim stroke, the cables provide resistance and ideally the platform should stay stationary.
This training device is so useful because it allows you to complete a sport-specific strength workout in a short period of time. It can also help improve your swim technique. For example, one important part of swim technique is maintaining high elbows during the catch phase of your swim stroke, which puts your hand and forearm in an optimal position for a strong pulling phase. There are ways to work on this and other components of stroke technique in the water, but the necessities of staying at the surface and moving forward sometimes make it difficult to focus intently on one aspect of swim technique. When you’re on the Vasa you aren’t turning your head so frequently, so you are able to monitor the position of your arms throughout the entire catch phase of each stroke. Keep in mind, however, that because the Vasa Ergometer doesn’t require all of the integrated motions of in-water swimming, it has to be considered a supplement to your pool workouts and not a total replacement. For example, you are not working on your kick or your side-to-side breathing while on the machine.
When it comes to designing individual workouts on this machine, they can vary for each athlete. The unit has the ability to adjust the resistance or load on your arms through a flap door that alters the amount of airflow into the wind-generating fan. You can also change the angle of the rail supporting the sliding platform. It’s important to remember, though, that even on an easy setting, a Vasa workout will be much harder than a comparable in-water workout. For example, if you usually swim 45 to 60 minutes in the pool, you might only be able to handle 10 to 15 minutes on the Vasa, perhaps less the first time you use the machine. From the perspective of a time-crunched athlete, however, that’s not a bad thing because a high-quality 15-minute workout on the Vasa is better than skipping your swim training altogether.
It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the Vasa with about five to eight minutes of “swimming” to help you determine how your current fitness level translates to time and effort on the machine. Since you’re using the Vasa for more of an endurance swimming workout than a purely strength training workout, you’ll want the angle of the rail to stay almost level, or for more resistance you can raise the front of rail. Be sure to get in a good two to five minutes of easy swimming on the machine (very light resistance) to warm up your arms before attempting any particular intervals.
We recommend that your first workout be five to 10 30-second freestyle intervals with 30 to 45 seconds of passive recovery between intervals. You only want to pull as hard as you can while maintaining perfect form, and there will be resistance on your arms during the recovery phase of the stroke as well. The Vasa places a lot of load on the initial catch phase of the stroke, when your arm is extended in front of you. You want to be conservative on the Vasa because the muscles controlling this portion of the stroke are often somewhat weak, meaning they are easy to overload. As your fitness and experience with the machine progress, your goal should be to increase the duration of individual intervals while reducing your total number of intervals. In other words, you want to accumulate more total work time and make each work period longer. A typical progression could go from 10 x 30-second intervals, to 5 x 1-minute intervals, 5 x 90-second intervals, eventually working your way up to repeatable five-minute intervals.
Every athlete is different, and your progression will vary. The key is to continue challenging yourself to swim a little longer, but without sacrificing technique in the process. At the end of any series of intervals, cool down with one to three minutes of low-resistance swimming to help facilitate circulation to and from the muscles you’ve been training.
For time-crunched athletes, the Vasa Ergometer can be a great timesaver and a beneficial addition to your swim training. Most importantly, it helps to bridge the gap between missing and completing workouts when training gets kicked off course by your busy life.