Mastering Triathlon Swim Training
Swim coach and founder of Tower26 Gerry Rodrigues takes a look at some of the key training concepts behind his triathlon swimming program.
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Triathlon swim training looks significantly different than that of cycling and run training in terms of complexity, duration, and intensity, and there are a number of valid reasons for this. During swim workouts, the intervals are often much shorter, and total workout time is shorter, too. Traditionally, some swim coaches have used shorter intervals so that they could give their athletes technical feedback more frequently. The fact that pools are 25 yards, 25 meters, or 50 meters in length lends itself to this type of frequent feedback. Because swimming is such a technical sport, being able to give plentiful feedback and instruction was deemed necessary. This played a part in why these coaches developed sessions that featured shorter reps and more frequent rest intervals, coupled with the fact that 90% of competitive swim events are approximately four minutes or shorter. This is quite unlike what we see triathletes doing when they train for cycling and running.
Swimming for shorter durations and with more frequent rest intervals means intensity can stay higher than when swimming continuously. In my coaching experience, I have found that triathletes can handle this type of higher intensity load in the pool far more readily than they can while cycling or running. I have enjoyed learning from bike and run coaches, experimenting with some of their favorite workouts, and transferring lessons from these to the pool. Conversely, there are some smart and successful triathlon coaches, such as Matt Dixon of Purple Patch Fitness and Brett Sutton of Trisutto, who have brought their swim coaching knowledge to triathlon, incorporating these intervals into their bike and run sessions with terrific success. Being open-minded and not caught in tradition can often lead to further optimizing training methodologies.
I believe shorter intervals also help to build fitness at the start of the training year, and we can then build up to longer intervals as the season progresses. Breaking the workload into shorter swim distances means we can ask athletes to train at a higher output. Shorter intervals also help incorporate technical work, such as improving tautness, so there are technical benefits to this approach, too. The load for athletes in the pool can be higher, yet the recovery rate is faster, so the formula yields improvement without undue cumulative fatigue. The ocean swim workouts in Santa Monica are a great example of this: Each loop might be five to nine minutes in duration, and intensity during these swims is often very high, but there are plenty of opportunities for rest and recovery between each repeat. As a result, the gains from these race-specific sessions are significantly greater than if we were to just swim at a steady aerobic pace for the duration of the workout.
There are typically three segments to every workout, and they rarely change: warm-up, pre-main set, and main set. Of course, the complexity and duration of these will vary depending on the training phase we are in, but they are the staples. As we progress through a season of training, the architecture of a workout will be dictated by the demands and focus of that phase. In the technical phase, for example, we would complete a longer warm-up than during the race-ready phase.
The warm-up is an integral part of any workout and is designed to activate the body and prepare you for the workout ahead. Triathletes can often be tight or tired from previous sessions, so the warm-up often serves as a way to loosen the body and reduce the negative impact of a training hangover. We also want to minimize the risk of injury and maximize the value of the upcoming main set and the workout’s key purpose.
During this part of the workout, with a focus on stroke mechanics and technique, we begin to carefully elevate heart rate and get the athletes’ bodies prepared for the main set to come. This section of the workout can be longer in duration during the technical phase, when there is a greater focus on executing drills. Over the course of this phase, we will build upon skills learned and incorporate these into the main set. During the technical phase, the main set will not be as long. Effort is lower than later in the year because the key objectives of this phase are recovery and technical enhancements.
This is the key section of the workout and the part from which we look to extract the greatest training value. During the build phase, the main set becomes much longer in duration because we aim to build muscular endurance and power, and greater emphasis is placed on the main set. Over the course of the 13-week build phase, we will build on the main set in three-week microcycles so that as the sets and volume increase, intensity and distance do, too. This means the warm-up decreases slightly, especially compared to the technical phase.
During the sharpening phase, the complexity of the main set changes again because the workload becomes highly specific to swimming fast 100- and 1,000-yard/meter time trials. At this stage, workout structure becomes similar to a non-triathlete swimmer’s regimen, building in specific speed and pace work.
The main set changes again when we hit the open-water skill-building phase. During the pre-main set, we introduce all the new technical elements and skills inherent in open-water swimming. These include deck-ups, pace lining, sighting, drafting, and pack swimming. At our program in Los Angeles, we hone all of these skills in the pool before trying them in open water. Swimmers need to get comfortable being in close proximity to—and often experiencing a lot of contact with—other athletes. These skills are initially introduced and developed in the pre-main set, when intensity is lower, and then carried forward into the main set, when intensity and workload are higher.
The complexity of the main set will change again when we reach the race-ready phase. Warm-ups shrink in time and duration and will often mimic that of a race day warm-up. All of the open-water skills we have been practicing in the preceding phase are built into main sets. For example, a main set might consist of 10 × 200 yards or meters, each one from a dive with a fast 50 at race takeout speed, multiple sightings every lap, and a fast finish and deck-up at the end. Pace lining or drafting can be incorporated into these swims, too.
I am not a huge advocate of long, dedicated cooldowns, unless done with additional purpose, because our job with triathletes is to optimize their training time. For me, part of optimizing a workout might mean ending the session with a pull set so that some technical work is integrated into easier swimming. During these pull sets, effort rarely goes above 70–75%, and the focus is on technique, using a buoy and band as well as a snorkel. I see this as a great opportunity to work on stroke mechanics and detox athletes’ bodies from the workload just undertaken. This also prepares your body to more effectively absorb its next training session. If a workout has involved extended periods at a higher effort (e.g., 90% effort or higher for more than 15–20 minutes), then I will prescribe a specific cooldown because your body needs and wants that time to detox. The cooldown would typically still be short in duration and pulling based.
Architecture of a Training Week
I prioritize weekly sessions, labeling them A, B, or C workouts. I would expect a pro athlete to hit all of the workouts, but age-groupers should hit the A session first and the others only if time allows. During the race-ready phase, the open-water swim is always the priority, and if athletes can hit only one workout a week this is it. Even when a workout is labeled B or C, and therefore assumes less importance, crucial ingredients are contained in all of the sessions. Real example: Athletes swim three times a week—two A sessions on Tuesday and Thursday and then a B session on Saturday or Sunday. They miss an A session during the week because of travel, sickness, or family commitments so would then substitute the weekend’s B session with the missed A session. The priority is fitting in the two A sessions each week.
Let’s take a closer look at how the workout architecture plays out in this A-priority session, fondly known as the “Mambo” (a nickname given to me by Greg Bonan, Baywatch producer, based on my once-heavier Caribbean accent). This session is a staple feature in our build phase. It is a set that develops endurance, power, varying pacing skills, and mental fortitude. When we first do this set, we usually start with four to five rounds, depending on your ability level, and progress to eight rounds (for the faster swimmers) by the end of the phase.
The Mambo set is a perfect example of a benchmark set, or A-priority workout, repeated during the course of a phase or the year to highlight and map performance gains. We can train and train, but if there are no opportunities for assessing improvements, then we are often operating in the dark. In addition to sets such as the Mambo, the greatest opportunity we have for this type of assessment are our 100- and 1,000-yard/meter time trials, which for the Los Angeles–based swimmers are in January and April. Any athlete joining our online program is asked to complete the 100- and 1,000-yard/meter time trials within their first week of subscription.
These benchmark swims provide objective feedback and data on your current swimming level and how much you have improved. Time trials are yardsticks against which you can compare performance over a period of weeks, months, or years. If you have consistently progressed through the program, then you should be seeing improvements. If you aren’t seeing gains, then we need to look at why.
We cannot take shortcuts or expedite adaptation; it takes place as we work hard, learn, recover, and bounce back. Adaptation typically takes place over a three-week period, or 10 swims. For example, if you repeat a skill 10 times for a predetermined duration over this three-week period, you will usually start seeing improvement. It won’t happen in just one or two workouts; it takes repeated patience and commitment, but in my experience, almost everyone experiences some change in this time frame. Elite athletes can sometimes be ahead of the curve, and those with a limited athletic background might need a little longer, but the good news is that adaptation is within reach.
Key swim sessions should come ahead of, and not on the heels of, major run or bike workouts. This isn’t just me coming at it from a swim perspective only; I’m looking at it in terms of what will lead to the greatest overall gains for athletes across all three sports. Simply put, running loves swimming, and swimming hates running. Get it wrong at your peril! By this, I mean that swimming after a run workout will expedite your recovery from that run and help loosen and elongate your muscles. It promotes recovery for your next workout, and many athletes like to swim after a long, hard run, if only for a short duration. However, the same cannot be said of what running before a key swim workout does for swimming: It can compromise that session. For this reason, it is important to think about where in your training week your key workouts are placed. I would not want to see an athlete do a key bike or run workout on a Wednesday evening and then attempt a key swim workout early Thursday. The odds increase significantly that the Thursday swim will be compromised. As often as possible, place the essential swim training at the start of your day. This can often be a balancing act when training in extremely hot and humid conditions and vying to complete all key workouts before temperatures become unbearable.
Workout: The “Mambo”
- 10:00 of easy, fluid swimming
Not a hard stroke is taken. Depending on fitness and ability, this could be 400–800 yards/meters.
- 8 × 100 as 50 kick/50 swim, with fins and a snorkel, progressing effort gradually with every two 100s from easy to Ironman effort
- 5:00 swim, integrating the technical elements executed in the prior set
We want to see a progression of heart rate here while we focus on stroke mechanics. This technical work could take 15–20 minutes, so we are now almost 30 minutes into the workout. Your body is warmed up and ready to absorb the main workload. We would rarely begin the main set without this type of progression unless we were in the race-ready phase.
- 4 × 100 as follows: 100 at 70% effort, 100 at 70.3 pace, 100 at 70% effort, 100 fast
- Repeat effort pattern for several rounds, with total number of rounds dependent on the phase or time of the season and one’s ability level (see below). As you progress through the rounds you add 100 to that second swim (at 70.3 pace), so it would look like this:
- Round 1: 100 easy, 100 at 70.3 pace, 100 easy, 100 fast
- Round 2: 100 easy, 200 at 70.3 pace, 100 easy, 100 fast
- Round 3: 100 easy, 300 at 70.3 pace, 100 easy, 100 fast
- Round 4: 100 easy, 400 at 70.3 pace, 100 easy, 100 fast, and so on . . .
The intervals are set up to allow about 0:10 rest on the 70% effort (easy) swims, 0:10 rest per 100 on the 70.3 pace efforts, and 0:15 rest on the fast swims. Not as much rest is needed after the fast swims because the 70% effort that follows allows for active recovery, which has a great training effect.
Level 1 athletes: Start at 5 rounds and build throughout the season to 8 rounds.
Level 2 athletes: Start at 4 or 5 rounds and build throughout the season to 7 rounds.
Level 3 athletes: Start at 4 rounds and build throughout the season to 6 rounds.
Level 4 athletes: Start at 3 or 4 rounds and build throughout the season to 6 rounds.
- Relaxed, easy swimming for a few minutes
Adapted from Triathlon Swimming by Gerry Rodrigues with permission of VeloPress.