Done in an hour: swimming

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This is one of a trio of articles intended for all of us who are constrained in the amount of time that we can devote to our training. The series title, “Done in an Hour…” formed the basis of the brief — come up with a selection of workouts for the swim, bike and run that can be done in an hour, the sort of time we can squeeze in before work, as a long lunch or after work but before we have to deal with all the family stuff.

The first of his articles, James Beckinsale looks at three swim sessions that are designed to improve your technique, your race preparation and your open water swimming. All of these can be fitted into that magic hour as long as you focus on the task in hand.


Session 1: Technique Swim

In order to identify your weaknesses you first need to complete a basic time trial so you have a benchmark that you can judge your improvements against. This timed swim needs to be long enough for your weakness to reveal itself, but not too long that you totally lose the plot! I find the double distance 400m swim very effective for this as it gets longer as you become more efficient.

Double distance 400m Time Trial

Every four to eight weeks you should complete a good warm up session and then swim 400m. Get a friend to time the swim (you will need each 100m split and the total time) and to record your stroke count on every fourth length. In an ideal world, a bit of video so you can see what you look like swimming would not go amiss either.

Each time you do the test just add another 400m so the first is 400m, the second 800m, the third is 1,200m and the fourth (your last-preseason one) is 1,600m. This should be done approximately six weeks out from your first A-priority race.

What are you looking for?

I’m sure that you have a time in your head in which you would like to complete your Standard (1,500m) distance swim in? Remember, triathlon is three disciplines and you need to get out of the water relatively relaxed and strong; it always amazes me when coaches or athletes claim they where first out of the Bla Bla swim or had the fastest bike at Wotsit! Well done, I say, but what was your actual triathlon time? That’s what counts…

Olympic distance target times and their 100 and 400m splits work out like this:

Target 1500 time 100m time 400m time
29 minutes 00:01:56 per 100m 00:07:44
25 minutes 00:01:40 per 100m 00:06:40
21 minutes 00:01:24 per 100m 00:05:56

There is absolutely no point in doing a 1500m swim in January in the UK and getting disappointed that you can’t hit the times required. Winter is for working on your weakness and building confidence.

Working out your weaknesses

Your swimming must always have an aim or goal (especially if you have not come from a swimming background) to ensure you keep focused on the next swim set and you can record your positive progress.

Three key areas to watch out for are:

  1. Leg kick
    • Not kicking from the hip (ie, you can feel your bum working)
    • Not pointing toes (focus on ankle flexibility)
    • Kicking too deep or outside the body line (to help in rotation)

All of these weaknesses in leg kick can cause drag behind the body which will slow you down by pulling your legs and bum towards the bottom of the pool.

  1. Balanced body
    • Lifting the head to breathe or holding the head too high during swim
    • Pulling straight down during the catch phase (if you are pulling straight down you are not catching the water and a bobbing effect takes place)
  1. Arm stroke
    • Not setting up the stroke with an effective catch phase (same as above)
    • Not holding onto the water effectively under the body and throughout stroke
    • Not finishing the stroke effectively enough to get over onto your opposite side… to set you up for an effective catch phase!

Although swimming with your club or in a master’s swim session can be a great workout, it can also have the biggest detrimental effect on your swim technique (if you are building a stroke), as you will tend to race the guys in your lane and you will not be relaxed or working on your specific weakness. More importantly, swimming on someone’s feet every session does not set you up for swimming open water… …in your own water!

Dealing with your numbers

In this short article I can’t explain what could possibly be wrong with everyone’s stroke, but remember an effective swimmer will move through the water effortlessly, with little drag or friction, and a low number of strokes per distance (around 14 – 16 strokes and in a time of around 15 – 20 seconds per 25m).

The penny “dropped” for me in swimming when I swam with a junior squad. There were 8 to 10 year-old boys and girls quite happily doing 60 to 65 seconds per 100m; no muscle mass, no power – just good economy of motion. Swimming is so like golf, if you try and whack the ball with all your might you don’t get it. On the other hand, if you relax (and work diligently on technique) you will get your hole in one!

If your time is too slow, or your stroke count is too high, you need to set about working on aspects of your stroke to change your weaknesses into strengths. Take responsibility for your swimming, this can be done effectively by going to a swim coach who can make a difference, as what you feel you may be doing in the water can be quite different from what is happening in reality. A little video analysis can paint a thousand words.

Session 2: Race Preparation

For this session, hopefully, you will need to have have been working on your weakness and now have some free space in your mind to concentrate on race specific drills and sets!

The first thing you should get stuck into your swim practice is a dry land warm-up. At some point watch the top 1,500m swimmers in action and then visualise the perfect stroke as you are on poolside. Hold onto the vision as you do your arm rotations, basically;

  • 20 x single arm rotations (forward and backwards)
  • 20 x horizontal swings across the body touching your shoulder blades
  • 20 x monkey swings (one arm up and over your head so your hand touches the spine behind your neck as the other hand comes up to the same armpit)
  • 10 x double arm rotations forward and back

If you are doing a race or open water swim, perform the same warm up each time and you will be amazed at how having the same pre-event routine will calm the nerves!

Race practice

You don’t have to wait until the weather warms up to practice open water skills, try some of these in your pool.

Start the session with a normal warm-up of between 400m and 1,000m followed by between 1,000m and 1,500m of drills. I find it best to do ½ length of a drill then ½ length normal swim or one length drill and one length swim to accentuate the ‘feel’ of the particular drill. Be creative with putting together your swim session, you want it to stay interesting! (See this article for some other drill session ideas.) During the main part of the set incorporate the following:

  • Drafting: Instead of going 5 to 10 seconds behind the next swimmer, go off on their toes and feel how much easier it is to sit behind someone. Drafting is legal in the swim! Don’t get too used to this, as there will be times when there are no feet to swim on in open water and you will have to swim in your own water, happily, comfortably and relaxed.
  • Sighting: First, try swimming for 10 strokes with your eyes closed. You will pull in one direction or the other – guaranteed – and this is what will happen in open water if you do not keep to a set course. Most of you will not practice this enough in training and then try to get away with keeping your heads down too long in a race. You can easily go way off course in just a few strokes. Practice being comfortable lifting your head, if it’s a calm day with no swell you need only lift your eyes a little, however, if it’s a rough swim you will need to lift up onto your chest so get used to it.
  • Overtaking: Have a friend keep to their normal stroke rate and time (race pace) while you sit in for 75m then on final 25m see how little effort you can put in to overtake. It is important that the other person does not speed up and you try and keep calm.
  • Turning at a buoy: Have a friend stand in the middle of the lane (when it’quiet!) and practice turning round them. This can also be done with a few friends all turning at once for realistic race simulation. Remember nobody wants to get into a punch-up out there, it just wastes energy.
  • Dolphin dives: Practice beach starts in the pool by starting the set from a dolphin dive and not a push off the wall.
  • Strokes per minute: If you know how many strokes you do per distance you can gauge how you are doing out in the big blue, and even how many strokes it will take you to complete your swim.
  • Pick up’s: By this I mean that you should practice going out harder than normal to imitate tension/ pre event nerves over say 25 to 75m, then settle back to your normal stroke rate for another 25m to 75m
  • Pairs swimming: If you can, get two or three of you to swim up and down together in a line (the lifeguards love this one!) and deal with issues like hitting hands and being in close proximity to one another.
  • Wetsuits: As you know, wearing a wetsuit is a totally different swim sensation than non-wetsuit, so don’t leave swimming in your wetsuit until your first open water swim. Use the pool and pace clock to get the feel for the suit and the times you are looking to swim, then transfer this feeling to the open water.

Session 3: Open Water

Use your imagination! All I ever see is triathletes swimming round and round and round in open water. Especially on your first couple of visits to an open water session put into practice what you have learned over the winter.

  • Dry land warm up: Same as at the pool, but put on your wetsuit first (this keeps heat in as you generate it).
  • Warm up: Spend 10 minutes building the stroke, but stay relaxed.
  • Drills: Use the same drills you have used in the pool (for about 10 minutes), you need to get used to the wetsuit and the open water.
  • Time/distance/stroke count/feel: This is one of the most useful exercises to do in open water. Start by recording a specific time over a set distance, while keeping to a normal stroke count and watch this improve as you get closer to the big one! Use a tree, buoy or other marker (something that will not move in coming months) and carry out a 1 x easy – 1 x race pace – 1 x hard swim over, say, 400m to 800m (with an easy swim back to the start point) and record/ remember your time and SC. With this exercise you will also learn that putting in massive amounts of effort does not always guarantee faster times.
  • Drafting/over taking: This is the same principle as the pool based drills, covering the same distance as above. Get a buddy to swim it with you at your normal race pace. Then, after about 200m of sitting in and feeling comfortable, slip out of their draft and overtake. Again, stay as calm as possible and think about what you have to change to move quicker through the water.
  • Turning at buoys: Again, as you did in the pool session. Get some friends to practice this with you so you get used to turning under pressure from other swimmers… race specific training is better training.
  • Sighting: This has got to be one of the main areas where most age-group triathletes waste far too much energy. First, from not sighting enough and going off course and, second, from lifting the head for too long or far too high. If you normally do your open water swimming in a lake and your main race of the season is a sea swim… …get to the sea and practice, be specific in your training. (OK, you may not be able to get to the sea and back in an hour…!)
  • Group swim: Get a few swimmers of the same standard to go out with you and swim in close proximity to one another and get used to the tagging, bumping, etc.

Get the complete set of ‘Done in an hour‘ articles through these links