This afternoon I received the first email from USA triathlon that I didn't immediately delete: "How Often Should I Be Swimming?" The answer? More than I have the past two months. Between dealing with a shoulder injury and focusing on running a respectable Boston marathon my amphibious persona has been cast to the way side. Scrolling through the page my suspicion was confirmed, my one weekly swim was two less than is advised for most beginners, and eight less than "pure competitive swimmers." Towards the bottom of the article the author provides general guidelines for structuring ones workouts: "100s to 500s for endurance, 50s to 200s for mod-hard/tempo efforts, and 25s and 50s for sprints."
Before saying any more, please allow me to provide you some context. As a child I participated in two years of swim lessons, stopping at age 8 because I didn't want to do flip-turns. I started swimming again sophomore year of college at William and Mary, mostly because I got to hang around cute girls in swimsuits but partly because I almost drowned in my first triathlon. It took me 15 minutes to swim 1/2 mile. While by no means do I consider myself a good swimmer, I now get out of the water in an olympic distance triathlon (full mile) in less than 20 minutes and beat the majority of my competitors. So how have I made this progress?
Based on the above recommendations, about 10% of my swim sets include sprints/tempo efforts and 30% fall into the "endurance" category. So what do I do the rest of my swims? The average college student will run a 5k in about 25-30 minutes, about the time it takes to swim 1 mile in an olympic distance triathlon. Maybe I am mistaken, but I haven't seen a whole lot of 5k running plans that involve a bunch of 10-45 second sprints. So if we are training for an ironman (2.4 mile swim, 60+ minutes), or much less an olympic distance triathlon (1 mile swim, ~30 minutes) why is it that we repeatedly swim 1-2 minute intervals, stopping at the wall after each to catch our breath? One answer might be that unlike running, swimming performance is far more dependent on technique. Fair, but would we not expect the act of swimming itself to help resolve at least some biomechanical inefficiencies? The fact of the matter is, traditional swim sets involving a lot of 25s, 50s and 100s to me make a lot more sense for someone trying to race really fast 1-5 minutes.
So how do I swim? In short, differently. My "favorite" set is a 5x1k moderate-hard, using minimal "pool toys." And I regularly swim fairly easy monotonous sets. For example, 6 sets of 500, swim, pull buoy, paddles. No agenda or ambition to go fast, just get in the water and swim. Much like as a runner the vast majority of my runs are just to get out and run 45 minutes at an easy to moderate pace. Most swimmers laugh when I tell them my sets, but fewer laugh when I beat them out of the water. While I can't attest to the effectiveness of this approach for everyone, I have to say, it seems to work pretty decently for me.