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Aerobic Swimming (More is More)

Posted Dec 08 2011 6:26pm
Aerobic vs. anaerobic.  Intensity vs. Long Slow Distance (LSD - which should be called Long Steady Distance in my opinion, maybe then it wouldn't be so misunderstood).  High volume vs. low volume.  The debates go on and on with no end or resolution in sight.  

But I'm not writing this post to start a debate.  I'm writing about my swimming plan this winter, and how I intend to improve my swimming once and for all.  I'm sure you can guess by the subject line that my plan is going to include a lot of aerobic swimming.  A LOT.  I can see you cringing and crying out, "you have to swim fast to swim fast."  I hear you, and don't disagree.  Let me explain my position, and hopefully you'll see my logic.  Unfortunately, we'll have to wait a while to see the results.

Before I begin explaining myself, I'll apologize for the length of this post.  I have a feeling it's going to be a long one.  I get wordy when writing about training methods.  I love this stuff.

Let me begin by defining a term that I feel is often misinterpreted.  Aerobic exercise means "with oxygen." It does not mean "easy."  Yes, aerobic exercise can be easy, but that is not the definition of the word aerobic.  Anaerobic exercise means "without oxygen."   Anaerobic workouts include very short, very intense efforts.  Those efforts are difficult, and since aerobic exercise is the opposite of anaerobic exercise, I believe people think aerobic exercise must be easy since it's the opposite.  Not true.

As for it being slow, well, that's relative.  Yes, it's slow when you compare it to your top end speed.  And your aerobic speed may in fact be a pace that you consider slow in the grand scheme of things if you're not aerobically fit.  All the more reason to address and improve your aerobic fitness.

Plus, triathlon is an aerobic sport so it makes sense to be aerobically fit.  One of the biggest limiters for most triathletes is their inability to hold steady efforts for sustained durations.  Endurance, not top end speed.  I discovered this was my limiter a few years ago and have been working on it since, and continue to work on it.

I'm aerobically fit on the bike.  I can ride forever at 80% of max HR and, if I'm on my tri bike, that's usually 20+ mph.  Not "fast" when compared to my top end speed but not so slow that I think it qualifies at Long Slow Distance.  Steady, yes.  

I can hold 80% of max HR on the run for hours, and in training runs that's usually a 7:30 pace or better.  I've yet to hold that pace in an Ironman.  Hopefully, I will someday.  

I am not, however, an aerobically fit swimmer.

How do I know this?

My form falls apart on long intervals and I can't hold even splits.  I can do 50s and 100s, but make me do 200 and above and I'm a disaster.  I've focused on short intervals for so long that I have a terrible time pacing myself.  I start out too hard and fade.  The end result is a swimmer that isn't aerobically fit who lacks confidence in his ability to swim hard for any real distance (ironman). 

So my plan is to log a lot of time in the pool, and most of it being aerobic (90% or more).  I've tried several things to improve my swimming, but this is the one I haven't really tried yet.  I haven't done big volume yet and built a base.

The Plan:

1. Rebuild my swim fitness after several weeks away from the pool after Kona.  This is done.  I swam a little before Thanksgiving, and since Thanksgiving I've been in the pool 13 days straight and logged 45,350 yards (25 miles).  

2. Threshold test to determine anaerobic threshold speed.  USA Swimming has a test and so does Swim Smooth .  I haven't decided which one I'll do yet.  Possibly both and see how they compare.  This is something I will continue to test periodically so I can adjust my pace as necessary. 

3.  Log A LOT of yards at and below threshold speed.  90% or more of my training will be at aerobic speeds.  It may be slower than I want to swim, but that means I need to improve my aerobic conditioning if I want to swim faster.  The goal is to improve my threshold speed, much like the goal with cycling is to improve your threshold power. 

4.  Long sets.  4x1000, 6x500, 10x400, 10x200, etc.  Aerobic speeds, steady pacing, little rest.  I'll do some sprints here and there, but very little.  I need endurance.  These long sets will also teach me to hold my form for long durations.

5. Continue with my 1000 yard time trials to monitor progress.  Here are last year's times:

 1/9 – 17:13

2/13 – 15:37

3/12 – 15:08

4/10 – 15:15
 5/7 – 14:52  6/2 - 14:37
8/13 - 14:00

I was in terrible shape for the first one, so I improved about 90 seconds, not 3 minutes.  I signed up for the Finding Freestyle Dark Star ePostal Swim Meet .  That's a postal swim meet (epostal since it's online and you don't actually mail in your results) where you have until 12/23 to swim a 1000 yard TT and send in your results. So I'll be swimming my 1000 yard TT soon to see where I'm starting off my 2012 training. 

6.  Work on stroke rate.  I recently bought a Finis Tempo Trainer and I love it.  I've read in several places that a higher stroke rate is crucial to open water success ( here's one of them ), and my stroke rate is too slow.  The one and only time I worked on increasing my stroke rate I set my half ironman PR.  I'll be putting in a lot of work on that this year.  I've also been using the Tempo Trainer to help with pacing on long sets.  I've been doing 4x1000 at a 1:30 per 100/yard pace.  I set the tempo trainer to beep every 45 seconds so I get feedback every 50 yards.  Then I let it beep twice between sets so I get 90 seconds rest.  I don't even need a pace clock.  (side note: if you're thinking of getting a Tempo Trainer, do it.  They're great tools, but get the Tempo Trainer Pro .  I'll probably upgrade.  I didn't know about it when I bought mine).

7.  Form work. As always, I will continue to work on form, but it's not going to be the focus this time around.  I personally think form is over-emphasized in swimming. I'm not saying it's not important, and if your form is horrible that's definitely the place to start (if you swim about 2:00 per 100 yards, work on your form).  By over-emphasized, I think there's so much talk about how much swimming is all about form that it gets triathletes (me included) thinking  that there's a magical fix to our stoke that will suddenly have us swimming a 1:15 pace effortlessly.  Form matters, but so does fitness.  It's time for me to address fitness, which I believe will also improve my form.  

8. Swim A LOT.  Did I already say that?  

Before I wrap this up, I want to address one more thing:  what about swimming faster to swim faster?  

Yes, I agree you have to swim fast to swim fast.  However, I don't need to swim fast.  A one hour Ironman swim is a 1:24 per 100 yard pace.  That's not fast.  That's steady..  1:00 per 100 is fast.  

Yes, I will do some speed work and swim fast sometimes, but that will not be the foundation of my program. First I need a base.  I've been so focused on swim speed the past few years that I've never really taken the time to build a base.  

Swim long and taper.

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