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How to Beat a Swimming Performance Plateau by Ben Greenfieled

Posted Apr 13 2009 11:02pm

Children_swimming_lesson Now that you' ve perhaps had the chance to complete your initial triathlon of this race season, you may have experienced that first-race-of-the-year "Oh Crap" moment, which is when you realize that your water speed really has not gotten much faster than last year. Despite countless hours spent poolside with a bag full of pull buoys, kickboards, and lucky rubber ducks, are your race swim splits looking  similar to previous season? So what can you do about it?

1. Swim Fast

As the next race approaches, typically about 4-6 weeks out, you can begin to phase in more difficult sets at closer to a tempo or threshold pace, with an intensity zone that would be considered anaerobic (typically produces a burn in the muscles, a higher heart rate, and more difficulty breathing). The rest periods between these anaerobic efforts should grow shorter and shorter as the competition approaches, while the the total volume of swim training gradually decreases. For example, begin with 2-4x500 with 60 second recoveries, and work down to 6-8x200 with 20 second recoveries over the course of a month-and-a-half. Finally, 1-2 weeks from the event, you can significantly decrease volume by 50-60%, and swim only a few very intense 50-150 sets, with long rest periods. With this approach, you may feel like you' re losing endurance, but remind yourself that it’s better to be 5% undertrained than 1% overtrained!


2. Test

I recommend utilizing a consistent testing method to track your progress in the water. Not only are you provided with added motivation as your test date approaches, but you’ll be able to track your progress efficiently and compare how changes in your training program affect your speed and endurance. I utilize the T-Pace test with most of my coached athletes, who probably hate me for it. The T-Pace test involves a brief warm-up, then a swim at maximum possible intensity for 500-2000 yards, depending on an athlete’s experience. The total time is used to calculate the "time per 100 meters", which is called an athlete’s "T-Pace". Future training sessions are then based on a speed percentage of that pace. If available, a blood lactate test can be even more precise than a T-Pace test. In this test, you swim at gradually higher intensities for 2-5 minute stages, stopping after each stage to test blood lactate (using a handheld blood lactate testing unit). The speed at which blood lactate concentration shows a significant increase is very near to your anaerobic threshold. Once the heart rate and speed at this value are known, future training sessions can be based on this threshold. Since most overtraining occurs when you too hard for too long above threshold, knowledge of where the threshold occurs can ensure that you receive the most benefit out of every training session, without actually overtraining or hitting a plateau. In other words, it is possible to train too hard in the pool, and this test can keep you from smashing yourself.

3. Dry Land Strength Training

Muscles rarely produce forces during the swim stroke that parallel the forces produced during resistance training. So why bother to train on the weights? Because the muscle fiber utilization, neuromuscular adaptations, lean muscle tissue growth, and resistance to fatigue that occurs in the weightroom result in an energy sparing effect in the water. Basically, your muscular and nervous systems “learn” how to contract more efficiently, and produce more power per contraction, while also sparing the amount of carbohydrate used, which is important for distance swimmers. There’s no doubt about it: there is a strong cross-over training effect from weight training to swimming. Additional advantages of dry land strength training include: 1) the development of core musculature, which can enhance balance while practicing “downhill” swimming and create a stronger kinetic chain between the hips and the upper back muscles; 2) more powerful hips, thighs, and calves, which are strengthened during “triple-extension” movements like the squat and the lunge – very useful for any kick that involves a powerful whipping motion, as well as push-offs from the wall and 3) a superhero like body that looks like it is about to rip through your wetsuit.

Swim3 4. Rest and Recovery

Often, a plateau simply occurs because the body’s energy systems are never given an opportunity to absorb the effects of all those hours and meters in the pool. True training adaptations actually occur while the body is resting, not during the actual swim session. If your current program includes a hard training session nearly every day of the week, week after week (can you say "competitive Master' s class"?), then you should: 1) begin to include skill and drill based swims at an easy pace for at least 1-2 of these workouts and 2) include a recovery week every 3-5 weeks, with no hard swimming and 100% easy sets or drills. With this approach, you will experience a stepwise effect in fitness that prevents the body from hitting a wall, and ultimately, your potential intensity and volume will become much greater. Yes, you' ll feel like you' re getting "unfit" during these skill days and weeks, but then again, I' ll bet that 13 year old girl that keeps passing you in the pool is worrying more about form than fitness.

5. Lifestyle

The importance of sleep, proper nutrition, and a holistic wellness approach in all aspects of life must be emphasized, and this becomes far more important for athletes and individuals who constantly break their body down and produce free radicals and other damaging metabolites during exercise. My pet peeve as a coach is the athlete who complains about poor performance, but continues fueling their workouts with pretzels, orange juice, bagels, and late night TV. Recommendations to follow include: 1) maintaining 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and attempting to follow the body’s natural circadian rhythm by hitting the sack before 11 p.m.; 2) eating high amounts of a large variety of fruits and vegetables, preferably organic; 3) avoiding alcohol, cigarette smoke, pollutants, and exposure to large amounts of detergents and cleaners; 4) 2 weeks out from the race, completely eliminating consumption of refined and processed sugars, alternative sweeteners, and processed or packaged foods with chemicals and preservatives; 5) daily consumption of at least 0.5-0.9 grams per pound from lean protein sources that provide a complete amino acid profile, like egg, animal, or whey protein (for vegetarians, this may require food combinations, like rice and beans); 6) balancing family, hobbies, and non-stressful activities like family tennis outings and outdoor concerts over the daily strain of work and training.

A lack of ability to build speed in the water is probably not because you don' t have the most expensive wetsuit, size 14 feet, or a underwater mp3 player. Instead, with a complete combination of the strategies outlined above, you can vastly improve your swim and overcome a water-based performance plateau.

Whoisben Ben Greenfield is the Renaissance man of the sport of triathlon.

He' s a fast triathlete, a coach, a personal trainer, and much more more.

We recommend that you surf on over to, for more great training advice.

Ben will be coaching the Iron speed Triathlon Camp in Coeur D' Alene from Saturday, May 9 - Thursday, May 14, 2009. Camp info is HERE.

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