How do I go faster?
This is a question that I see posted online, and that I get asked by people in the local pool. The answer is “its complicated”. This is the second of two articles on what you can do and what you should consider if you want to swim faster. As with the previous article, this one is aimed at the average masters swimmer or triathlete so I will be keeping the terminology as basic as possible. This article will focus on training and race prep.
As I mentioned earlier I’m trying to keep the terminology basic, but I still need to use some proper terms. Aerobic means with oxygen, you could think of it as basic cardio and it includes anything from 65-85% effort. In reality most of your training will be in the 70-80% effort range, 65% is more warm up/cool down or recovery and 85% is Anaerobic Threshold. Once you go over 85% effort you will enter the Anaerobic range where your body will break down glucose without oxygen and will start to produce lactate (that heavy lead feeling in your limbs). Your aerobic base is what you will build your speed on, how big that base needs to be will vary depending on your goal.
Building your aerobic base is more than simply swimming up and down the pool for your session. You need to do interval training and you need to use the clock. You also need to learn how to swim “off” a time. It’s no good simply taking a set number of seconds on every repetition as you could end up doing your first 100m in 1:20 and your last one in 1:50. If you look at the sessions in the Rome Challenge you will see how we found Jia’s base 100m time and have started building on that since.
This is where things can come unstuck for everyone whose goal isn’t to be a better sprinter. I’ll be honest I’ve fallen into this trap myself. No matter what your goals are, you need to work speed into your weekly training regime. There are three ways to do this:
- Sprinting for part of a 25m or 50m swim. This will be a short (15m) sharp increase in speed, with easy swimming before or after it so that you don’t generate lactate.
- Sprinting 25m but allowing for plenty of rest so that you don’t generate lactate.
- Sprinting 25m, 50m, 75m, or 100m but this time we are looking to generate lactate. This is tough, this is awful, I hate having to do these sessions, but when I’m racing my 200m race I’m glad I’ve done them. This is called anaerobic training.
Find your Race Pace
If your goal is to be better at racing anything more than 50m (or 100m if you sprint it), then you need to figure out your race pace. I’m sure we’ve all had that race where we felt invincible for the first 50-100m and we end up going out far too fast. Decide on a target speed and use a small metric for it e.g. your target is to do each 50m of your 200m in 32 seconds. This must be achievable and you need to be realistic. The longer your race, the slower your target time is going to be. Once you have the target time try to repeat it in sets of 50s. You will notice how it’s hard to slow down for the target in the beginning, but hard to stay fast enough of it later. In your race your first 50m should end up being 1-2 seconds under the time because of the dive and your last 50m should be under it because you should be putting every last part of you into the final 50m sprint, though often I find I’m doing well to hit that time.
Put it all together
How often you train per week will directly affect your goals, the more times per week you can get into the pool the more you can get done. No matter what your goals are you will need to incorporate all of the things mentioned above. It is tricky to get the blend right and it’s even trickier if you are not training very often. Its easy to fall into the trap of doing one type of training. Usually those of us that aren’t natural sprinters end up doing all aerobic sessions with little or no speed or anaerobic work. Sprinters will go the opposite way. The blend for you will be determined by your goals and where you are in your season. At the beginning of a season you are almost all aerobic with some speed, but near the end you have more anaerobic work. Using my own training as a 200m swimmer as an example. I try to get one anaerobic session per week, with some speed or 85% effort work another day (not 85% work every week though). A month or two out from my main gala I will be doing 2-3 anaerobic sessions, filling in the week around them with aerobic (80-85% depending on the day) and some speed work, at this point I am swimming 8-9 times a week. You will see next year in the Rome Challenge, once Jia has a larger aerobic base, has a higher level of technique and we are closer to her goal, we will be doing more anaerobic work with her. For now, she is also on one anaerobic session every 1-2 weeks (moving to one per week by April/May). Swimmers for longer (800m+) distances will do more aerobic work, race pace work and 85% effort work, but they still should incorporate some speed work (with max rest) and an anaerobic workout at least every few weeks. You can see examples of training sets/sessions on our training sets page and in the Rome Challenge (the rounds).
What are you doing for the Race?
If your goal is to be faster in a race you need to examine your race prep. Get a good warm up in, do some light dryland work while lining up for the swim. Depending on how serious you are taking your race you may want to wear a racing suit and you might need to decide if you are just going to wear an entry level suit or a more advanced one. If you’re really pushing things you can also consider shaving/waxing body hair. The difference on times that your goggles or hat makes is quite small, but still you should be wearing a tight-fitting silicone hat (never a cloth hat) and as small a pair of goggles that you are comfortable with (big open water ones can come off when diving).
If your goal is to be faster in an open water event or triathlon you should look at your wetsuit. I have seen people try to swim in regular wetsuits, but really if you plan on swimming open water you need to get a tri-wetsuit. As with pool suits, there are different levels of tri-wetsuits. When looking at suits within your budget try to find the one with the most flexible shoulders.
Remember, with some simple practice and a little determination you can get some free speed without having to increase your time spent in the pool. Just work on your starts, turns and streamline.