The triathlete I'm writing this column for is an intermediate swimmer. If you're an advanced swimmer and swam competitively sometime in your life, this column isn't written for you. In fact, I bet as an advanced swimmer you're already doing many of the things I'm going to suggest.
As an intermediate swimmer, you came to swimming as an adult. You learned to swim freestyle so you could race triathlons. You are beyond the beginner stage in that your 1500 meters to 2.4-mile freestyle times in races are consistent and comfortable—just not very fast.
Forget About Perfect Form
When most adults take on the task of learning how to swim, the main focus is on "perfect form." Coaches and instructors do swim drills as the majority of the workout, assuming swimming fitness and endurance will be a by-product of drills. This may be true, but only up to a point.
If you've trained in this drill-focused manner, I'm sure you found that you had great gains in swim fitness and speed early on. Then you reached a plateau in speed. Each time you try to swim faster your form seems to deteriorate, stroke count per 25 meters increases and you're gasping for oxygen when you reach the wall.
Yes, as you pick up speed your form will not be the same as when you are comfortably drilling your way through 1000 meters. Expect your stroke to be different when you swim fast.
When you try to swim faster, stop worrying about, and trying to have, perfect form.
Just Swim Fast
Good swimming technique is important, but if you watch any world championship meet on television or watch form videos on the internet, you will find that the fast swimmers do not have identical techniques and form. You need to develop the form that works best for you and your particular anatomy. That takes some time.
More than likely the top swimmers you know spent hours in the pool as kids. I'm willing to bet a good number of them spent a lot of time in the water just messing around. They played various games with no regard for anything other than swimming fast in a game of tag, seeing who could tread water the longest, diving after objects on the bottom of the pool, seeing who could swim the furthest underwater and various other water entertainment activities.
Sadly, as adults, few of us have the time to play in the pool for hours and hours. Time pinch is an issue and the fact is many of our friends are boring and don't want to play pool games. But you can apply the same philosophy to your workouts.
When you start working on fast swimming in the pool, just focus on going as fast as you can. Make it a game to see how fast you can swim. Start with short distances of fast swimming at the start of your workout once or twice per week.
Ignore Stroke Count
Somewhere along the way, people got the misunderstanding that stroke count was the Holy Grail to swimming. They developed a belief that if stroke count exceeds a magic number, say 18 strokes per 25 meters, they must reduce swim effort and speed until they can maintain 18 again.
For those of you in this camp, let me ask you if you are consistent. If your cycling revolutions per minute exceeds, or is less than, 90 do you reduce speed or power output? Or, do you aim for a particular speed or power production and ignore rpm when you are trying to get faster?
What about running cadence? The same question applies here. If your stride rate is less, or greater, than 90 steps per minute do you stop the workout? I doubt it.
When you get speedy, ignore stroke count and do whatever you can to swim faster. Experiment to find what works for you.
Swim Year Round
How can you possibly expect to get faster and spend less energy in the pool if you quit swimming until 12 weeks before your triathlon? I've heard the argument that there's "not that much speed to be gained by swimming in the offseason."
There is speed to be gained and perhaps more importantly, you can reduce the energy you put into swimming if you have a solid base of swimming fitness. If you want to improve your swim, you must be in the water year round.
Join a Masters Group
There is no doubt about it, you will swim faster if you have other people in the water with you. Trying to keep up with the other swimmers helps take the boredom out of swimming, and it's motivating.
Learn Other Strokes
Learning other strokes like butterfly, backstroke and breast stroke helps you improve your "feel for the water." You will often hear swimmers talking about losing their feel for the water if they are out of the pool for too long. Though the majority of your swimming should still be freestyle, learning other strokes can improve your freestyle.
Increase Swim Frequency
In the offseason, you can maintain swim fitness by swimming a couple of days per week. If you increase frequency to three days per week, some solid gains can be made. If you reach a plateau on three days per week, consider bumping your swim frequency to four or five days per week for a week or two. This strategy is a swim-specific block and you will reduce the frequency of cycling and running during this time. You want swimming to be the focus.
The bottom line is that if you want to improve your swim, you need to put some time and effort into the endeavor. The good news is that as you develop your swimming skills, like most things, it will take less effort to maintain a higher level of fitness—and speed.
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