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Swimming Stats: Why we test, and why you should record...
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Monday 30th August 2010


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Dan Bullock, head coach of triathlon swim specialists Swim For Tri (www.swimfortri.co.uk), brings us his latest article. With the race season almost over for most of us, and plans being put in place for 2011, how are you monitoring and tracking your progress in the pool? Dan brings us some practical examples and explanations of how and why we should be monitoring our swim training, just as we would on the bike or run. Simply getting in the pool and hoping for the best really isn't enough! Thankfully, adding a little structure isn't too difficult...


Why we test, and why you should record...

One of our groups swam a T30 test set recently. This is where the athletes swim as far as they can in 30 mins. After the session I had some enquiries along the lines of, "why haven't I improved?" and "how do I get faster?' My response was, are you sure you aren't faster? "Well I am still in lane one and have not moved up." This was an interesting observation that got me thinking.

The athlete is still in lane one, and they were still swimming with the same swimmers, but as a coach I had been pleased with the progress of the group. Slowly the group had improved to the extent where all were under 25 strokes per 25m and the overall volume was up from an average of 2k to 2.6k in an hour. The timed swims we had been doing throughout the year were greatly improved. And technique was looking solid. I was happy but the swimmer was not so convinced.

I had been keeping records and charting improvements. I assumed the triathletes were keeping check too. Apparently not.

A necessary part of recording and checking your progress is to test yourself on a regular basis with benchmark sets. Tests could include timed swims, measuring stroke counts, taking golf scores, working out your critical swim speed or performing a step test. Parameters should be kept identical down to the smallest detail. Perform the test at the same time of day, same length pool and have a similar warm-up before the set. (See below for more tests and full descriptions).

Testing on a fairly regular basis should be a key part of your training. Many triathletes know their VO2 max, most would know their resting HR and average speeds for their 10mile bike TT or a 5K run. However, we should also be familiar with our best efforts in the pool. For most of the triathletes I work with I like to blend a mix of fitness tests and technique tests, all of which are recorded on a 6 week cycle.

For those also taking lessons in the Endless Pool we also measure stroke count against the speed of the current. Improved technique is shown when there is a reduction in the stroke count while the water pressure increases. Another Endless Pool test would include swimming against a certain water pressure for a set period of time.

Measuring these improvements allows us to rebalance the levels of drills and fitness sessions in an overall training plan. When technique measurements are improving then we are maybe able to relax some of the pure drills sets and add another fitness session. If the fitness benchmarks are not improving then I might suggest relaxing off the fitness sets and adding some more drills sets.

If you feel you have not been improving then recording and keeping a set of meaningful data is essential. And your comparisons need to be against yourself - not just comparing against others which does not provide a real constant. The general speed in your triathlon or masters session may have moved on massively and to still be 'stuck' in lane one is not a failing on your part.

The notes and recordings I had taken at the mentioned session over the last three years show that the average overall speed has improved significantly. The group swim speed average is much quicker due to the influx of some former swimmers, some better training methods, more pool time and hopefully better coaching!

Recording your own set of tests, taking your own measurements and charting them monthly or per training cycle needs to be done otherwise you will have no idea of how you are training. It is only this kind of strict and accurate measuring that can really gauge whether or not you are improving.

Comparing one open-water swim to another or even the same course from year to year is of very little use other then to be a rough guide. Currents, weather and variations to the actual course layout will have the distance change significantly and the potential time taken to vary massively.

How to swim faster!

If after charting your progress for several months and you note you really are not improving then questions can be asked. When I thought about my group I noted that I was pleased with the overall technique. Most swimmers looked really good. There were a few limiters, such as kicking from the knees and some straight arm pulls. But, if you can honestly say that you feel your technique is holding together then maybe it is time to check how hard are you working. If you can 'hang on' to an even stroke count throughout a 400m swim then that is a great step forwards. The next step is to have the control and enough feel for the water to swim the same number of strokes per length regardless of speed. A decent male adult competitive swimmer in a 25m pool will swim 13-15 strokes per length regardless of their speed. They will still swim the same distance per stroke. Inefficiency will allow the stroke count to increase, not more speed. A higher stroke count will rarely equate to more speed, only more tiredness.

Good technique gets you so far and needs to be good before moving onto more serious fitness swim sessions. There comes a time though when you need to work hard as well. Not to the extent your technique falls apart but you should be getting out fairly shattered after the appropriate sets swum at the appropriate intensity.

Challenge yourself:

  • Move up a lane within your club session and hang onto the faster swimmers. Your coach can give guidance on this but you need to make the effort. Be realistic of course.
  • Try to lead a few sets in your regular lane - with no draft this will be a harder swim for you.
  • If you are between lanes and really can't move up but are keen to work harder add a drag suit. (Female swimmers just add the male suit over their regular swim costumes.)
  • Add paddles to your swims to help build resistance.
  • Stop pulling sets that are designated full stroke sets. (A triathletes favourite)
  • Work on correcting your leg kick, you will get faster. With our group it was noted that the current 'fastest swimmer' in the pool was also the 'fastest kicker.'
  • Pull buoy does not replicate putting on a wetsuit and you should not train with this in mind. Your balance and rotation will be altered when pulling. A wetsuit will not stop a bad leg kick creating drag, you just will not have to work so hard to keep a bad leg kick afloat!

Ask yourself:

  • "Have I been getting to the pool 2-3 times each week?" An extra session would work wonders in helping to retain the feel of the water.
  • "Have I been supplementing my swim training with some dryland movements to stop my kick originating in the knees?" There are some great Pilates movements that will help stop a poor legkick.
  • "Have I done some Yoga to loosen up those tight ankles?"
  • "Have I worked as hard in the pool as I might at track?"

My results leading up to Ironman South Africa can be viewed HERE.

Common Tests used for Benchmarks:

Critical Swim Speed: Swim a hard 400m FC and then after a swim down, swim a hard 50m FC. The simple equation will work out your critical swim speed. As your aerobic capacity improves your CSS will increase.

Timed Swims: swim as far as you can in 20 or 30mins. From the result you can simply see if tech and fitness are improving through a simple increase in distance swum. From your average speed more aims can be calculated for regular swim sets.

Golf Scores: add a 25m stroke count to a time taken for swimming 25m. If more speed comes from a higher stroke count then your overall score does not decrease. If you attempt to reduce your overall score by taking fewer strokes then time may well go up. You need to hit an optimum stroke count not a minimum.

Step Tests: 7x200metre step test. HR, stroke count, split times should all be checked and noted. The first 200 metres is swum at 60 BPM below max HR and you descend the set so that the last 200metres is swum at max HR. From the results you can record max HR, best time for the 200, swim velocity (average for 100m in secs), stroke rate (strokes per minute) and stroke count (strokes per 25m/50m) A helper on poolside will help!


Dan Bullock has been voted Coach of the Year by both 220 Magazine and the London Region. With sister Keeley, he runs Swim For Tri, offering training workshops, UK and Overseas Training camps, custom swim plans and more, including detailed swim analysis at their dedicated Endless Pool facilities in Brick Lane, London and Canary Wharf. For more information, see www.swimfortri.co.uk, or contact Dan directly via dan@swimfortri.co.uk


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