From Gordo Byrn’s recent blog post:
TIP – it takes a lot less to get back to a previous level than attain it for the first time.
You may also notice that, unlike me, Gordo is taking a swim-heavy approach to his training balance. He has good reason for this choice. There is no one right way for all people at all times, and part of this emphasis comes from the fact that he’s increasing his focus on a pending time bound performance target (Silverman Half). For many of us, targeted training should increase as race day draws nearer.
Factor Analysis — Fun Factor vs. Performance Factor. If I were to draw a line graph over time with my A Races plotted along the way, you’d see the Performance Factor emphasis increase and Fun Factor emphasis decrease as I approach these A Races. Why not just focus on Performance Factor over Fun Factor at all times? Well, even though I’m one of your more goal-oriented types out there, I realize that sacrificing FUN sessions (whatever that might be can vary by individual and over time) for purely performance oriented sessions is unsustainable. Motivation to train would go into the crapper, and that’s not good for long term fitness and psychological health.
For me at this point in my life, long term fitness and psychological health are bigger drivers than hardcore focus on specific performance outcomes. Don’t get me wrong. Specific performance outcomes are important to me, but if I run into a conflict between the long term and shorter term goals, there’s no question about which path I’m choosing. After so much swimming in earlier years coupled with the negative symptoms I get with chemical pool intense swimming (allergies, asthma, rash, etc.), swim training doesn’t hold the same appeal that it used to.
So what’s the reasoning behind my choices in balancing my training load? Back to the tip quote. I’m a firm believer in my body’s profound muscle and movement memory for previously ingrained skills, no matter how long it’s been. By my calculations, ten years of year round swimming counts as ingrained. Sure, the longer it’s been, the longer the road back, but never nearly so long as that first time up the path. So for me, as an experienced swimmer, I’ve been up that swim path so many times that it’s created an indelible neuronal imprint as deep as the dirt trenches an energertic fenced in dog creates in their owner’s back yard. Let me explain…
When I first got back into the pool to train for my first triathlon, I had been out of swimming for 12.5 years, but there was still a part of me that felt like no time had passed. The strength, power and specific endurance were all terrible. The technique, however, had lived on in my body despite disuse. Furthermore, I retained vivid imagery of what it felt like to still be powerful and fit in the water. Never underestimate the importance of being able to feel and see your target with clarity.
The Four Buckets. I view my triathlon-specific swim fitness in four buckets that drive my swim-related training decisions.
- Technique – One can always improve one’s technique. Heck, I hear that even Phelps is making some changes to his stroke. I’m not against doing this sort of thing. In fact, if you are looking for an improvement angle on open water and wetsuit swimming, I’d suggest looking into front quadrant technique. I’ve found that some experienced swimmers get frustrated with wetsuits and/or choppy open water due to insistance on completing each stroke down by their lower hip, just like we were told to by our swim coaches in the 1980′s. For me at this point of the game, I’m not going to invest a lot of time resources into a total reworking of my swim technique. I am, however, seeking to retain the positives of the technique I’ve got by regularly swimming in open water, integrating regular drill work into my pool workouts (I find fist drill to be invaluable) and by avoiding quality swim workouts when overly fatigued. For example, I’ve learned that I shouldn’t attempt a quality swim workout on the same day I’ve already completed a run of any signficance. Since I don’t swim much and won’t invest the time to do “float around” swims, this means that I don’t swim the same day after a run. Period. I also manipulate my set lengths and intervals to allow me to maintain good technique. The next two buckets of swim fitness determine what that means at any moment in time.
- Power - My swim power is the oomph I feel from catch to release. There are two avenues to improved swim power: 1. plenty of swim volume, and 2. adequate swim volume plus swim-specific dryland (er, functional strength work or whatever the physiology muckedy mucks are calling that these days). Fortunately for me, my parents supported my youth swim program by purchasing a Total Gym inclined sled which sat in their storage area until I moved the device to my back porch a few years ago. I think it’s got some similarities to the pricey Vasa Trainer, but the main point is that it can be used to build freestyle catch specific power with consistent, but short sessions. Believe you me, I can get a workout on that thing for a mere 5 minute investment. My challenge has been getting on it with adequate frequency (the Fun Factor comes in to play here). As I arrive closer and closer to my A Races, the Performance Factor has driven me to get on that thing 2-3 times per week in addition to my paltry yardage. Better, I’ve increased the number of reps and steepness of incline over the past month. It’s working, I tell you. Note: If you don’t want to invest in expensive equipment, there’s always the stretch cord option. For building power, there are some types of work I do in the water too. One is short, technique-focused swim paddles sets at moderate effort. Another are my “power 50′s”, which are fly/free then fist drill /free with plenty of rest. Emphasis on maintaining a STRONG second 25.
- Endurance – My longest triathlon this year is only Olympic Distance. This is a mere 1500 meter swim. Twenty five minutes of effort if I’m in crap shape, less if I’m rolling a little faster. In weekly volume, this translates to spending at least that amount of time swimming steadily in open water plus a swim workout with a challenging main set building up to 2k in yards. The goal is to hold a threshold effort 1500 meter open water swim without blowing myself up for the bike and run. Further, the effort for the swim should not be so hard as to result in a slow, disoriented T1. Why overswim to gain 15 seconds only to lose it when others sprint by me into transition while I fumble with my helmet straps or, worse, find myself unable to think clearly enough to find my frigging bike? But pacing take us to tactics. The point is that if I were doing a longer race, I would swim longer for my average workout. I may add a session, but probably not. I think I only swam a couple times a week in my buildup to Silverman Iron Distance, but the sessions were longer.
- Tactics – Tactical excellence comes from experience, forethought and an ability to make practical decisions when under physical duress (while racing). For non-drafting events, I’ve found the swim portion to be the easiest to influence through the use of wise racing tactics. Tactics play into my swim training only to the point that my fitness (the other three buckets above) must be adequate for me to capitalize upon. For example, my most common tactic during an open water swim start is to go fast enough to position myself near the front, but not at the front. This way, I get away from the typically over-taxed tangled mass of others’ arms and legs while positioning myself well to draft off the stronger swimmers that get out a little faster. I’ve found if they get out faster than that, I likely wouldn’t have been able to hang on anyway. Better to be the drafter than the draftee, but a lot of good all this analysis does me if I don’t have adequate opening speed. This is something I encountered in my earlier triathlons this season and am hopefully addressing in time for Tri Nats. How? Some fast starts and finish reps in open water sessions and no-breather 25′s in the pool.
Keep in mind that swim training decisions don’t occur in a vaccuum. I’m also running, biking and doing other aerobic and strength building activities (like baby lifts and stroller walks). I’m also working and prioritizing quality family time. I’m also making efforts toward positive sleep and nutritional habits. When I add it all up, I don’t see a lot of reason to take my swim training to the point of diminishing returns. So, yeah, maybe I can eke out a little more speed on race day by increasing my swim training volume, but it wouldn’t be much and I’m much better off spending my time on other priorities and finding a good pair of feet to tow my lazy butt to a slightly better swim split.
So that’s the gist of my thought process with my swim training. I’m sure I’ve missed some things I intended to convey, but gosh this thing has gotten long already. Feel free to pose questions if I’ve been unclear. If there’s enough material, it could mean another post. Otherwise, I’ll just respond in the comments and directly to the questioner via email.