Swimming is the oddball sport in triathlon. Workouts often look foreign compared to biking and running. Short intervals are the norm in swimming while steady state and longer interval work tend to be more common in biking and running. Because many triathletes come from a running or cycling background, athletes tend to do longer, steady state workouts in the water, which does not result in the best bang for your buck.
To get the most out of your swim, setting up the workout properly is extremely important. Proper exercise prescription enables you to you develop a feel for the water and to be able to perform the intensity required for improvements in the water. This structure also helps to keep athletes engaged and focused during the workout.
Here is how we structure all swim workouts and why:
1. General Warm-up: This the first 10% to 20% of the workout. The warm-up is swimming at a comfortable pace, ensuring the athlete gets the heart rate elevated and primes the muscles to move. A variety in pace can be included in the general warm-up from easy or slightly harder efforts. Experiment and find what works best for you!
2. Drill set: Unless technique is being altered, this takes up 5 to 10% of the workout. We use drills for activation and as an extension of the general warm-up. It gives neuromuscular input to the athlete, allowing them to remember how their technique should feel. These are swam at the same effort level or slower than the general warmup. Also, the drill set can be intertwined with the general warmup, for example, you can do a 600, with every 3rd 25 being a drill.
3. Warm-up Set: This takes up another 5% to 10% of the workout. This gets your body ready for the intensity of the main set. Your warm-up set can include builds or descend work. This elevates the heart rate and should be intense towards the end. Depending on the goal of the main set, you may want to do an easy 50 or 100 after this so your breathing is normal before beginning your main set.
4. Main Set: The main set can comprise anywhere from 40 to 70% of the swim workout. This is the meat and potatoes of the workout. While I could write a book on different ways to write the main set, it should be dependent on ability level and goals. There are some guidelines that we follow for most main sets. Intervals should be broken up into repeating intervals that range from 50 yards to 200 yards. We do go over 200 yards but rarely. Keeping intervals under 4 minutes keep the athlete engaged in the workout. Athletes tend to zone out of the set after that time and tend to get slower, so we get around that by chopping up the intervals so you can check on the pace clock to maintain functional speed and consistency.
5. Extras: These sets typically have a maximum of 30% of the workout, but a lot of the time, this will not be included in the workout. Extras include anything from kick sets, pull sets or speed work and depend on the goal of the workout. We use kick sets regularly during the early parts of the season to build kick efficiency.
6. Warm-down: This should be at least 10% of the workout but can be longer if there was a lot of short intensity. Warm-down jump starts the recovery process by lowering body temperature and flushing waste from the muscles. Skipping the warm-down can have a negative impact on future workouts and recovery.
Here is an example of one of our swim workouts: