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Juice Up Your Swim Regimen to Get Faster

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This month's Fitness Makeover subject is Josh Lam, a 28-year-old swimmer from Madisonville, Ky. A lean 170 pounds and a daily exercise enthusiast, Josh doesn't need to lose weight or gain motivation with his makeover request.

Rather, he's experiencing a problem that comes up often in letters that focus on an overall desire for improvement. He wants to get faster.

While my advice in the past has been for readers to address their technique and seek private instruction to ensure maximum efficiency (whether in swimming or running), I feel that Josh's problem may be the opposite, and it's one that several readers have mentioned in their correspondence to me.

With perfect technique and meticulous attention to form, why are these athletes not seeing PR's in their performance?

"I swim 3 - 4 times a week, probably 3,000 - 4,000 yards per workout," Josh writes. "I generally don't use the pace clock and often like to use equipment (buoy, paddles, kickboard) because I think it helps keep my stroke technique in check. I'm frustrated because I'd like to lower my times in some of the sprint events I compete in (100 fly) but feel that my speed just isn't there. What can I do??

Josh may have perfect technique, and assuming that he does, then the solution here is simple: He needs to learn to swim fast. Training at a low heart rate may allow for careful attention to form, but that is only a small (albeit crucial) element to fast performance.

One needs to teach the body to sprint, and this can be a challenge, particularly for athletes like Josh who aren't members of a masters swimming program that offers intense interval training.

At first glance, I would suggest that Josh increase his weekly yardage by swimming more often than he does ? but I don't see that as a necessary ingredient to his success because on the days he doesn't swim he lifts weights and enjoys short runs.

I always recommend cross-training, and because Josh is a sprinter whose events aren't more than 100 meters long, he can get by on swimming every other day if he prefers strength training and light jogging on his off days.

For an athlete looking to improve their mile (or longer) swim time in a triathlon or open-water race, then it would be important to swim every day and alternate a speed workout (approximately 3,000 yards) with an endurance workout (at least 5,000 yards).

Josh has been doing technique workouts lots of long, slow swimming mixed in with technique drills. What he needs to do now is incorporate speed, as well as some endurance, into his pool time.

Here are two sample workouts - one speed, one endurance - that he should consider.

3,000-yard speed workout
500 warm-up
10 x 50's @ 10 secs rest (odd: easy / even: fast)
200 kick (last 50 sprint)
600 pull
4 x 50's @ 1:00 rest, sprint
100 easy
3 x 100's @ 15 secs rest (last 25 sprint)
100 easy
10 x 25's sprint (25 easy swim active rest between each one)

5,000-yard endurance workout
500 warm-up
200 kick
800 pull
5 x 100's descend, last one down to race pace @ 10 secs rest
400 swim @ 30 secs rest
100 race pace
300 swim @ 20 secs rest
100 race pace
200 swim @ 10 secs rest
100 race pace
100 swim
200 kick
5 x 200's descend, last one down to race pace @ 15 secs rest
200 easy swim
100 sprint
200 easy swim

Josh may cringe at the endurance workout above, and to be sure he's fine doing it only once a week. Even though he is a sprinter, it's essential that his body is capable of sustaining and recovering from fatigue and an endurance workout will provide comparable fatigue to the last lap of a 100 butterfly sprint.

For a sprinter, a workout like this serves to break down the body's muscles, and in the days they rebuild (recover) they get stronger (much like the philosophy behind weight training: day on/day off).

More important is that Josh focus on the sprint workout example, and teach his body to swim fast. This means increasing stroke turnover (the speed with which his arms rotate a full stroke much like cadence when riding a bike).

On the sprint portions of the workout he should give 100%, and take his pulse (especially after each of the 4 x 50's, since he has a minute rest). His approximate heart rate should be over 180 during these tough intervals, based on some of the basic formulas for calculating heart rate.
(* see note on heart-rate zones below)

He has been training at lower aerobic levels for far too long, and in order to see improvements, he needs to be training regularly at anaerobic levels.

The weight training and light running (two miles, two or three times a week) is great. Weights provide the core body strength necessary to be explosive for short bursts of speed (like the ones required in Josh's event of choice, the 100 butterfly).

One thing to be cautious of is too much of a good thing: Sprinters that habitually practice weight training have a tendency to bulk up and lose their flexibility.

Bulky, dense muscles (as opposed to swimmer's build lean ones) weigh the body down in the water, causing it to ride lower and suffer from increased resistance. Loss of flexibility is also undesirable as the stroke technique that Josh worked so hard to master can end up affected.

The running is a nice break from the pool, but Josh could increase his infrequent two-mile runs to a more consistent schedule, increasing the mileage to over three miles. A two-mile run takes him a little over 15 minutes, and he can improve his endurance by cross-training with an activity that may take him close to a half-hour to complete.

Very necessary and often overlooked by sprinters is the need to train aerobically (in Josh's case, approximate heart rate 140 to 160 *), at least a few times a week to guarantee a tough finish to a short but intense race.

Another great way for Josh to learn to swim fast is to incorporate either Zoomers or Hydrofinz into his workout. Skip Kenney and Richard Quick, Stanford University's men's and women's swim coaches, insist on having their teams train with flippers because they allow a swimmer (who may otherwise be too fatigued to swim at race pace) the chance to perform at race-pace speeds in daily workout sessions.

Fins also elevate the body in the water, providing the swimmer with the high body position that goes hand in hand with explosive sprinting off the blocks.

Again, Josh should be aware of too much of a good thing: An over-reliance on Zoomers can hurt a swimmer in the long run, who will develop leg strength but whose upper body may suffer.

So to recap: Regardless of your sport or athletic goals, if your desire is to improve your performance times then you need to break out of the mold of your fitness routine and challenge yourself to train faster.

Monitor your heart rate zones and be aware of which zone you are training in. Incorporate speed work (anaerobic training) into your threshold aerobic workouts.

Mimic a "race" situation as much as possible, either by wearing fins in the pool or by forcing yourself to sprint short explosive distances at race pace regardless of your sport. If your technique is there, the rest will follow!

* Note: Heart-rate training zones are based on an individual's "maximum heart rate," which differs from person to person and is influenced by many factors, including genetics, age and overall conditioning. There are several ways to find out your max heart rate and aerobic and anaerobic training zones the most accurate being a physiology test in a sports-medicine lab. There are also a few basic formulas that can give you an indication of what your heart-rate zones should be. You can do a search on the Internet for "heart rate training zones" and find the information you need to get started. This is how I determined Josh's approximate heart rates for this article.


If you are interested in being the subject of a Fitness Makeover, please e-mail your questions to Alex, and include a phone number where you can be reached upon your selection.

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