A fellow blogger sent us the following question:
…As you might have seen from my blog and training logs, I’m currently focussing on my above-threshold speed in the water – so mainly sprint sets, above-threshold repeats with relatively long rests (i.e. 16x100m at 1.30 off 2mins) and some CSS work. I’m currently making some good progress, but I suspect I might plateau at some point in the near future. Any ideas on where I should focus my training when this happens? Perhaps something along the lines of adding pull sets, or pure technique work (drill sessions etc)? Or something completely different? As for my goals, the main goal is to qualify for the Age-Group World Champs next year at sprint distance. To do this, I figure I need to swim around 10mins flat for 750m… I don’t currently swim any strokes other than freestyle (cos I’m rubbish at them!) and don’t include any pull or kick sets… Hope you can help me out! And thanks in advance!
What an excellent question from somebody who has a very good handle on what they do in the pool. Earlier we posted some generalized plateau suggestions but here are some specific ideas based on what we know about the above athlete. He trains in a 33 meter pool… which is great for open water simulation but means he’ll have to convert everything we suggest. CSS stands for “critical swim speed,” which is another way to say threshold pace.
1. Lots of triathletes coach themselves but it is important not to stress yourself out in the process. I can tell from your blog that you are a very cerebral athlete. Even the question above tells me that you’re prepping for a future plateau – not a current one. While it is fantastic to be prepared, make sure you don’t let it create stress.
2. Based on the times you’ve given me, I think you’ve still got room to improve. If you hit a plateau soon, you should be able to overcome it by adjusting your technique or how you train at practice.
We think you should consider occasionally adding some backstroke and breaststroke to your routine. The backstroke will help balance out your freestyle muscles. The breaststroke will help you feel the water better.
You can also try swimming some progressions. Try going from swimming with your hands in a fist, to sculling, to DPS (distance per stroke), to building your speed, and then sprinting. Don’t forget to spend some time working on the small things like your body position and streamline too. Here’s a drill series you could add to your warm up or warm down, or even throw in during recovery swims.
Vicky, our amazing distance swimmer, has also suggested:
I am currently training for a 4.33 mile race in December and I often feel like I’m hitting a training plateau or that I’m losing “feeling”. This was also common for me as a distance freestyle swimmer growing up. The best solutions I have found were to increase drag, as Maria stated in her previous post. I prefer a large drag increase. We used to pull Home Depot buckets with holes drilled in them, but now I use a parachute and mix up the strokes.
When I only trained freestyle, my freestyle performance suffered. If I mix in backstroke, at a minimum, I generally feel stronger in freestyle. Like in any sport, repetitive motion can cause muscle fatigue. Slight variance in that motion (i.e. different strokes) is healthy. I’ve noticed while training for this long race, that training IM with a parachute has really made me feel more powerful, especially since I am very limited as to the amount of time I have in the water.
3. Consider increasing your training volume and adding some speed work even on days you do CSS training. I see you regularly do sets of 100s (at least once or twice a week using CSS as a guide). Don’t forget to spend some time practicing CSS at longer distances. When you’re ready, consider trying main sets like the following:
5 x 400s D1-4 from CSS +:02 to CSS -:02
4 x 50s Sprint at :05 rest
2 x 800s Free @: 20 rest
#1: odd 200s at CSS, even 200s between CSS -:02 to CSS -:04
#2: 8 x (75 CSS/ 25 Sprint)
5 x 200s Descending 1-5 to fast with fins on @ :20 to :30 rest
1 x 400: 75 Free CSS/ 25 Back Sprint @ :10 rest
4 x 200s Dolphin Kick Sprint with Fins @ :45 rest (to really work your core)
2 x 400s Free Negative Split from CSS to feel @ :15 rest
4 x 100’s Masters IM* with three fast strokes off every wall @ :20 rest
1 x 200 IM (or Masters IM) build each stroke @ :30 rest
1 x 200 Pull Breathing 3/5 by 50 @ :20 rest
1 x 200 IM (or Masters IM) Drill/ Sprint by 25 @ :30 rest
1 x 200 Pull Breathing 3/5 by 100 @ :20 rest
15 x 100s freestyle on a descending interval
Many triathletes try to build up to the distance they’ll be swimming on race day versus swimmers, who practice much, much more than they will ever race. Right now you are swimming more than a lot of your counterparts but you’re doing less than you would if you were a swimmer.
Granted, you have to balance two other sports. Being a good swimmer can only help a person so much, whereas they can make up much more time in the bike or run leg – so keep that in mind. You won’t need to spend a gazillion extra hours in the pool to make your goal, but you’ll probably want to do more than you’re doing. Let us know if you need more guidance.
4. Don’t forget to test your CSS every once in awhile!!! I saw on one post you felt like you were swimming too fast at practice and you had to think about slowing down. You also told me its been a little while since you’ve tested your CSS. I think its likely you’ve improved enough that your CSS should be adjusted, which means you should be swimming faster.
5. Make sure you include some drill work when you are warming up, warming down or recovering. Maximize any and all improvements you can get with better technique.
6. Practice your swim to bike transitions before race day! You can probably cut some easy time on your transitions, so practice them beforehand.
7. Later in the season, take less rest when you do 100’s at CSS. You’re fine right now because you’re in the off season and your focus is on technique. Just don’t forget to adjust your rest intervals later on.
8. Even if you do a two beat kick on race day, practice some kicking to improve your overall fitness. It is very easy to drop your kick during the race and it won’t hurt you to work on your legs during practice. Dolphin kick can really work your core too. Doing some fast dolphin kick on your back without a board might be a good addition to your practices.
9. Now is the time for you to do drill work. Generally, a swim season will progress from aerobic base and drill work, to threshold and speed work, to a taper phase. Now is also the time for you to work on feeling comfortable with other strokes. Since you’ve said you’re “rubbish” at them, you might want to try practicing with a team for a little while so you get some feedback from a coach.
10. When you do your above CSS (EN3/ VO2 Max) faster swimming you want more rest then you get when you’re at CSS (which means you’re swimming those sets correctly). You could even take more rest if you wanted. Just make sure you’re hitting the correct energy systems as your endurance improves. EN3/VO2 Max is going to feel hard (your heart rate can hit its max in this system) whereas CSS is should feel uncomfortable. One of these days you might try your 16 x 100 meters on the 2:30 instead of 2:00 and see if you can hold below 1:31s on them versus the 1:31s to 1:34s you hold on the 2:00.
11. Consider using hand paddles. Yes, we do think you’d benefit from swimming freestyle and backstroke pull sets. You can swim the sets just like normal but its really going to work your arms/ shoulders/ back/ lats. Check out our post on hand paddles and how to use them to help with your hand entry and exit too.
12. If you want to go 10:00 in a 750 meter open water swim, you have to be able to swim faster than that in a pool! Just like running on a treadmill is different than running outside, pool swimming and open water swimming don’t translate 1:1. You’ll want to practice open water skills like sighting and drafting. You also want to give yourself a safe buffer zone and make sure you can practice faster in a pool than you want to swim in open water. If you have access to open water, its a good idea to practice open water swimming before race day.
I hope this gives you some good training ideas. Be on the lookout for a post on active rest because I think you’ll really benefit from that too. Please feel free to check in with us if you have anymore questions.
You’re doing a great job with your training!
*A Master’s IM is an individual medley with freestyle substituted for butterfly. A 200 Masters IM would go: 50 Free/ 50 Back/ 50 Breast/ 50 Free