I Suspect I Might Hit A Plateau At Some Point In The Near Future… Any Advice?

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.

Eventually, you’ll be able to feel when you’re at your CSS. Look at our threshold series so you can use your heart rate or perceived effort when it’s been awhile between testing your CSS.

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

Categories: Dear Water Bloggers, Plateau

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. Hey!
    Thanks so much for the response! There’s loads of good advice there and lots and lots to digest! It’ll probably require a few re-reads, but I’ll certainly start incorporating a lot of it into my sessions!
    Thanks again 🙂

  2. Well I’ve started incorporating some of this advice into my sessions over the last couple of weeks, and it’s going well so far! I took on board point 10 over the weekend and repeated my 16x100m session using a longer rest (off 2.15-2.30 depending on traffic) – I managed to average 1.27 across the 16 reps! That’s a good 3-4 secs quicker than the last time I did it… I’ve also started to incorporate more drill work, especially in warm ups & cool downs…

    Regarding point 12 though, I’ve always considered open water to be faster than the pool – mainly because I benefit from the bouyancy of a wetsuit, and because I can find some fast feet to draft off. So my aim was to get to somewhere around 10.45 pool swim for 750m, as this should translate into a 10.00 open water swim for me (in my last race, I hit 12.00 for 800m, and I had only been back in the pool for 6 weeks after an 18 month break! And I’m certainly a fair bit faster now than I was in Sept!). What are your thoughts on this?

    Thanks again for the help!

    • Wow! I’m so impressed to see how fast you went with must a little bit more rest! Way faster than 1:31s too. How did it feel? I think the drill work during warm and warm down is really important in the long run too, so I’m glad you’re incorporating it.

      I’m interested in the point you made regarding your open water swim vs pool swim. I believe you are more buoyant with the wetsuit and it is true that you can go faster and save energy while drafting. The swim coach in me would like you to swim faster in the pool though, just so we know you can swim your goal time in the race. What you are saying makes sense and in your scenario and I’m going to defer to the fact that you know your body and the race venue better than I do. I do think many people are faster in the pool than open water and because it worked out one time doesn’t mean it will always work that way. Your job is to pay attention to your training and adjust as needed. I think it is amazing how much faster you are now than September and as far as I can tell, no plateau yet!

      Keep it up! One question: have you recently done a 750 race pace just to see where you are right now? I’d encourage you to do one at practice and swim it exactly as you would in the race – complete with sighting and even wearing your wetsuit. I’m curious what the results are and think its worth a try one of these days.

      • Yeah, I wonder if it was all due to the extra rest, as I feel like I’ve made some big technique improvements as well in the last couple of weeks – mainly around my hand entry. Perhaps the extra rest just allowed me to maintain those improvements, and good technique generally…?

        Yep, that’s a fair point around pool vs open water. I guess I should probably target a pool-time goal along with my race-time goal. I seriously doubt I’ll be able to hit 10.00 in a pool (I did a CSS test today and hit 5.59 for 400m), but perhaps I could aim for 10.30 or 10.45…then again, if I can continue the gains I’ve made since Sept, maybe it is possible…do you have any thoughts on what could be a realistic pool-time to aim for?

        I haven’t done any long sets for a long while – the CSS test today was my longest since Sept I think! I hit 5.59 for 400m & 2.52 for 200m, which gives me a CSS of 1.34. This feels like it’ll be a bit slow though – I think I could hold this pace for hours!!

      • Let me think on this and get back to you soon. Good questions!

      • I think it is a combination of your technique and getting more rest. I do think you’re spending a bit too much time doing 100s and that you should do some longer repeats like the 400 set in the above post.

        I also think you should do pacework – either before or after the longer main sets. Doing it before will get you at the speed you want to maintain and warmed up from the get go. Doing it after will challenge you to hold that speed when you are tired. I’d recommend sets like 6 x 50s at :05 rest where you hold :01 to :02 seconds faster than your CSS speed (faster because you’re going a shorter distance). You could also do broken swims. Broken swims are when you break up a longer distance (like a 200). You swim fast and take about :05 to :10 rest and come in to the wall at your feet. When you’re done, you subtract your rest time and the remaining time would be your goal time. You don’t have to limit broken swims to 200s. You also want to swim them faster because the rest you’re taking kind of simulates a tapered feeling.

        I also think you should swim a 750 to see where you are right now. I think this because when I coach swimmers, we start the season knowing where they ended the season before and have meets throughout the season leading up to their championship meet. The little meets give feedback on their training, etc. If you’ve only done a 400 for time since your last tri, you probably want to do the whole 750 now that you’re getting some improvements and trying to set a pool goal time.

        Hope this makes sense! Hit me with any questions.

      • On the day you time trial your 750, you might do something like this:

        600 general warm up

        200 back negative split to feel
        4 x 50s @ CSS – :02 @ :05 rest

        1 x 750 for time, the way you plan to swim it on race day (get your time and your heart rate at the end)

        200 easy warm down

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