How to Setup Your Triathlon Swim Training for Massive Swimming Improvements (2020 Case Study)
If you’re a triathlete that transitioned from another sport (running, cycling), you’ve probably quickly realized that there is no agreed-upon playbook for how to train for the swim in triathlon.
Should you swim like club swimmers swim? Or does triathlon training necessitate its own brand of swim training?
Nobody really knows. Not even the good triathlon swimmers, it seems.
Sure, there are agreed-upon training principles for swimmers themselves, but these principles don’t transfer over well to triathlon.
Why is this the case?
For one, triathletes are training for much longer swim events than your typical club swimmer. While they are doing 50 to 500m races, we’re doing 1500m to 3800m courses. That’s a world of difference.
Second, triathletes can’t devote all of their training to swimming. While a club swimmer is likely in the pool 6 to 10 times a week, or even more, triathletes are only able to devote 3 to 5 sessions per week to swimming. There are two other sports to train for, after all.
With no agreed-upon playbook for triathlon swim training, it’s no wonder that many, many triathletes end up stagnating in their swim training.
In addition, it’s easy to improve during your first few months of triathlon swimming just because you added training stress, but what about one or two years down the road? Many of us find that we hit a time barrier that’s impossible for us to push past. I’ve experienced long plateaus like this myself, so I know how frustrating it can be.
So when someone is able to improve steadily for months on end, it’s worth taking note of what they might be doing right.
Fortunately, while I was never the best pro triathlete swimmer myself, I’ve had the pleasure of coaching several triathletes that are now swimming competitive pro-level swimming times. One such athlete I coach is Melissa Hickey, who trains out of Boulder, Colorado.
(above: Melissa Hickey kicking in the last 2 miles of the 2019 70.3 St. George for a top-3 finish in her age-group)
When I first started coaching Melissa, her PR for the Half-Ironman was 6:22:00, and her best 1500m swim was 40:23. These are very amateurish times, and I had no idea Melissa would improve to the extent that she has.
Here’s an idea of what Melissa’s swimming times were like in the pool when we first started: she would often swim 1:30-1:35 per 100 yards for her main sets, or 1:40-1:50 per 100 meters. For instance, right when I started coaching Melissa (December 2018), she did 8 x 200m for her main set and averaged 3:40. This comes out to an average of 1:41 per 100 yards, or 1:50 per 100 meters. She also did 6 x 300 and averaged 5:25, for an average of 1:39 per 100 yards and 1:48 per 100 meters.
(above: Melissa’s results from 2018 70.3 Santa Cruz)
We also have Melissa do fitness tests periodically to see if her training is working. We take the standard test of 10 x 100m from Joe Friel’s Triathletes Training Bible (affiliate link) – and double it.
This means the typical fitness test I have athletes complete is 10 x 100m with 10 seconds rest in-between each 100m. After a short active rest of 3-5 minutes following the 1000m, I then have them complete 5 x 200m with 15 seconds rest. This gives us 2000m of near all-out swimming.
If you want to do this test yourself it’s easy to time the whole 10 x 100m together, then subtract 90 seconds to get your moving time (9 x 10 seconds rest periods). If you follow the same strategy with the 5 x 200m test, you’ll only subtract 60 seconds to get your moving time (4 x 15 seconds rest periods).
The first time Melissa did this test (late March 2019), she was able to put down a time of 15:55 for the 10 x100m and 17:14 for the 5 x 200m (these figures already have the rest periods taken out).
Now fast forward one year. In late February 2020, Melissa put down 13:57 for the 10 x 100m and 14:31 for the 5 x 200m test. This represents a whopping 4 minutes and 41 seconds improvement over 2000m!
To put the improvement in perspective, Melissa’s initial test performance is the equivalent of swimming 31:30 for the half-Ironman swim, while the last test is the equivalent of a 27:00 half-Ironman swim.
Needless to say, if you were able to translate this sort of improvement from the pool to open water, you would have just gone from bush league to big league.
Now, what about Melissa’s day-to-day performances in the pool? One proxy workout we can use is Melissa’s 12 x 200m workout performed on 2/20/20. Melissa was able to average 2:52 for each 200m during this workout, for an average pace of 1:18 per 100 yards and 1:26 per 100m.
Now that we’ve established the massive improvement in Melissa’s swimming, let’s unearth which training distinctives lead to Melissa’s improvement, and how you can borrow the strategies we used.
How Melissa’s Triathlon Swim Times Went from Good to Great
Step 1. Improve Overall Aerobic Fitness
Melissa is highly motivated and as a consequence we have raised her training volume steadily yet intelligently over the past 12 months. While Melissa trained about 12-13 hours per week in early 2019, she’s now up to 15-16 hours per week for early 2020. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but in percentage terms it’s pretty substantial.
To illustrate the massive aerobic improvement, Melissa’s average pace on training runs has improved even more substantially than her swim times. Melissa would average about 9:45 per mile on her runs in 2019; now she averages about 7:45 per mile. This is an absolutely sizzling improvement, and one that many a triathlete would be jealous of! We feel this is due to the consistent training volume that Melissa has put in over the last year.
How to implement this change yourself: Increase your weekly volume in small increments. Most triathletes can increase their volume at a rate of 1/2 hour to 1 hour of total training volume per week.
Step 2. Find the Right Swim Training Mix
Triathletes are notorious for swimming hard all the time. This is a huge mistake and impairs the improvement of triathletes who do so. Instead, I prescribe a consistent blend of swims for Melissa each week.
The training mix includes:
1 shorter technique, recovery, or speed skill swim. These swims often fall on easy days so the exact duration and intensity depends on how fatigued I think Melissa will be going into the swim.
1 intense swim with shorter main sets. Melissa might be swimming 20 x 100m, 12 x 200m or 6 x 300m for her main sets on days like this. This swim usually occurs on the first day after a day off. They give Melissa an opportunity to swim fast and feel good!
1 longer aerobic swim. Brace yourself: some of the main sets I have my athletes do will have some triathletes running for the locker room. This swim might be 5 x 500m, 6 x 400m, or something savage like 2 x 600m, 3 x 300m, 4 x 150m. I’m a big fan of descending main sets, so I’ll often have athletes start with longer reps, and cut down the distance as the swim progresses. This virtually ensures that they do not go out too hard and wreck the rest of their workout.
How to implement: Make sure you’re training in the right zones for your workouts, avoiding training in the “grey-zone” (medium-hard) all of the time. To do this, try incorporating easy technique swims on your recovery days. Also, try some of the longer descending aerobic sets I suggested. Your actual swimming frequency per week and distance of your main set will likely vary from the above based on your personal volume level.
Step 3. Crazy Long Warm-Ups
I’ve noticed the strangest thing lately – the amount someone swims each week seems to be directly correlated to their performance levels. The triathletes who swim more, swim better. Would you believe it?
All joking aside, the long warm-up seems to accomplish one thing really well: It allows swimmers to pad their daily swim volume with lots of extra, gentle swimming. In addition, warm-up swimming is mentally pretty easy, and doesn’t take much away from an athlete’s performance during the main set. So why not layer it on heavy?
Melissa gets a warm-up that totals about 1200m. This includes a blend of freestyle, breast, and back stroke. It might also include some pull buoy swimming and kicking drills depending on the day. And Melissa is still not into her main set after the 1200m is complete. She must first do about 500-600m of drills before the main set.
How to implement: Add a longer continuous swim of 600-1000m for your initial warm-up. This continuous swim can be done as “broken freestyle” Broken freestyle is just a combination of free, back, breast, with an emphasis on free. Broken free is a good way to get in a healthy, steady swim without wearing out your freestyle muscle groups prematurely.
Step 4. Get Injured
I know what you’re thinking: this post was going so well, why did Matt have to go and ruin it with something weird?
The truth is, Melissa did get injured, and it did ultimately help her swimming. Fortunately, you don’t have to go out and hurt yourself to achieve the same thing.
Late in 2019, Melissa had a spat of running injuries. In a fury of unbridled masochism and dogged determination, Melissa even managed to give herself compartment syndrome while running the marathon leg of Ironman Mount-Tremblant. She was already trying to run through a prior injury, and the compartment syndrome was a result of trying to push through that injury too far.
On the bright side, Melissa was confined to swimming only for a period of time while her injuries died down. She was even reduced to using the pull buoy only for part of this time.
So what could you possibly replicate from Melissa’s experience? Being injured doesn’t seem helpful.
In a word: focus.
If you focus on one or at max two of the three sports at a time, you’ll improve faster and with less effort than if you train for swim, bike, and run evenly, all of the time. The key is to do this at a time in the season when it’s okay to be off your best fitness in the one sport you’re excluding.
This is the greatest training revelation I’ve made in the past five years, and I share it with some hesitancy.
(above: A common sight – Melissa Hickey in the medical tent.)
So how do you implement this strategy?
Like I say, I just made this revelation so I don’t have all the answers yet.
If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say pick a 2 month time period to focus on swim and bike only, perhaps during the fall after the season ends. Return to normal training for January, after your time off for the season is complete. Once you hit February 1, do 6 weeks of bike and run training only. Reintroduce swimming in mid-March if you plan to start racing at the beginning of May.
Step 5. Drills, drills, and more drills.
Many triathletes hate swim drills, and would rather skip them and get into the main set. The thinking must be that one is skipping the “fluff” part of the workout, and getting into the meat. This intuition is flawed for three reasons:
(1) Most triathletes need to spend as much time with their heart rate elevated as they can. Like long warm-ups, drilling allows you to get some additional time in the pool with your heart rate up, while providing some variety in the workout.
(2) Swimming speed is highly dependent on efficiency. This means that you should put a premium on your swimming technique, and one great way to do that is by incorporating drills into your swims.
(3) If you skip drills because your form is already good, you assume your swim form isn’t going to get worse over time.
Melissa has pretty good swim form already, but, like many triathletes, she has a tough time keeping her elbows high. This causes her arms to “slip” through the water, as very little surface area from her forearms is presented to push against the water.
To protect against this happening, we have Melissa do several “high-elbow” drills including, skulling, single-arm drill, and UNCO.
How to Implement: To learn more about how to do skull and single-arm drill, see The Race Clubs video on How to Pull Underwater.
To learn how to do the UNCO drill, see Swimsmooth’s article on The King of Drills.
A typical drill set might include 6 x 50 of skulling, swam as 25 drill/25 swim. Then, perform 6 x 50 as 25 single-arm drill/25 swim. Like I say, this will add a nice 600m to your swim!
There is a lot that goes into excellent triathlon swimming performances, but I’ve tried to focus on what makes Melissa’s training unique. If your triathlon swim times are at a standstill and your swim training is in a rut, try adding one or all of these strategies and I’m sure they will make a noticeable improvement to your swim training times, and ultimately your race performance in the triathlon swim.
If you’re fired up now and want to make sure you maximize your training, make sure to check out my awesome triathlon training guide. If you’re really serious about getting fast, check out the personal triathlon coaching services I offer which have led so many others to triathlon success.
Until we ride or run, or swim again,