Swim Test Sets

Written by Kropelnicki. Posted in Coaching Thoughts

Triathletes typically have a significantly more difficult time becoming proficient competitive swimmers than their single-sport counterparts. First, and foremost, because triathletes must focus on three very different disciplines they simply do not have the time, on a day-to-day basis, to put in the necessary swim volumes that would promote adequate sport-specific efficiencies. As a result, triathletes must be extremely meticulous in how they develop mechanical efficiency in the water. Of triathlon’s three disciplines, swimming is the most dependent upon sport mechanics due to the significant difference in the resistance of water versus air. A compounding factor is the difficulty in gaining mechanical proficiency in the water, due to a lack of solid contact points on which to anchor the body. Cycling provides five contact points, and is therefore the easiest discipline for developing mechanical efficiency. Running, with only a single contact point, has its difficulties, but still does not provide the level of difficulty of swimming. Having no contact points, swimming allows many “degrees of freedom” for inefficient movement. So, the question becomes: How can we help our athletes focus their limited time and energy where it is most appropriate through specific swim test sets throughout the season?

In the water, training for speed can really be broken down into two primary components, namely fitness and mechanics. Mechanics can be further broken down into balance/streamlining and propulsion. The first three test sets, below, focus on identifying an athlete’s mechanical limiters and will help to direct their early-season swim training. Later in the season, the final two swim sets will evaluate an athlete’s fitness, gage progress, and help to predict race performance.

Swim Golf – This test set has been around for quite some time, and for good reason! It evaluates streamlining, and is therefore a very good indicator of your athlete’s in-water balance. Using it during the early part of the season can help to guide the athlete’s next couple of months of training, and will not impact more race specific training. Swim Golf consists of a timed 50-yard swim, and its corresponding stroke count. The sum of the time, in seconds, that it takes the athlete to swim 50-yards, and the stroke count represents their total score. Athletes who are 5’6”, and taller, should aim for a score that is under 65, while shorter athletes should strive for a score that is below 70. Athletes who meet these thresholds are likely well streamlined, have good balance, and can move onto the propulsion-focused sets, below. Until then, the athlete will be best served by focusing on drills that continue to address in-water balance and streamlining.

No Kick/Kick – Following a warm up of about 500 to 1,000 yards, the athlete should kick a 50-yard Time Trial, take a 1-minute rest, and then swim a 100-yard TT, without any kicking. If dividing the no kick TT time by the kick TT time, both in seconds, yields a score between 1.55 and 1.65, the athlete has reasonably good propulsion from both the kick and upper body. Having already “passed” Swim Golf, the athlete is known to have good in-water balance, and overall propulsion. Therefore, this test really determines the source of the athlete’s propulsion. A score below the acceptable range is likely indicative of an inefficient kick. Focusing on ankle flexibility, and having the kick originate from the athlete’s hips will help to bring the kick on par with the upper-body propulsion. Scores above the acceptable range may be a sign of an athlete who is unfit, has a lower BMI with limited strength, and/or lacks a high elbow and good arm position. It should be noted that an athlete’s overall propulsive progress can also be tracked using this set throughout the entire season using the sum of these two times as the metric.

The above test sets are great ways to assess the effectiveness of an athlete’s early-season drill work, but neither of them are indicative of whether or not the athletes’ targeting drill work is leading to faster swimming. This next set is simple, but an excellent way to evaluate swimming efficiency during the early season.

Overall Mechanics Progress
150-yard TT – Following a warm up of about 500 to 1,000 yards, the athlete should swim a timed 150-yard TT. Repeating this, every two weeks during the early-season, is an excellent measure of mechanical progress. The length of this effort is perfect in the early-season, because it is not long enough for fitness to play a significant role, and not enough quantity to undermine a focus on aerobic base.

Having addressed the two major pieces of the mechanics puzzle, the following set will evaluate the specific physiological needs of the athlete, as race season approaches and training becomes more intensive.

Fitness ad Physiological Specifics
Over/Under – Following a warm up of about 1,000 yards, the athlete should complete a timed 400-yard TT, followed by a two minute rest, and then a timed 1600-yard TT. The athlete’s total swim speed (fitness and mechanics) can be assessed by the addition of these two times. Because the 1600TT is so aerobic in nature; likely 80-85% aerobic energy production, versus the 400TT’s 30-35% aerobic energy production, this set is an excellent indicator of an athlete’s physiology and training needs. If the ratio of the 1600 time to the 400 time is greater than 4.5, the athlete either lacks aerobic fitness and durability, and/or is very anaerobic. A heavy dose of continuous aerobic swimming will help to further develop the athlete’s aerobic system and decrease this ratio if required for their race distance. A ratio that is below 4.2, indicates a very aerobic athlete who will benefit from training that is oriented towards shorter swimming intervals near anaerobic threshold, and strength work, such as no kick swimming, and/or paddle work.

Incidentally, the 1600TT portion of this set, is also a very good predictor of an athlete’s Olympic distance open water swim time, with a wetsuit.

The final set wraps everything together and gives a great sense of an athlete’s overall swim progress throughout the race season. This set is also an excellent predictor of Ironman swim performance.

Fitness and Race Performance
Monster Set – This is a continuous set, completed on an interval pace at which the athlete is comfortable bilateral breathing during an aerobic set. If chosen correctly, the interval should leave five to 10 seconds of rest following each 100-yard repeat. The 100s and 200s should be completed at a best sustainable effort, the pace that can be maintained throughout the total number of repeats specified. The “pulls” should be completed at a pace that allows the athlete to make the chosen interval. The complete set is 4,900 yards:

1000 continuous pull (buoy, no paddles),
9 X 100 at best sustainable effort,
4 X 200 paddles (paddles only),
7 X 100 at best sustainable effort,
600 pull continuous pull (buoy, no paddles),
5 X 100 at best sustainable effort
2 X 200 paddles (paddles only),

The athlete should record their average pace for all of the 100-yard repeats and the 200-yard paddle repeats. The average 100-yard pace can then be multiplied by 43 to get the athlete’s estimated Ironman swim time, with a wetsuit in open water.

I hope this series of swim test sets helps you to direct and prescribe your athletes’ swim training throughout the year. By avoiding a one size fits all approach, an athlete’s specific limiter(s) can be addressed, and their swimming potential realized as time efficiently as possible.


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