Swim Slow To Swim Fast

Swim Slow

Making gains in your swimming is a constant battle, and this is not made any easier with so much conflicting information available. Add to this new go-faster devices and gadgets that promise to deliver fast swim times, and it can be extremely confusing for anyone trying to improve their swim times.

I know there’s lots of information out there and much of it is conflicting. I think it’s important to look at a balance of practical information and provide realistic guidelines. We all want to become faster, but in terms of swimming, I think it is important to learn to swim slow paced first. The latest fad of giant pull buoys will please many by allowing faster less accurate swimming. It is also great at replicating swimming in a wetsuit, but this is lazy in terms of technique. You are covering up a multitude of issues in your front crawl that could be uncovered come race day if the temperature nudges up and it becomes a non-wetsuit swim.

Starting Out

For anyone still finding swimming continuously for 400 metres tiring, then a fitness session is not really in your best interest. To keep your swim slow is good. Slow is accurate, slow is ingraining new habits, slow is erasing bad habits and slow is what happens before you start swimming fast. Don’t be in a hurry to leave this period of your swim journey. There might be adverts out there that promise great returns in speed with the latest piece of equipment or session, but swimming slowly is a good place to be while erasing bad habits permanently, making use of active recovery and learning good movements permanently. To make good habits permanent takes time, as well as frequency.

Don’t mistake keeping your swim slow for swimming just once a week. I appreciate this is sometimes unavoidable, but for progression consistency is key. I encourage swimmers to count sessions per month to avoid the habit of being content with a good week and then letting it slide. Aiming for 12 sessions per month is a far more worthwhile and productive objective. Two to three of these sessions per week can then be slower, technical and more accurate. You can still add harder threshold or endurance sets during the remaining sessions. For the best improvement to technical accuracy and fitness you can mix the week’s training as long as most of the sessions are slow and highly accurate.

Swimming is harsh with regards to how you are punished when you don’t do it. The downside to swimming just once a week is that you have six days of unlearning happening within your front crawl. The benefits from that last session have the ability to be carried over into the next session if it falls quickly enough. This way the important feel for the water is maintained. Frequent contact with the wet stuff helps the water feel more solid and secure, so you have something to hold onto, anchor the hand and lever the body over. There is nothing worse than the sensation of swimming through slippery water. To make this situation worse arriving rested at the pool from so few sessions per week will only make you feel stronger and faster. The trade-off here is that you are unlikely to pace your swims sensibly.

Pacing is a big problem for many triathletes and few know how to start at a steady enough pace in order to swim well and get to the bike relaxed. Once learned, this skill will be a key to further improvements. Every week swimmers are trying to do more fitness work, yet they find 400 metres of continuous swims tiring. I have to remind athletes that good technique and pacing are key. A faster than sustainable pace at the start of a swim during a race using power and strength, rather than easy technique, will result in a massive fading of pace later on and a slower overall swim split. Repeating accurate pacing with good technique in training will help to ingrain it come race day. Without accurate technique at slow speeds now, will mean a lack of accurate technique at fast speeds as we move into the spring.

Critical Slow Speed

Much has been made of working out your critical swim speed in order to help your swim training progress. To know your approximate threshold speed at a certain point in your swim development will be of use. From some timed swims and simple maths you can find a speed that you should be able to hold for a certain amount of time (or specifically the theoretical swimming speed that can be maintained continuously without exhaustion). Personally I’m not such a fan of this – I would rather work targets out from pb’s, target pb’s and something like a T30 swim.

For most of the people I work at a critical slow speed, which is far more useful. I will regularly set a swim of 400 metres attempting to swim at an even pace with similar stroke count. Many find this tiring in its own right without a consideration for constant stroke count or pacing. If you find swimming 400 metres tiring then the mechanics of your front crawl technique are not allowing you to progress effectively. Most of my time is spent improving swimmers technique to the point where they swim continuously with little effort. At this point drag has been reduced, propulsion improved and steady continuous non-tiring front crawl is possible. Drag must be less than the degree of propulsion achieved, and it must come from the smaller more efficient muscles available.

The reverse of this holds true since swimming is generally tiring due to the larger muscle groups creating propulsion. Swimming well comes from efficient and effective propulsion doing the least amount of work for the most distance travelled through the water. I will often set novice/improver swimmers 16×100 metres front crawl with approx 15 seconds rest, challenging them to swim relaxed and easy.

Over 1,500 metres I feel most people should strive for 30 minutes or better and reduce drag so that 2:00 per 100 metres becomes a lot more attainable. Whether you hold this 30-second pace at 15 or 25 strokes per length, work out a stroke rate that you are comfortable at. If it is above 25 then you possibly have more technique work to do. Start to then think of your stroke count not as a minimum to strive for, but as an alarm bell if the count is rising in fitness sets and efficiency is no longer being maintained. If it does start to rise then I suggest slowing down and running a quick front crawl MOT to check where things might be falling down. To do perform this MOT mentally run through a quick list. Check that your kick is still small and being generated from a tiny movement at the hips and make sure the hips and shoulders are rotating. Make sure the water is being pushed backwards towards the feet once you are pulling and your fingertips are pointing downwards with the back of the hand facing the pool wall you are swimming towards after your catch. This should be enough to bring your stroke count back down to your comfortable and repeatable optimum.

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