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Technique-Specific Swim Sets

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Technique-specific swim sets are often neglected as most athletes (especially triathletes) are focussed on completing the most distance possible in their allocated time for each swimming session.
 
The tragic result is that many will get injured, many will plateau in their performances and most will start each race nervously because they have no confidence in their swimming ability.
 
Technique-specific swim sets will improve your efficiency, decrease your susceptibility to injury and lead to major improvements in your swim times.

Table of Contents

Why include Technique-Specific swim sets?

Long-distance swimmers:

Water is 784 times denser than air. This means it takes considerably more effort to move through water than it does through air. 
To swim faster, therefore, you have 2 choices;
  • exert more effort, or
  • reduce your drag.
Exerting more effort requires a lot of muscle strength and energy to propel the athlete forward. Big efforts can only be maintained for very short periods. 
 

It stands to reason that reducing drag should be the first priority when aiming to improve your swimming times.

Drag is the greatest contributor to slow swimming speeds. Poor body position is what causes this drag.
 
An example:
How often have you seen a big muscular Crossfit athlete or rugby player getting lapped in the pool by a waifishly built teenage girl?
In distance swimming, elegant efficiency trumps brute strength.
 

Triathletes:

While the swim makes up a small percentage of a triathlon race, a lot of energy (both nervous and physical) is wasted in the swim that could be saved for the bike and the run.

 By being more efficient in the water, triathletes could swim faster and while saving energy for the next 2 legs of their race. 

What intensity should Technique-Specific swim sets be performed at?

The goals of technique-specific sets are improving body position, correcting mechanical errors and maximising propulsion.
The goal is of these swim sets is never to cover vast distances or to record the best average pace per 100m.
 
The pace of these sessions often mirrors that of the warm-up and loosen down as the focus is to master each movement and then repeat it as many times so that it becomes automatic.
 
Technique-specific swim sets are very focussed and mentally tough but the pace is relatively slow.
 
Often “toys” are used during these sessions to support, isolate or emphasize biomechanical actions.

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What distance should a Technique-Specific session be?

“The greatest mistake is to continue to practice a mistake.”

Bobby Bowden

The distance of technique-specific swim sets depends on the ability and fitness of the triathlete/swimmer. The more a particular action or drill can be practised correctly, the greater the benefit will be to the athlete.
You can manipulate the length of the work intervals and the rest periods to accommodate the athletes’ ability and fitness level. 
 
The Warm-Up:
The warm-up could be between 600m (for novice athletes) and 1000m (for advanced athletes). The pace for the warm-up will be in Zone 1 and Zone 2.
 
The Main Set:
In the main set, the intervals need to be long enough that the athlete can demonstrate the correct actions as often as possible without becoming so fatigued that they resort to employing a poor technique to complete the interval.
There also needs to be enough rest between intervals so that the athlete can perform the correct action for the next interval.
  • Drills for Novices will usually be in intervals of 25m to 50m repeats.
  • Drills for Intermediates will usually be in intervals of 50m to 100m repeats.
  • Drills for Advanced will usually be in intervals of 100m to 200m repeats.
The number of repeats will vary depending on the difficulty of the drill and the skill level of the athlete.
 
The Loosen Down:
The loosen down could be between 200m and 400m and be performed in Zone 1.

How many Technique-Specific swim sets should you do?

Depending on which phase the athlete is in their training program, technique-specific swim sets can be performed once or twice a week.
 
During the base phase, we have all our perform at least 2 technique-specific sets per week.

During the build phase, at least one technique-specific set is performed per week.

During the peak phase, technique-specific sets can be used to replace easy swim days or even as recovery sessions.

An example of a Technique-Specific swim set.

Below is a swim set we use regularly as “marker set”.
It is usually the first in a series of technique sets used in an 8-week block.
 
WU:
300m Swim
300m Pullbouy
300m Kick
 
MS:
13 x 100m (25m kick without a board, 50m catchup drill, 25m swim), 20 secs rest
 
LD:
300m Swim

Swim set for Novice Triathletes / Swimmers

As improving body position is the key area of focus for this type of swimmer/triathlete, the pullbuoy is included in the Main Set.
The pullbuoy can be replaced with neoprene swim shorts.
 
Endurance is often also a limiter, so either the number of repeats can be reduced or the rest period is made a little longer.
 
WU:
200m Swim
200m Pullbouy
100m Kick
 
MS:
10 x 100m (25m kick using a pullbuoy as a board, 50m catchup drill pullbuoy between legs, 25m swim), 30 secs rest
 
LD:
200m Swim

Swim set for Intermediate Triathletes / Swimmers

Further reduction of drag by rolling the body on to one side is the key area of focus for this type of swimmer/triathlete.
The Fingertip drag drill makes up the major part of the main set. This drill over emphasizes the rolling of the shoulders.
 
A snorkel can be used to eliminate the need to turn the head and breath thus allowing more strokes to be performed correctly for each interval.
 
WU:
300m Swim
300m Pullbouy
300m Kick
 
MS:
13 x 100m (25m kick without a board with a snorkel, 50m Fingertip drag drill, 25m swim), 20 secs rest
 
LD:
300m Swim

Swim set for Advanced Triathletes / Swimmers

Advanced triathletes/swimmers have developed an optimal body position and have mastered rolling the shoulders through the stroke further reducing their drag.

Therefore these athletes would focus on improving or increasing their forward propulsion; this would naturally start with the “Catch” and “high elbow” entry type drills.

For these athletes, we would also increase the length of the warm-up, loosen down and main set distances.
 
WU:
400m Swim
400m Pullbouy
300m Kick
 
MS:
17 x 100m (25m front scull, 50m Fingertip drag drill, 25m swim), 15 secs rest
 
LD:
400m Swim

Summary

Technique-specific swim sets can go a long way to helping you improve your swimming times.

There are many different swimming drills and “toys” that can be used to correct mistakes and improve specific segments of the swim stroke.

The distance of the technique-specific training sessions and sets will differ depending on the athlete’s ability.
 
  • Novice athletes need to focus on drills that improve body position.
  • Intermediate athletes need to focus on drills that improve the rotation of the torso.
  • Advanced athletes need to focus on drills that improve propulsion.

Coach Shamus

Coaching since 1993, Coach Shamus has both theoretical knowledge and practical experience in triathlon having represented his country at the world championships on many occasions. He has competed in all distances from Sprint to Full Ironman and still, after more than 30 years of training and competing, gets excited to wake up and meet the team on the pool deck.

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