Monday, January 9, 2012

Is 7.5% really too much to ask for...?!

Dear Swimmers

Hope you have enjoyed a great weekend and are starting to get back into the swing of things with both work and your training and that everything is balancing out on the 'homefront' nicely!

As promised before Christmas, this week we will embark on a bit of an interesting experiment to see just how much you can all improve both your stroke technique and your swim specific fitness over the course of the next 10 weeks. This will obviously take us past the Rottnest Channel Swim (now only 7 weeks away - and counting!), but nevertheless it will ensure we're all heading in the right direction.

I've been really excited over the Christmas period about putting this plan into action and I hope that you will share my enthusiasm with it as well!

This post is necessarily quite long for those who want to understand the whys and hows of what we shall be doing, but for those who like to skim read, all you need to really know is that at 9.30am this Wednesday and 5.30am and 6.30am this Friday we will be performing a time trial test set over 400m and 200m with each swimmer to determine your current swim specific fitness levels. This is nothing to worry about as it's only a measure of where you're currently at - nothing more, nothing less. Many people often steer away from performing a time trial but there's really no need to feel this. If you want to be assured that you're training at the right level to get the most out of your swimming, then this fun little test is entirely necessary. Given the format (explained below), you should also be aware that total swim distance in these sessions this week is likely to only be ~60% of normal.

The first point to make is that nothing will change dramatically from what we have been doing previously over the last three seasons with respect to using the Wetronomes / Finis Tempo Trainers to gauge pace and give you a sensible goal to work towards in each of the harder "Fresh & Fruity" sessions.

What will change is the precision of the numbers that we will be using to set a pre-determined pace for each lane each week. In the past we have been restricted to increments of 4 seconds per 100m when setting the beepers to cue your pace every 25m. This would mean that I either had to set a pace of 1:36 per 100m or 1:40 per 100m if I wanted the beeper to assist your pacing per 25m - I couldn't set it to say 1:38 per 100m, nor 1:37.5 per 100m, nor (and this is me getting really pedantic!) 1:37.24 per 100m - but now I can as the new beepers work in increments of 1/100th of a second! What this means in a nutshell is that we can be much more precise about our increments and allow ourselves the ability to set very small intermediary goals to ensure that we're on the right track with our swimming, week-in, week-out.

I've always felt that whilst having the beepers full-stop have been a massive help over the years and why you're all swimming so well, that it's often been a touch difficult to monitor improvement and set appropriate intermediary goals which many of you ask for when we've been restricted to jumps of 4 seconds per 100m.

So, how do we determine what pace we want to start at for the next 10 weeks and how much improvement can we realistically expect to see? Let's try and answer the second question first:

With a group of 12 of Perth's best Half and Full Ironman professional athletes that I am currently advising twice per week with two dedicated swim sessions, I have proposed that being highly trained already, it would be a realistic goal to aim for a 5% improvement in their threshold pace over the course of 10 weeks; this equates to just 0.5% improvement per week and typically a reduction in their goal time at this pace of just 0.1 to 0.15 seconds per 25m - hardly anything! If it all works according to plan (and it seems it is as most have jumped to week 5 immediately within the program after a bit of stroke work tune-up), then this will mean that these guys stand to shave off ~2 to 4 minutes off their Ironman (3.8km) swim times in that period. They often say that an Ironman is not won in the swim, but it can be lost, and this is precisely why I am working with these fantastically fit athletes, all of whom see themselves as relatively 'weak' on the swim compared to their cycling and running disciplines.

So, if a highly trained athlete can aim to improve by 0.5% per week, what can us mere mortals aim for? That's the million dollar question really and the truth is that we'll all be different! Whilst the highly trained athletes stand to make a much smaller percentage improvement (as they're already highly trained) they are all typically swimming 5 to 6 times per week (consistently) and are typically not working full time (which helps from a recovery perspective) and so may in theory be able to improve by more than this. However, typically I would expect less highly trained athletes to see improvements of 0.75% to 1.0% per week when working in a dedicated, focused manner like this. As such, we're going to use a 0.75% improvement goal per week as our base. This does assume though that you'll be swimming on average 3 to 3+ times per week over this period - consistency really counts here to see the full effect.

This is how these goal times per 25m might work out once we have ascertained everyone's threshold or CSS pace this week (click for an enlargement) - each new row represents a different ability level, i.e. the top row is where I predict the fastest guys in lane 4 at 5.30am on a Friday will be capable of currently:

So, let's say that we determine that the guys in the fastest lane, produce results this week to suggest that they are capable of sustaining a pace of 1:20 per 100m for a distance of ~1500m, then each week (starting next week), we'll aim to reduce their 25m cycle time by ~0.14 to 0.15 seconds - a seemingly small margin, but one which will elicit a structured improvement pathway. By the end of the 10 week program, we would hope that they have shaved off nearly 60 seconds for 1000m, i.e. 13:12 down to 12:20. Is this possible? In truth, I don't know, but at the end of the day, such a simple plan utilising technology never before available to us, will clearly result in improvement of some sort (due to it's progressive nature). The good thing is, all you have to know is that the weird numbers I might start writing up on the board or plugging into the Tempo Trainer for you will have a method in the seeming 'madness'!

To answer the first question now - how do we determine what pace we want to start at for the next 10 weeks - we need to perform a test to determine your threshold pace (i.e. that which in theory you can maintain for ~1500m as a full-on time trial effort). This pace is often referred to in sports science as Critical Swim Speed (or CSS for short). Without the necessity to do expensive and intricate blood lactate analysis on each swimmer, we can test for this with two short time-trials within the same session - a 400m time trial to loosely determine your current AEROBIC capacity and a 200m time trial to loosely determine your current ANAEROBIC capacity. These two times will allow us to calculate a CSS pace per 100m for each of you and then subsequently determine a suitable leader and sub-groups within the squad for those with similar CSS paces. Chances are, this will mean that your lane allocations won't change from what they currently are, but for those of you on an upward 'swing' it might prove to show that you'd be worthy of either moving up in your own lane or in some cases moving up a complete lane. Watch out! ;-)

So, this Wednesday at 9.30am and this Friday at 5.30am / 6.30am we will be conducting time trials for each swimmer over both distances (400m and 200m) as per the protocol below. Given that I'd like this to be done accurately and without the chance of drafting affecting the results, we may opt to run 2 or even 3 waves / heats within the session. This may mean that you will swim a reduced volume this week in these sessions, but the upside is knowing that we have an accurately calculated pace for you all.

Remember the possible anxiety you may feel at the mere mention of the word time-trial! Try to relax during the test and see what happens without any preconceptions or pressure. Whatever your times just see them as a stake in the ground at that point in time, the whole idea is that you improve them from here.

Some important notes:

- Remember the test is about your current fitness levels so don't feel tempted to skip the test and put in your all-time 200m and 400m personal bests, unless you have just swum them!

- Your efforts need to be a true and accurate reflection of what you can currently do for that distance in order to produce a valid CSS figure. Remember that a well paced effort will feel quite steady at first but build in perceived intensity as it goes on: steady - tempo - hard - very hard.

- Carefully sanity check your results, for instance you should have held a faster pace over the 200m than you did over 400m, is that the case?

To find your CSS pace in time per 100m from your results the easiest way is to use the simple calculator at: - I will collate all this information and prepare a report with everyone's CSS pace for reference.

Your resultant CSS pace might at first glance appear a little easy for those of you with experience of interval training but remember that CSS is about a hard 1500m pace. Certainly you could swim quicker than CSS in an intervals session with lots of recovery but CSS sets should be performed with short recoveries so that the training effects are focused on the energy systems used in distance swimming, not sprinting.

One interesting thing that the test might show is that some of you who feel that you have no real turn of pace (especially those of you doing the Rottnest Solo who've been developing their 'diesel engines' this last 4 months) may see faster CSS paces than those in the squad who think of themselves more as 'sprinters', even if their 200m time is slower than the 'faster' swimmers. How can this be? How can a sprinter potentially end up with a slower CSS pace than someone slower than them over the very short distances? Simple really...the sprinter's ability to maintain pace will be much less than that of someone who's trained the ability to swim well over longer distances. The sprinter will see a much more pronounced decay in their pace over progressively longer distances than the distance swimmer, as demonstrated in this graph:

...the good news for the sprinters in particular is that so long as you do the right training, if you want to become better at endurance swimming, it is easier to develop your engine to that of a 'diesel' than to go from being a natural diesel trying to become a fuel-injected petrol engine. Personally this is what I've had to do for all my recent marathon swimming events and I must admit to it feeling weird initially having to get much better at significantly slower paces than I was ever used to.

Now obviously holding pace for a 100m effort compared to a 400m effort is substantially different so what we shall do each Wednesday at 9.30am and Friday 5.30am / 6.30am for the next 10 weeks, is make 50% of the main set (typically 800m to 1000m) a simple set of 100m intervals at this reducing CSS pace with 1 beep recovery between each 100m in order to truly track progress and give you a measurable way to see if you're able to hold to the target of a 0.75% improvement each week. For the remaining 50% of the main set, we shall also do some further CSS pace work but over distances ranging from 50m to 400m, with the occasional full-blown sprint in there for good measure!

Hope that all makes sense and that you're excited about this as I am...well, at least 50% as excited! ;-)



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